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Raptor migration is underway

Like most other birds, raptors and vultures migrate south through the fall. The height of the Turkey Vulture migration is early October. Photo by Paul Nicholson

For many London and Southwestern Ontario bird watchers, fall is a tremendous time to observe hawks and other raptors. Like most other bird species, many hawks, falcons, harriers, eagles, owls, and vultures are migrating south for the winter.

As a general rule, migrants prefer a north wind so that they don’t have to work so hard. Some birds such as Turkey Vultures will also seek out and take advantage of thermal pockets which will give them a “free lift.” If there is heavy weather such as rain or snow, the raptors will likely stay put wherever they are and wait things out. For these reasons, it makes sense to pay a bit of attention to the weather if you plan on engaging in raptor watching.

Among the first hawks to fly over London are Broad-winged Hawks. Tens of thousands of these birds fly over us from the north. Once they reach the north shores of Lake Erie, they head west, preferring to fly around the lake rather than across it. The north shore of Lake Erie becomes a “collector lane” and on a few days each September many thousands of Broad-wings can be seen at points along the lake. This is why there are official hawk watches at Hawk Cliff just south of London and at Holiday Beach in Essex County.

Most Kestrels and Ospreys have by now flown south.

The migration of Sharp-shinned Hawks is well under way and will continue into October. The migration of Northern Harriers has peaked but will continue through to November. Bear in mind as well that some Harriers will also overwinter in Middlesex County. The height of the Cooper’s Hawk migration is in October.

The Turkey Vulture migration peaks in the first half of October. Interestingly, this is a species that kettles. Groups of migrating Vultures will find a column of warm air and then, with ease, will gain altitude by rising in tight circles within that column of air before continuing on with their southward travels.

The height of the migration for the large buteos including Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks is in later October. Some Red-tails will stay in Middlesex through the winter, however most do fly south into the U.S. The Rough-legged Hawk, another large buteo that we don’t see in Middlesex County through the breeding season, flies into Southwestern Ontario in the late fall.

The likelihood of spotting Golden Eagles increases in early November, and in December Snowy Owls migrate from their northern breeding territories into Southwestern Ontario where they overwinter. We can think of Snowies as the last of the fall migrants.

If you are doing some local birding or are just out for a walk, don’t forget to look up and scan the skies once in a while. You might well be rewarded with a raptor sighting. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you could take a little trip to Hawk Cliff which is on Lake Erie just three km east of Port Stanley. The official hawk watchers post their sightings regularly on a HawkCount website. These data are then consolidated for scientific use by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.

The Merlin is a species of falcon that migrates south through September and October. Larger raptors such as Golden Eagles migrate later in the fall. Photo by Paul Nicholson

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