Being a mile high has its advantages.

From atop Grandfather Mountain, visitors can grab a front-row seat to one of nature’s most stunning spectacles — thousands of raptors migrating over the mountains and heading south toward their wintering grounds.

Guests can observe the raptors during the annual Hawk Watch, in which official counters and volunteers note the number of passersby in the sky throughout the entire month of September.

Raptors are birds of prey, such as hawks, eagles, owls and vultures. The telltale signs of the raptor are sharp talons, a hooked upper bill and incredible eyesight. While some raptors remain in place during winter, most will travel south, where food is more abundant.

“Interestingly, raptor migration looks very different from geese migration,” said Amy Renfranz, director of education for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Linville, N.C., nature park. “You will not see the ‘flying V’ formation. Instead of flapping, raptors spread their wings and soar by catching the warm updrafts that rise from the mountains.”

Grandfather Mountain is a prime spot for viewing this phenomena, because it sits along the eastern escarpment of the Appalachian Mountains, and its rocky peaks generate strong thermal uplifts and allow prime visibility.

Perhaps the most astounding visual display is the broad-winged hawk, which migrates in groups of hundreds or thousands, called kettles. Those sightings are most common around the second to third week of September.

During 2015’s Hawk Watch, Grandfather Mountain executive director Jesse Pope spotted a kettle of some 4,800 broad-wings passing over in less than 30 minutes, along with numerous other kettles of considerable size, amounting to nearly 10,000 raptors in one day.

Aside from offering a visual spectacle, Hawk Watch serves an important purpose. The annual counts from Grandfather Mountain and other locations help track hawk populations and migration routes over time and provide important data to inform land management decisions.

In fact, Grandfather Mountain is one of more than 300 Hawk Watch sites officially designated by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.

Counts will be conducted every day the weather permits — the hawks don’t typically fly in fog or storms — on Linville Peak and Half-Moon Overlook and will be posted daily at HawkCount.org.

 

Make It Official

Spectators are more than welcome to observe the migration and may even take a more active role by becoming an official Hawk Watch volunteer.

Grandfather Mountain executive director Jesse Pope will conduct an instructional orientation for those interested in volunteering on Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 2 p.m. on the second floor of the Grandfather Mountain Top Shop, near the Mile High Swinging Bridge. The session will last about 90 minutes and will include some time on Linville Peak. Registration is required.

“Volunteers do not need to be experts in raptor identification; just willing to scan the skies and point out birds to those who can identify them,” said Gina Diggs, research coordinator at Grandfather Mountain.

Anyone who volunteers to assist and actively participate for at least four hours will receive a free pass to the mountain for that day. Those who volunteer for more than 40 hours will receive an individual annual pass, allowing unlimited admission for one to the park for a whole year.

To register as a volunteer, or for more information, contact Diggs at research@grandfather.com.

 

Adult Field Course

Birders, hawk-watchers and nature enthusiasts will have another opportunity to learn about the annual phenomenon with the “Celebrate Migration on Grandfather Mountain” Adult Field Course.

Presented by Pope, this six-hour course will focus specifically on raptor migration and will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15. Space is limited, and the cost is $40 per person or $20 for Bridge Club members. To register, or for more information, email judi@grandfather.com, or call (828) 733-2013.

Grandfather Mountain’s Adult Field Courses invite participants to examine specific aspects of the park’s ecosystem through a combination of field excursions and classroom presentations. Participants are asked to bring their own lunch, which will be eaten in the field.

Course leaders are experts in their fields and include professors, naturalists and scientists, as well as acclaimed photographers, writers, historians and artists. The migration field course marks the last of 2018, although a new schedule of programming will be released in early 2019.