Eyes will be looking to the skies again this September, and not for another solar eclipse. Instead, they’ll be focused on the thousands of raptors that will be migrating over the mountains and heading south — toward their wintering grounds.
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 few raptors will remain in place in 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 oversees the Linville, N.C., nature preserve and attraction. “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, adding up to 9,737 raptors in one day.
Aside from offering a visual spectacle, the 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.
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 — and will be posted daily at HawkCount.org.
Anyone who volunteers to help with the Hawk Watch and participates for at least four hours will receive a free pass to the mountain for that day.
The not-for-profit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call (800) 468-7325.