A fall walk in Jackson Park

Published 8:07 pm Tuesday, November 10, 2009

As the first cool breath of air rushes south from the Arctic, the age old flight of birds starts to move south across much of the northern hemisphere. Many species, such as warblers, rails and thrushes, travel at night, but many others are easily visible during the daytime as they move south in sometimes very impressive numbers. These latter birds include swallows, hummingbirds and most birds of prey.

Western North Carolina is an excellent place for watching and enjoying this vast movement of birds both in the spring and autumn months, but it is the fall that can bring some of natures finest shows. When inclement weather starts to some in from the north, raptors or birds of prey begin to move south. Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers move through in ones and twos and small parties of Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels add lines and shapes to the avian show.&bsp; But it is the fall migration of a medium-sized raptor that we all await. The autumn flights of the Broad-winged Hawk can both inspire and impress. From an exposed ridge the birds can often be seen rising out of the trees below. Small numbers grow larger and soon the sky can be full of lazily circling hawks. These kettles of migrating birds rise higher and higher into the paling sky only to split apart as the birds reach cruising height. Numbers may sometimes reach into the thousands.

But what weather patterns cause this mass southbound exodus of birds? During bird migration the southbound birds regularly use moving weather patterns to aid them on their southerly mission, and these bands of high and low-pressured air masses that move across North America from West to East are colloquially known as Highs and Lows. In the fall of the year it is the cold fronts that we need to watch, and in many parts of the world birders watch the evening television weather reports like hawks waiting for the perfect weather conditions that will produce outstanding bird movements.

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The numbers of birds of prey that can be seen from autumn hawkwatching sights can be impressive, although here in the Southern Appalachians, the birds tend to scatter along the myriad of mountain ridges. Some of the more popular places are Caesars Head State Park in South Carolina, several places along the North Carolina stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, including Mahogany Rock, Mt. Pisgah, and the Mills River Valley Overlook.&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;

Wherever you go, be it to Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania or Caesars Head State Park, South Carolina, or even Veracruz, Mexico, the daily movement of birds is a very visible part of the great mystery that is bird migration. Birds of prey are easy to see as they move south, and many are great long-distance migrants that winter far to the south of the US and Canada. Should you get the chance to experience one day of hawkwatching in the fall, and witness one small part of this annual phenomenon, you are in danger of being bitten by the birding or hawkwatching bug. After that you will too look to the north in the fall, waiting for those winds to switch to the northwest and looking for distant black specks in the cooling sky.

~&bsp; Bird Box written by Simon Thompson