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Autumn Hawk Migration in the Blue Ridge Mountains

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Image by D L Ennis

Beginning in early September extending through November, hawks and other birds of prey can be seen migrating from the northeast to the southwest to winter in Mexico, Central America, and South America.

Using the Appalachian Mountains and, to a lesser degree, the Allegheny Mountain range as their flyway offering all who wish to view these magnificent birds a visual experience to be savored. The mountains also ease the long journey by providing updrafts that the birds use so efficiently that it’s possible for them travel hundreds of miles without a single beat of their wings—as witnessed by the late (1899-1980) naturalist, Edwin Way Teale.

Eagles, kestrels, ospreys, peregrine falcons, vultures can also be seen, but for the most part you’ll view broad-winged, red-tailed, and red-shouldered hawks (genus Buteo lineatus) and the smaller, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks (genus Accipiter cooperii.)

The number of migrating hawks that travel the mountain flyway can, on a lucky day for the observer, can be enormous. On September 15th 1985 spectators estimated that upwards of 10,000 broad-winged hawks passed by Rockfish Gap at milepost 0 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In a single day, during the third week of September, birders counted more than 17,000 broad-wings passing by Linden Fire Tower in northern Virginia.

Though picking a day for viewing as guess work you can increase your odds of seeing great numbers of hawks by being in place from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.—after the sun warms the air currents. Also the week of September 15 is normally the peak of the migration, and the week of October 1 offering the most variety.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive offer many excellent viewing areas from overlooks. Below is a list of some of the best viewing areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina

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Premier Viewing Spots along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Starting in Virginia
Rockfish Gap (Milepost 0)
Afton Overlook (MP .2)
Ravens Roost (MP 10.7)

In Shanendoah National Park
Hawksbill (requires hiking)
Stony Man (requires hiking)
Mary’s Rock (requires hiking)
Calf Mountain Overlook
Irish Creek OL (MP 42.4)
Buena Vista OL (MP 45.6)
Peaks of Otter
Especially Harvey’s Knob OL (MP 95.3)
Mill’s Gap (MP 91.9)
Purgatory Mtn. (MP 92.2)
Sharptop (MP 92.4)
Montvale (MP 95.9)
Great Valley (MP 99.6)
Saddle Parking OL (MP 168)
Near Rocky Knob Visitor Center (MP 169)
Cumberland Knob (Park at MP 219)
Mahogany Rock, and nearby Scott Ridge (MP 235)

Jumpin’ Off Rock (MP 260)
Thunderhill OL (MP 290.5)
Grandfather Mtn./ Ship Rock (MP 302.8)
Table Rock Mtn. at Linville Gorge
Three Knobs OL (MP 338.8)
Black Mtns. (MP 342.2)
Licklog Ridge (MP 349.9)
Fire Tower on Green Knob (360 degree views, MP 350.4)
Mt. Mitchell Summit (MP 355.4)
Craggy Pinnacle OL (MP 364.1)
Craggy Gardens Visitor Center (MP 364.6)
Mills Valley OL (MP 404.5)
Devils’ Courthouse (MP 422.4)

Here are a few other places for birders interested in the migration…

Viewing at other spots

In Pennsylvania
Hawk Mountain- This is the center of the universe for Hawk watchers in the eastern U.S., bringing on average more than 24,000 raptors of 16 species over it’s North Lookout. The Visitor Center has a museum on birds of prey, art gallery and gift shop. Their address is;
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
Kempton, Pa. 19529-9449
(610) 756-6961.
Wildcat Rocks at South Mountain
In Maryland
Washington Monument State Park
Catoctin Mountain Park at Blue Ridge Summit Vista and Hog Rock
In North Carolina
Chimney Rock Park
In South Carolina
Ceasar’s Head State Park (Last year over 7000 Broadwinged Hawks were spotted here on Sept. 29)

Maps of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Map of the Skyline Drive

Lynchburg, Virginia

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About DL

  • RJ

    Informative post. Thanks! 🙂

  • Thank you, RJ!

  • Bennett

    And a great photo too! I have Red Tailed and Osprey here. Last winter I was knocking snow off the roof and watched a Peregrine Falcon chasing a dove through the trees and then down the valley. Jaw dropping stuff.

    Nice post!

  • RJ

    I used to rather dislike birds, to be completely honest.

    Of course, my only interaction with them at that point was seagulls bombarding me with feal matter in grocery store parking lots in South Florida, and miserable screeching creatures like parakeets, locked up like criminals in someone’s cage.

    But now, I am older, and wiser. I now enjoy watching blue jays, who are a very clever species of bird, use what can only be described as in-group communication and planning to snatch RJ-provided peanuts from squirrels and other birds.

    They advance in shifts, one bird taking a high branch, the next moving to a lower branch, and then the one on the higher branch moves even lower, ever so closer to the ground.

    All the while, they verbally communicate with each other in some indecipherable manner.

    At last, one will land on the ground, pick up a peanut from directly in front of a hungry squirrel, and fly to a large, low-hanging branch, where s/he will deposit it. The other blue jay will then move down to this branch, pick up the peanut, and transport it to the nest.

    This process will repeat itself numerous times, until all the peanuts that haven’t been grabbed up by the squirrels have been taken.

    But doves, OTOH, are morons. They sit around on the ground picking idly at RJ-provided sunflower seeds. And, occassionally, a feral cat will end its life…

  • Bennett

    Concur! Of all the dead stuff my cats have deposited on the doorstep, there has never been a dead Jay.

  • Thanks guys! Birds are definitely a trip to watch. They provide me with hours of entertainment. Takes your mind off of all the crap going on in the world!

    D L

  • Nancy

    Always thought-provoking to watch winged critters and realize I’m staring at therapods; dinosaurs are alive & well. One more reason I can’t bring myself to eat poultry anymore. Ick. Still, for the most part they all sing nicely.

  • Yes, Nancy…birds do sing nicely!

    D L

  • There’s been more than one morning in the winter months when my birdfeeder has given new meaning to its name. Looking out back and watching a sharpshin (sparrow hawk) devouring a starling or sparrow leaving pieces of it on the snow, gives one pause.

    What I do love is walking downtown on a clear January day and watching clouds of pigeons take flight as a circeling red tail hawk sweeps over their rooftops.

    Where I live, Kingston Ontario, is blessed with being within a half hours drive of the annual migration route for eagles and turkey vultures. On occasion we will have the good fortune to have them stray off course and fly over head.

    Although Turkey vultures are remarkably ugly up close, watching them search out thermals and coast across the sky is still one of the wonders of nature.

  • There is no more graceful bird in flight than the vulture…it’s amazing. Thank you!

    D L

  • K. Hanas

    Around 9am, the day after Thanksgiving, we saw about 30 vultures sitting high in trees on the 3rd road to the left from Foremast within Keowee Key, Salem. We were told that they come every year. Their heads were dark, but their wings had the shape and the coloring of turkey vultures. They were frightening and magnificant.

  • jim

    The peak of the broad-wing migration usually happens sometime between Sept. 15 and 25 in the Roanoke and Rocky Knob areas of the Parkway – a day or two earlier farther north, a day or two later farther south. The best days usually follow a cool front. Other hawk species are nearly as exciting to watch: red-tails, ospreys, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, even bald eagles. For beginners, it takes only a single good afternoon to get hooked. For one thing, it’s a form of birding in which you sit still and the birds come to you. The only extra equipment you’ll need – beyond binoculars and field guide – is sunscreen and a chair. Part of the thrill is that you never know what is just over the horizon and coming at you. You know the birds are on the way – you just don’t know when they’ll pass your spot!