Some call it "raptor rapture"--the transfixing sight of a golden eagle sweeping by within a hundred yards or a broad-winged hawk screaming past at eye level -- and this is its season. So it's time to head for the hills or shore to see the masters of the wind.
Broad-winged hawks and red-tailed hawks, sharp- shinned hawks and red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles and bald eagles, peregrine falcons, American kestrels and other birds of prey head south in autumn. And D.C. lies only a little more than four hours from two of the finest spots in North America for viewing the fall flight -- Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pennsylvania, and Cape May Point, New Jersey. From either site, you can see hawks ripping by overhead and at eye level in trains of power and grace.
The migration starts in late August and continues through November. The big push -- when counts reach a thousand or more hawks per day -- occurs between mid- September and mid-October. Last season's totals at Hawk Mountain and Cape May were 20,872 birds and 62,692 birds respectively. Those are lightweight numbers, though. There have been years when hawks passed by like clouds of gnats -- five thousand, ten thousand in a day. Unfortunately, big numbers are not guaranteed. It takes the right weather and a bit of luck to hit "the big day" at either site.
Fairly large numbers, though, are just about guaranteed during the peak period. Observation posts at Cape May and Hawk Mountain will be crowded but companionable on weekends. Passing hawks are spotted and called out for those new to the game -- you don't need experience to enjoy the day.
Greenhorn birders can stop in at Hawk Mountain's museum before heading to the lookout. Naturalists at both sites offer talks about the birds and the migration, often with a hawk on hand -- literally. Basic equipment for the day is an extra sweater or two, lunch, sunglasses and a pair of 8- or 10-power field glasses. And, on quiet days, a bit of patience.
Up on the north lookout of Hawk Mountain Sactuary, you have the rare opportunity to look down on migrating hawks. As they head south, hawks, especially soaring hawks, will fly along interior ridges. Winds sweeping across the ridges rebound like a cresting wave and give the hawks what is essentially a free ride. The 2,000-acre sanctuary sprawls across the Kittatinny Ridge, one of the last major ridges available to the hawks for the journey south.
A 3/4-mile trail that starts easily and ends rugged winds through an oak and chestnut forest to the lookout, a great pile of milky sandstone blocks. Sneakers will handle the hike. Stepping out of the woods into a cathedral of sky crushing in its expanse, you can look down to the valley floor a thousand feet below and across neighboring ridges to a horizon some seventy miles away on clear days.
To the northeast, back along the ridge, you may see "kettles" of hawks -- great swarms of birds, broad-wings usually, riding "thermals," warm, uplifting currents of air. "You can look in this boiling air mass and see four birds, up to a thousand birds" says Jim Brett, the sanctuary's curator. "They will stay in that air mass rising higher and higher and higher until at the top there's no more lift, and they begin to stream out one by one. They set their wings and glide."
According to Brett, the big week for numbers generally falls somewhere between the 14th and 21st of September. This is the time for broad-wings, medium-sized soaring hawks. In early October, small darting and daring sharp- shinned hawks buzz the lookout, often on flight paths that make you duck instinctively. The number of individual birds drops off in late October, but a greater variety of species starts passing through. It's in late October and early November that you have your best shot at catching a glimpse of a golden eagle sweeping by on seven-foot wings.
Figuring out when to visit the mountain is tricky business. A strong cold front spilling out of Canada across New England and the mid-Atlantic states usually produces a good flight over the sanctuary. The best bet is to call the mountain. The staff can tell you how the flight has been going and also hazard a guess as to what might happen within the next day or two.
Hawks literally pile up over Cape May Point State Park, according to Rene Kochenberger, assistant naturalist for the Cape May Bird Observatory. After flying down the coastline from New England, the birds tend to apply their brakes over the point. Facing an open-water crossing of at least 13 miles, they will circle over the point riding thermals. Spiraling higher and higher searching for altitude, they finally set wings and peel off across the bay.
Cape May tends to attract more falcons, the speedsters of hawkdom, than Hawk Mountain. In the morning and late afternoon, hunting falcons zip along just above the tree tops and dunes. Along the park's trails, hunting sharp- shinned hawks rip through the trees in search of songbirds. Songbirds here don't sing for their supper -- they are supper for some of the hawks.
Kochenberger notes that more than 350 peregrine falcons passed through Cape May last season. The mention of a peregrine, more feathered rocket than bird, makes an ardent hawker's eyes glaze over. Diving at prey, peregrines reportedly have been clocked at 217 mph. Kochenberger has seen peregrines dive on sharp-shinneds, knock them senseless and then carry them off to eat.
The observation post at Cape May is very much a park, perch and peer affair. It stands a hundred feet or so from a large parking lot and is simply a raised, 90- by 10-foot railed wooden platform. Peering over the salt marshes and nearby dunes, you may see up to 5,000 or 6,000 birds on a "good day" according to Kochenberger.
Staff at the observatory say the flight at Cape May is less "weather dependent" than at Hawk Mountain. Still, a call to the observatory will fill you in on how many hawks have been passing by and give a clue as to what might be expected in the days to come.
What any intent hawker hopes for at either Cape May or Hawk Mountain is, of course, a clear day and a strong northwest wind. That and the sight of the hawks, slicing across a chunk of sky, riding the wind, carrying a landbound human's spirits aloft for the flight. FINDING THE SOAR SPOTS HAWK MOUNTAIN SANCTUARY -- To get there, take I-95 to I-695 to I-83 to I-81 north to I-78 east. Take exit 9B on I-78 to Route 61 north. Turn right onto Route 895 and follow the signs to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Admission is $2 for adults, 75 cents for children six to 12. For information, call 215/756-6961. CAPE MAY POINT STATE PARK -- There are two routes to Cape May, one cheap but with more driving, the other pricey but featuring a ferry ride across the Delaware Bay. * For the straight land route, take I-95 north to I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge. From the bridge, head toward the New Jersey Turnpike, but exit before it on U.S. 40 east. Follow 40 to the Garden State Parkway south. At the parkway's end, bear right on Route 109 and follow signs for U.S. 9 south and the Cape May Ferry. From U.S. 9, turn left onto Seashore Road (Route 626). Turn right off Seashore to Sunset Boulevard (Route 606). Follow Sunset to a left onto Lighthouse Avenue (Route 629). Follow Sunset 0.8 mile and turn left at the sign for the tax assessor's office. For information, call the Cape May Bird Observatory, 609/884-2736. * For the ferry trip, take U.S. 50 east to Route 404 to Route 18 to U.S. 9. Keep an eye open for signs directing you to the Lewes/Cape May ferry. The ferry costs $12.50 for car and driver and $3 for each passenger. Reservations are not required. For ferry information, call Cape May/Lewes Ferry 302/645-6313. From the ferry landing in Cape May, follow U.S. 9N and turn right onto Seashore Road.