The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Raptor Migration Can Be Spectacular in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

As the mobs of hummingbirds passing through South Texas begin to subside, another group of migrants – the much larger hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons – is increasing. Their numbers should peak in late September. On select days, up to 100,000 hawks in continuous flights of over 40 miles long have been observed in South Texas. That truly is something to see!

It is estimated that 95 percent of North America’s broad-winged hawk population migrates southward along the Texas central Gulf Coast. Moderate numbers of Swainson’s, red-tailed, Cooper’s, and sharp-shinned hawks, Mississippi kites, American kestrels, peregrine falcons, and smaller populations of ferruginous, Harris’s, red-shouldered, and zone-tailed hawks, bald and golden eagles, merlins, and white-tailed and swallow-tailed kites move through our area as well. Mississippi kites have already been evident over the treetops in area towns, where they have been feeding principally on cicadas.

But the most outstanding spectacle of the raptor migration is a circling flock of broad-winged hawks – especially when several hundred of these hawks begin to leave a preferred overnight roosting site at one time, usually about 8:30 A. M., and slowly ascend by circling to a point where they are out of sight.

The broad-winged hawk is a fairly small hawk, built very much like our common red-tailed hawk but with a banded rather than an all-reddish tail. It is a common nester throughout the eastern deciduous forests of North America. Its breeding range begins just northeast of the central Gulf Coastal region. And like many of our raptors, it is a neotropical migrant that goes south for the winter. Broad-winged hawks spend their winter months from southern Mexico to Peru and Brazil.

Hawk migration occurs in many parts of the world, and organized hawk watchers at a few key sites have provided some amazing statistics. The best known historic North American sites include Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain and New Jersey’s Cape May Point. But in recent years, Texas sites have produced even greater numbers. The single most productive one is Hazel Bazemore County Park near Corpus Christi, where over one million hawks are known to cross over each year from late September to early October. In 2004, hawk watchers are Hazel Bazemore, a geographical chokepoint, recorded 1,030,762 individuals of 25 species. The broad-winged hawk grand total was 989,875!

Other organized Texas hawk watch sites occur at Smith’s Point, near Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge; Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (best in spring); Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge; Padre Island, especially for peregrines; Dangerfield State Park near Longview; and Devil’s Backbone near Wimberly.

The very best hawk-watch site, however, is south of the border in Veracruz, Mexico. Hawk watchers consistently record over five million individuals each fall.

Any reader interested in watching the watchers is welcome. The nearest site for most of my readers is Hazel Bazemore County Park, located one mile west of US 77 at Calallen, via SH 624. Peak flights occur from September 22 to 25.

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