BroadwingedHawk) DanVickersMacaulay Library At The Cornell Lab Of Ornithology

The Rapture of Raptors

September means different things. End of summer. Back to school.

For me, the start of hawk-watching season.

New Jersey has mountains along with its highways, cities and oil refineries. On some there are platforms where many gather to watch southbound raptors (and other birds) use the rising warm air known as thermals to help them to their wintering grounds.

Different raptors fly south at different times of the fall migration season, which generally lasts until early December. One of the earliest, in September, is the smallest of the three buteos seen in New Jersey, the broadwing hawk.

Some platforms are in locations more favorable for seeing broadwings, such as the Montclair Hawk Lookout. You need to be dedicated to get to the top: First, a tall flight of stairs, then a metal ladder drilled into the rock and then a sharp, stony incline to the concrete platform where you can stand or sit with the hawk counters. If the weather conditions are right, your reward is thousands of broadwings in just one September day. According to data kept by, last September there was over 2,100 broadwing sighted in Montclair, NJ. The most recorded dates back to September 1986 with over 43,000 broadwings sighted.

SwainsonsHawk_Jim DeWitt, Frozen Feather Images

Broadwings, like many other raptors, form kettles, so called because the birds circle around and around as though being stirred in a pot, creating enough centrifugal force so they can “stream out” and, with the thermals, continue on their way without a lot of wing flapping. A kettle of broadwings, be it 20 or 200, is an impressive sight, like watching an armada of sailing ships.

There are other very popular watches, most of which start counting in September and require some level of climbing to reach. The Racoon Ridge hawkwatch is in Blairstown, Warren County. Somerset County is where you’ll find the Chimney Rock watch. Morris County has Wildcat Ridge in Rockaway Township. In Cape May counters have already tallied 1,150 southbound raptors between Sept. 1, when it opened for business, and Sept 10. The majority of birds sighted have been osprey and American kestrels.

My favorite platform is the one atop Scott’s Mountain, next to the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, Warren County. No climbing necessary, just drive up the paved road, park in the lot, take out your folding chair and look north.

My husband and I come here at least once every year to sit in fellowship with the established team of watchers. These men and women can identify the specks in the sky without binoculars, which is as impressive to me as the birds themselves.

Even after years of practice and with my binoculars I have a hard time. However, when the birds are lower they are easier to make out thanks to their particular wing patterns and flight moves.

You can see raptors flying in New Jersey’s skies at any time of year, even without a mountaintop.

Just look up once in a while.

This is a contributed post from one of TLC-NJ’s members, Margo D. Beller.

Photo credit: Jim DeWitt, Frozen Feather Images