Flight patterns

Each of Ontario’s hawk-watching sites has its own dedicated community of volunteers who track the migrations through spring or fall. Some sites even have inland viewing spots where birds are monitored in different weather conditions. At Grimsby, for example, raptor watchers sometimes shift to the “Air Park” to the south when north winds blow the birds away from the ridge.

These dedicated volunteer hawk-migration monitors, in concert with the growing HMANA network, are helping us learn more about these magnificent birds. And there is good news. In 2008 the American Ornithologists’ Union published a continental assessment of raptor populations and found that many raptor populations, unlike the populations of numerous other bird species, appear to be in relatively good shape. Ospreys, bald eagles, Cooper’s hawks, merlins and peregrine falcons are all on the increase.

Some species are in decline, however. Eastern hawk watchers are seeing significantly fewer sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers and American kestrels these days, though these birds are still numerous. Harrier and kestrel declines are thought to be related to the loss of grasslands, shrublands and old field habitats, while the “sharpy” losses are more of a mystery.

Clearly, there is a need for more long-term monitoring and more hawk watchers. As well, discovering new observation posts may help watchers count a segment of the migration missed elsewhere. For example, David Brown, while visiting relatives in Sault Ste. Marie, east of a prime spring hawk watch at Whitefish Point, Michigan, decided to check out the area on the Canadian side. To his pleasant surprise, he uncovered a “good flight” west of the city near the airport and at Gros Cap, a shoreline ridge.

Raptor watchers predict that one or more significant watch sites may yet be discovered, perhaps on Manitoulin Island or along the shore of Lake Superior. And who knows, perhaps you will be the one to find it. But if you are new to hawk watching, start with the traditional sites. On good days you will find great views and kindred spirits, and on great days you will find pure magic.

Top 10 Hawk-watching Sites

Enjoy a day of hawk watching at any of the following sites. Many sites provide printed information to help beginners and also have washroom facilities. Be sure to pack a lunch, hot drink, lawn chair, hawk-watching guide and gloves if the day is cool. Bring a good pair of binoculars and a spotting scope with tripod if you have one.Where to go in spring
(March to May)

Beamer Memorial Conservation Area, Grimsby
Atop the Niagara Escarpment overlooking Grimsby is Ontario’s best-known spring hawk-watching site, Beamer Memorial Conservation Area. A tower offers watchers views of birds approaching from the east, catching updrafts along the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Peninsula Hawk Watch monitors migration and provides information pamphlets. Interpretive signs and forest trails lead to great cliffside vistas. Optimal viewing is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with southerly winds. No fee is charged, but donations are welcome. The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority will co-host an open house on April 10, 2009, a great chance to try hawk watching.

Derby Hill, New York
Hawk watchers from central and eastern Ontario regularly take spring trips south of the border to Derby Hill, at the southeast corner of Lake Ontario, near Oswego, New York. Roughly 40,000 raptors pass by this site each spring. April offers the best viewing. Snacks and souvenirs are available from a small interpretive centre. Entry to the site is free and donations are welcome.

Tip of the Bruce Peninsula
The Bruce Peninsula is a natural funnel for spring migrants. Raptors following the Niagara Escarpment pass the town of Tobermory at the tip of the peninsula and adjacent islands as they springboard across to Manitoulin Island, particularly in May. This area has no official hawk-watching site, but a good spot is the ferry dock in town. Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory operates a migration monitoring station at Cabot Head and can provide information on local migration. Bruce Peninsula National Park has an interpretive centre with a 20-metre-high viewing tower.

Whitefish Point, northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
Located at the northeastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, adjacent to a National Wildlife Refuge, the Whitefish Point Important Bird Area is a natural concentration site for migrating raptors from late April to early May and a fair spot for fall flights. The Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, linked with the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, operates an education and research facility overlooking Lake Superior.

Where to go in fall
(August to November)

Hawk Cliff, Port Stanley
The site of Ontario’s oldest hawk watch – established in 1931 – Hawk Cliff is just east of Port Stanley overlooking Lake Erie. Raptors often fly by at treetop level, providing terrific views. The numbers of southbound raptors peak in September, with great broad-winged hawk flights. The greatest variety is in October, when watchers may see up to 15 raptor species in a single day. The site has no fees or facilities, but the Hawk Cliff Foundation and local banders offer open houses and demonstrations on two consecutive weekends around the middle of September.

Holiday Beach Conservation Area, Amherstburg
More raptors are seen at Holiday Beach Conservation Area, southwest of Amherstburg, than at any other site in Ontario. On average, 75,000 raptors pass this site each fall and are one reason it was declared an Important Bird Area. Broad-winged hawk numbers have peaked at 28,000 in a season and 19,000 in a single day. A 12-metre-high, three-storey viewing tower and an interpretive centre are hubs of activity. Check out the annual Festival of Hawks held on the last three weekends in September. There is an entry fee.

Cranberry Marsh, Ajax
Located at the southwest corner of the Lynde Shores Conservation Area near Ajax, Cranberry Marsh is Ontario’s easternmost “official” raptor migration site. Viewers concentrate at a wooden platform on the western edge of the marsh, close to the lakeshore, which gives views of incoming raptors. There is a nominal voluntary fee.

High Park, Toronto
The High Park Hawk Watch takes place on a knoll near Grenadier Restaurant in High Park and is probably North America’s only major hawk watch accessible by public transit. Observers may see upward of 10,000 raptors per season. This City of Toronto park has washroom facilities and free parking.

Thunder Cape Bird Observatory, Thunder Bay
Located at the tip of the Sibley Peninsula in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, the Thunder Cape Bird Observatory has some of Ontario’s most spectacular hawk-watching scenery. But the site is remote, accessible primarily by boat or a 13-kilometre hiking/biking trail. The observatory is always looking for keen volunteers and welcomes visitors. If you cannot make it to the point, try watching from highlands along Highway 61 and Devon Road, along the northwest coast of Lake Superior, west of Thunder Bay.

Craig’s Bluff, Marathon

Like many other northern Ontario locations, Craig’s Bluff is for the more adventurous raptor watcher. Head to the south end of Marathon to find the trailhead to Hawks Ridge Trail at the end of Hemlo Drive. Take the trail southeast for about three kilometres to a spectacular, high sand bluff. Watch for raptors coming from the north and enjoy the fine view of Lake Superior.


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Mark Stabb is the central Ontario program manager for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. He continues to hone his hawk identification skills.