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Birding the Oklahoma Skies for Hawks
Fall Migration for Hawks Begins as Early as July
The most exciting time of the year for people that love raptors is during fall migration, which starts earlier than any other fall bird migration. As a matter of fact, start thinking about it now, or you might just miss it. Some of our remarkable wonders begin their trek south in July and it can continue until early December. Naturally, it all depends upon where you are located in the country, and your choice of hawks, but if you look in the North American skies during any month of the year, you could well see kettles of hawks.
The secret is knowing where to look for these beautiful, streamlined and agile birds. The most important thing to keep in mind is the weather. Hawks rely on the thermals for an added lift during migration, as some of them travel thousands of miles on the air currents. You’ll want clear or partly cloudy skies, and in the spring, warm southern air flow triggers the largest movements, but this is not so in the fall, so expect the opposite. Migration calls when the cold fronts and northern winds are on the horizon, so start looking the day after a cold front. The best viewing times are between 8 a.m. and noon.
Where to Go and How to Observe
The best places to go are high spots where you’ll be able to see the horizon with an unobstructed view of the sky. Normally, when one goes bird watching, they are directly in front of you, and you don’t always need binoculars. Not so with the raptor on the move, which is where the unobstructed view of the horizon enters the picture. Find those cumulus clouds and look just below them, and you’ll want to train your eye ahead of migration, so you know what you are looking for. Start with the vultures in the distance, which will tell you when thermals are going strong. Vultures are easy to see, because they are black. Even though they are not hawks, they will give you good practice.
As you observe these birds on your practice runs by looking high and seeing specks in the distance, you’ll have the ability to calibrate your eyes and fine-tune sight through your binoculars, while slowly sweeping the air. Once you locate that first hawk on the horizon doing sweeping circles, look for smaller ones near the original raptor that you saw. Birds trail one another much of the time, so there might be others riding the same thermals. Look in front of, as well as behind the first bird that you saw on those glides. Get the picture?
How Will I Know these Birds and Where and When to Go?
Where is the best place to go in Oklahoma for your hawkwatching when you have cracked the code and know how to find hawks gliding on the distant thermals? I’d have to say that Mount Scott in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge is a top spot. It is just northwest of Lawton, near I-44, less than 100 miles from Oklahoma City. It meets all the criteria for viewing and is not as crowded as Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, or Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota, and it is within easy reach.
What kinds of birds of prey might you see? Swainson’s Hawk is the most migratory hawk on the Great Plains in August and September. The Peregrine Falcon or Duck Hawk can be seen in July and August, feeding on birds taken on the wing. The Red-tailed Hawk or chicken hawk is a common resident as is the Red-shouldered Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and American Kestrel. The Cooper’s is an uncommon transient, the Northern Goshawk is an irruptive and solitary, vagrant migrant. The Mississippi Kite, Rough-legged Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon and Merlin, can make themselves much more visible in the sky than closer to earth.
Where Is Mount Scott In Oklahoma?
How Will I Prepare for this Trip?
Early in the season, make sure that you have a kit with you that contains sunscreen and a hat with a brim. In the fall wear removable layers of clothing and a cap that covers your ears, as it will be cold and windy. For comfort, take along a lawn chair, and don’t forget those necessary binoculars. This is definitely a year for vagrants and rarities to come to our area. We have plenty of water and fish to supplement them, so this is a great chance to see more of the rarer species come to Oklahoma for stopovers. Other areas of interest, like the Great Salt Plains, Optima National Wildlife Refuge, and naturally, the Wichita Mountains will provide plenty of viewing pleasure during migratory times.
Keep your eyes on the clouds. Happy birding!
A Preview of Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge
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