- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
On blustery days early in October, not so many years ago, when cold wind blew briskly from the north or northwest after a couple of days of rain or sullen weather,
I drove to mountain lookouts at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in northern Berks County or Waggoner’s Gap on the Cumberland/Perry County line to experience migrating hawks and eagles.
There usually were many different kinds of those raptors, but mostly sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks soared along the southwest-running ridges of those wooded slopes. The wind pressure from behind pushed the bone-chilling air—and the soaring hawks—up the northwest-facing slopes.
Those southbound raptors sailed for miles on those windy days with scarcely a wing beat, saving them lots of energy.
When hawks are ready to migrate south in fall to avoid winter in the north, they go, almost no matter the weather and wind direction. On days when blustery winds come from the north or northwest, those raptors mostly sail along the southwest-running Appalachians.
But when winds are from the south or east, or are nonexistent, raptors float south on sun-warmed, rising columns of air called thermals almost anywhere off the mountains.
Sharp-shins’ peak of southbound migration is early in October. Sharpies are a little smaller than pigeons and streamlined for swift flight, alternately flapping and soaring.
They are one of the most exciting migrant hawks because of their speed and numbers going by any one ridge. On days of northwest wind, they zip along almost one right after another for the bulk of each blustery day.
The stately red-tails push through here in greatest numbers late in October and into November. A bit larger than crows, red-tails cruise steadily and majestically on outstretched, flat wings southwest above southwest-running ridges, often one after another.
But on south or east winds, they scatter off the mountains and sail south almost anywhere, often one after another in a steady stream of themselves.
Though several species of hawks and eagles migrate over southeastern Pennsylvania in October, sharp-shins and red-tails are the most abundant of those migrants and, therefore, the most exciting to experience.
Go to a local mountaintop or watch the sky from anywhere to see some of these migrating raptors.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.