Nature's Focus: Scanning the sky for returning migrating hawks

Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area.
Photos Courtesy of Thomas Gorman

by Thomas W. Gorman

It is mid-February and the morning begins after a short one mile hike to the top of the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA) hawk watch, with temperatures ranging from the mid-teens to the low twenties, and a wind chill dropping the cold even further.  While most of the population is either still asleep, or just relaxing in the warmth of their home, a small group of dedicated volunteers are beginning their day at the hawk watch. 

These individuals are volunteers for the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife Endangered & Non Game Species Program (ENSP), and their task is to count the migrating hawks returning north from their wintering sites in Central and South America, back to their nesting grounds in Canada.  The spring hawk watch goes from February 15 to May 15.  These volunteers are “on-duty” again during the fall migration, from August 15 to November 15 when the hawks return to their wintering grounds.  On average, the spring migration will tally between 2,000-3,000 raptors, and the fall migration will range between 10,000 and 15,000.  Due to a high mortality rate, the amount of hawks returning in the spring is significantly lower.

Red-tailed Hawk.

The Wildcat Ridge WMA hawk watch is one of 14 hawk watch sites in New Jersey, and all are sanctioned by the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA).  All of the data attained by these sites are presented to NJ Fish and Wildlife ENSP and HMANA for scientific research, and also as a means of determining the Raptor Population Index throughout North America.  At any of the hawk watch sites in New Jersey, people have the chance to see at least 16 different raptor species throughout both seasons.  The species range from the smaller Merlin and American Kestrel, up to the larger Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle.  As the hawks travel during their migration they take advantage of the thermals created from heat rising off of the ridgelines, which help the hawks conserve energy during their migration.  In general, nearly every raptor which migrates through New Jersey, all funnel through the ever popular Cape

Broad Wing Hawk.

The views at Wildcat Ridge’s hawk watch encompass an area from Fort Lee, NJ and the NYC skyline to the northeast/east, south to the Watchung range, and the west/southwest horizons.  Further information about the Wildcat Ridge WMA hawk watch, its history and the trail systems, can be found at:

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