A kettle of migrating hawks

Migration is at full tilt across the region right now. In the passerine (songbird) department thrushes, grosbeaks and tanagers are joining in making those fallouts and mixed flocks even more exciting. And while the night skies have been busy for the last month (passerines migrate at night) some of the more notable diurnal migrants are beginning to show up across the region.

The most common diurnal migrant in the East is the broad-winged hawk. Nearly two million broad-wingeds nest in North America and overwinter in Central and South America. These chunky, crow-sized raptors and other larger-bodied birds like eagles, ospreys, wood storks, cranes and pelicans utilize thermals and updrafts to aid them in their southerly journey. Hawk Watches along the broad-winged’s migration path, many of them setup and maintained by volunteers, help scientist monitor this species.

Caesar’s Head State Park, located on U.S. 276 in South Carolina, just south of Brevard, Nc. is probably the most notable Hawk Watch in the area. Nearly 10,000 broad-wings are reported annually from Caesar’s Head from mid-September till early October. As of September 17 only 46 broad-wings had been recorded at Caesar’s Head, so if you have some free time between now and the first of October there are lots of birds still left to come through. The close-knit group of volunteers who keep a tab on broad-wings at Caesar’s Head call themselves the Wing Nuts. Wing Nuts are always happy to share with fellow birders and/or interested onlookers.

The mountain passes accessible along the Blue Ridge Parkway offer a myriad of opportunities to fine migrating songbirds. While migrants may be found almost anywhere along the Parkway during migration there are some time-tested spots. Ridge Junction Overlook at the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park at milepost 355.5 is one of those spots. This is a great place to spend a morning from now through the middle of October, and it’s easy migrant chasing – just bring a lawn chair and setup shop – the migrants will come to you. Some other notable spots to catch migrants on the Parkway include Craggy Gardens, Craggy Pinnacle, Walker Knob Overlook, Heintooga Ridge Road and Big Witch Gap.

A short trip to Rankin Bottoms in Cocke County, Tenn. can provide some fine shorebird watching in the mountains. Shorebirding at Rankin Bottoms depends on the water level in Lake Douglas and each fall the Tennessee Valley Authority begins to draw down the lake leaving acres of exposed mudflats attracting weary migrants looking for a place to rest and refuel.

Some recent finds at Rankin bottoms include short-billed dowitcher, lesser yellowlegs, sanderlings, least, western, stilt and semipalmated sandpipers plus shovelers and blue-winged teal.  To get to Rankin Bottoms from Waynesville, take I-40 west to exit 432 B. That will put you on U.S. 25/70. Follow U.S. 25 east out of Newport to Rankin Hill Road (I would estimate about five miles, but I have never measured it). Follow Rankin Hill Road to the railroad crossing. At the crossing take Hill Road to the left and follow it to the bottoms.

But even if you can’t sneak away to the Parkway or Caesar’s Head or Ranking Bottoms, you can find migrants by just being aware. As I sat down today (Sun. 9/18) to write this column I noticed some movement in one of the dogwood trees out my window. I went outside to find a small flock of thrushes stuffing themselves with the bright red berries. In about half an hour from my deck and back yard I counted more than 20 species of birds. There were three different thrushes in the yard – Swainson’s, wood and gray-cheeked. I saw six different species of warblers – black-and-white, magnolia, worm-eating, hooded, black-throated blue and Tennessee. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds and year-round residents like Carolina chickadee and tufted titmouse rounded out the list. Migration will soon be over till spring, but right now, there’s still time.