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Thousands Of Hawks
by Keith Hackland (alamoinn@aol.com)
published October 2016

On the Santa Ana Tower, Rick from Florida along with Norma and Rodrigo from Mexico City watching hawk migration.

This was not the first time we in the Valley have seen hawks flying overhead, but yesterday and today were different . . .

It started at 9 am yesterday. Charlie, my daughter's pseudonym, photographed a kettle of hawks moving south east over Alamo. We counted 200 hawks in that kettle.

A kettle is a mass of hawks circling overhead on a thermal, a rising column of warm air that acts as an elevator, carrying birds to its top. A kettle can sometimes rise tens of thousands of feet, though typically they are lower. To ride a kettle the birds set their wings and hold them in position, while they circle around the thermal, relaxing, as the rising air elevator lifts them up high. When the elevator stops, the birds peel off and glide for miles and miles on their route, watching for another thermal. Once one bird finds a thermal, others spot it there and join it, until there are hundreds circling up, visible for tens of miles to their acute eyesight. This enables them to travel on an average day about 70 miles with very little effort. This was not an average day. They probably traveled over 100 miles. For them it is free air travel, something humans have yet to master . . . smart birds!

Other kettles came through during the day, but I did not wait outside to count them. As the sun heats the earth, thermals rise higher and faster. As the birds are lifted higher and higher, at some point in the middle of the day the birds become invisible, and can be seen only through binoculars.

At 4:30 pm we had a guest, Rick, checking into the hotel (Alamo Inn B&B), and when I went to welcome him he was standing in the parking area. He called me and said "Look up!" There was a kettle of hawks, then another, and another. Behind us were more, all headed south. I counted ten kettles in forty minutes. They were about the size of the one Charlie photographed. That was two thousand hawks!

We noticed the thermals were moving south, en mass. We also saw some birds streaming, simply riding the wind. This was the first norther this fall, blowing south, the same direction of the birds' travel, at up to twenty miles an hour. I had work to do so I went back to my desk. At 6:30 pm our birder friend Pat called. She said "Go outside and look up!" I did. There were kettles of hawks on every side, moving south over Alamo. At any given time I was surrounded by six kettles. I watched and photographed and counted them until dusk at 7:30 pm.

Pat joined me and we noticed that many birds settled for the night in big trees all around us. I thought about what we saw. About every ten minutes six kettles passed by, as more showed up. About thirty six kettles passed by from 6:30 to 7:30, 36 kettles of 200 birds each is 7,200 hawks. I looked back towards the golden sunset, and through the dusk saw another kettle in the distance. So in one hour and forty minutes I must have seen over 9,000 hawks. But there were 10.5 hours when we believe kettles were passing by. Now here is where, with a little speculation, it gets interesting. Kettles of hawks moving through all day, at the rate of 3,000 per hour (2,000 per forty minutes), from 9 am to 7:30 pm, makes a total of 31,500 hawks. That is at a single viewing point in the Valley.

If we consider a viewing point can see about ten miles, and the Valley is say 100 miles east to west, there could be ten viewing points, and so 315,000 hawks may have moved over us yesterday.

After 7:30 pm as I headed in, I ran into another guest, Paul, who was out looking for night hawks. Paul had seen some kettles I missed. He told me that they spent the day at the hawk watch site in Corpus Christi at Hazel Bazemore Park. There a team of experienced birders count the hawks flying by, using binoculars and scopes, from the vantage point of a bluff. He heard that the count for yesterday September 27 there was 120,000 hawks. I read that the one day record, a very rare event there, over the past 15 years, is 350,000 hawks.

This morning we were out at 9 am and there were hawks rising all around us in Alamo, flying to thermals, and gliding south in kettles. It was like the previous evening. Wow! We made our way south to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and climbed their 40 foot tower. There we watched in awe as large kettles of hawks drifted by, until about noon, when they ended.

What was so different yesterday and today was the huge numbers of hawks. Why? Probably the steady wind headed south from the three day norther. This was an unforgettable event.

Almost every hawk close enough to identify was a Broad-winged Hawk, en Espanol, Busardo Aliancho. At 15 inches tall they are our smallest buteo (a type of hawk), showing their paddle shaped wings as they glide. They are inconspicuous and solitary in summer, nesting in central to eastern North America, feeding on small mammals, reptiles, and insects. In the fall and spring they migrate in huge numbers. We believe there are about 1.7 million Broad-winged Hawks in North America where they nest, and in the fall head back home to southern Mexico and northern South America.