Thousands Of Hawks
by Keith Hackland (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.