If seeing a kettle of birds is on your bucket list, head to Hawk Watch at Ashland Nature Center or Cape Henlopen State Park ASAP. If this natural phenomenon isn’t on your bucket list, perhaps it should be.
“Kettle” is the word that birders use to describe a group of birds wheeling and circling tightly in the air on a thermal updraft, says Chris Williams, a University of Delaware associate professor of entomology and wildlife ecology. Nature photographer M. Timothy O’Keefe speculated that the term comes from the fact that these furiously flying flocks look like “something boiling in a cauldron.”
Your jaw is bound to drop the first time you see hundreds of birds swerving and soaring inside a thermal bubble as it rises aloft. (It’s still pretty jaw-dropping the sixth or sixteenth time you see it.)
Now’s the prime time to catch a kettle. That’s because broad-winged hawks are currently passing over Delaware on their fall migration to the neo-tropics. Although all raptors utilize thermals to make their flights more efficient, certain species, such as broad-winged hawks, are known to be frequent users of these air currents.
Large kettles of broad-winged hawks started showing up in Delaware in mid-September – more than 2,000 broad-wingeds were spotted at Ashland on Sept. 11 alone – and will continue through the end of the month.
“When it comes to the fall migration, my favorite species is actually the golden eagle,” says Jim White, associate director of land and biodiversity management for the Delaware Nature Society, which owns Ashland Nature Center. “The golden eagle is the ‘holy grail’ of fall bird-watching,” adds White. “But, in terms of pure spectacle, nothing beats the broad-winged hawk migration and the sight of hundreds and hundreds of hawks overhead.”
Long before the leaves turn or the autumnal equinox even occurs, the fall bird migration gets underway. “In August and September, songbirds migrate, beginning with hummingbirds and kingbirds and followed by warblers,” says Williams. “Slowly a parade of migrants work their way south, some leaving our area while others are coming in. Expect to see the shorebirds leave first followed by teal passing through and finally wintering waterfowl setting up shop.”
Now through October is peak season for the raptors – birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, falcons, ospreys and owls. However, every raptor flying overhead isn’t necessarily a migrant.
“Some raptors migrate south; others in the same species choose to overwinter here in Delaware,” notes White. “For example, there is a pair of resident bald eagles that nests at Hoopes Reservoir. If you’re up on Hawk Watch Hill and see two bald eagles just monkeying around, flying low over Ashland’s Treetop Woods, then it’s probably these residents and not migrants. We train the Hawk Watch coordinator to exclude resident raptors from the counting records.”
The Hawk Watch sites are each staffed by a coordinator who is there to educate visitors as well as to count birds. Both programs are funded by the Delmarva Ornithological Society with additional support from other nature organizations.
Williams finds value in citizen-scientist initiatives such as Delaware’s Hawk Watch program. “These programs offer useful data for ornithologists,” he says. “Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in flux. No single researcher or team of researchers working alone could document the distribution and movements of so many fall migrants the way Hawk Watch efforts throughout the nation do.”
Of course, you don’t need to be part of a formal citizen-scientist program to track fall migrants. Just ask Ethan Harrod, a 5-year-old North Wilmington resident who counts birds with the help of his trusty field guide for young birders.
“Ethan sighted a red-tailed hawk on the Wilmington waterfront and he saw a sharp-shinned hawk fly over our backyard,” reports his father, John Harrod, who is manager of the DuPont Environmental Education Center in Wilmington. “He loves to try to id a bird and then check his field guide to see if he was right.”
The elder Harrod also has been seeing lots of migrating raptors in recent days. “I went kayaking on the Christina recently and spotted a northern harrier, a bald eagle and an osprey,” reports Harrod.
Make time to get out to a Hawk Watch site soon. The best time to visit is on a sunny, clear day when there is a breeze from the north or northwest, says White. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a kettle or two of broad-wingeds flying overhead.
Hawk Watch sites
Ashland Hawk Watch is located at Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin. Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch is at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes. For more information about either hawk watch contact Anthony Gonzon at 735-8673 or go to this website.
Article by Margo McDonough
This article can also be viewed on UDaily.