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It’s in your nature: Broad-winged hawks

I don’t get up to the “Knob” (Bake Oven Knob) as often as I once did. My knees don’t give me the confidence to hustle up there like before, but you can bet that if I do make the trek up the mountain path, it will be in mid-September. I still am in awe when the sky is swarming, not with insects, but kettles of “broadies.”

My first visit to the Knob was mid-September of 1975, about two days after using my first teaching paycheck to buy a used Minolta camera. Unfortunately I hardly used it. Kettle after kettle formed in front of and above me as I sat looking skyward. My rough counting that day (about five hours) was nearly 2,000 birds. Occasionally an osprey was mixed in the mass of birds. I even saw two bald eagles that day.

Broad-winged hawks are our smallest buteos, and unlike their much larger cousins, the red-tailed hawks, they are more forest dwelling and more secretive. The broad-winged hawk weighs about 1 pound, has nearly a 3-foot wingspan, and is about 15 inches in size. (About the size of the common crow.)

In flight, the wings “seem to connect” from the neck to the tail, hence the name broad-winged hawk. The outer edge of the wings details a dark edge to them. The adult “broadies” have wide alternating dark and light bands on the tail as well.

Most hawks, including the broad-winged hawks, avoid flying any long distance over water. In their migration they concentrate along lake and ocean coastlines. The Great Lakes are one of those locations. Tremendous daily numbers can occur along the Texas Coast too as the birds avoid flying over the Gulf of Mexico.

As you may know, they are heading to winter in South America. The narrowing Isthmus of Panama really concentrates them and the sky could be a mass of swirling and kettling broad-winged hawks. I’ve been told it is an amazing nature phenomenon.

I chose this time to pen this column because we are nearing the peak of their migration. Checking records of both Bake Oven Knob and Hawk Mountain, about 95 percent of their migration occurs between Sept. 13 and 19. The days before and shortly after the peak may only offer a few dozen. Seldom more than a dozen or two are observed in October. If you wish to have a chance to see this spectacle, that narrow window is now.

Unfortunately, it appears that the numbers of “broadies” migrating past these lookouts is decreasing. Again, my theory is there is some habitat loss in the northeast and southern Canada, but the huge loss of wintering habitat in South America is probably the clincher.

Grab your binocs and a lawn chair and just sit in the “knob” parking lot to get a glimpse of the show. Enjoy.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Broad-winged hawks are early migrants because ________. A. they have to migrate so far, B. snakes will be hibernating soon, C. both of these, D. neither of these.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Late September and the first week of October is the peak migration time of blue jays. Some do overwinter here though.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

This picture captures part of a kettle of “broadies.” Sometimes hundreds can be seen together, impossible to count until they “peel” away to head to another thermal. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
An adult broad-winged hawk perches on a communications cable. The adults have “barring” across their undersides.
This broad-winged hawk was photographed while catching thermals during its migration using as much wing surface as possible to help it soar higher. Note the alternating dark and light tail bands.
This juvenile broad-winged hawk was photographed a few weeks ago at Beltzville State Park. It will soon begin a long migration to its winter destination it has never seen before.