Fall is time to watch for hawks
By Susan Heath
Aug. 24, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.
Updated Aug. 24, 2017 at 3 p.m.
Here on the Texas coast, we are blessed with many avian riches, one of which is hawk migration in the fall.
Unnoticed by most people, enormous numbers of raptors, - hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures - funnel down the Texas coast from all across the continent into a narrow flight path about 50 miles wide. This stream continues along the Gulf Coast into Mexico narrowing even more as the mountains squeeze the land mass down to just a couple of miles wide.
Because raptors are difficult to census on their breeding grounds, a continent-wide system of hawk watch sites has been established to monitor them where natural features of geography concentrate them during fall migration.
The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory is in its 21st year of raptor-counting at Smith Point. Each year, the count runs from Aug. 1 through Nov. 15. This time period represents peak fall raptor migration along the Upper Texas Coast and Smith Point offers an exceptional viewing point as the birds head south.
Smith Point is located in southwestern Chambers County on the eastern shore of Galveston Bay and the hawk watch tower is located within Texas Parks and Wildlife's Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area.
If you are looking for something to do some weekend consider stopping by Smith Point and checking out the hawk tower. The counters are there seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Further south there is also a fall raptor count at Hazel Bazemore Park near Corpus Christi, which is staffed similarly.
Although we typically record 20 species of raptors at Smith Point, the largest percentage of birds are broad-winged hawks, whose migration peaks in mid-September.
Ten thousand or more of these birds can pass by the hawk watch in a single day when weather conditions are right. These birds use a different strategy than the small songbirds for migration.
Instead of flying at night when it is cooler and predation is less likely, they use the rising air currents caused by the sun heating the ground to move long distances with a minimum expenditure of energy.
The birds ride up thermals until they reach the point at which the cooling air is no longer rising, and then, perhaps several thousand feet off the ground, they sail off for miles in the direction they want to go, gradually dropping until they reach another air current.
Like all birds, raptors use stored fat as fuel during migration and using this strategy they can move the 4,000 or so miles between their breeding areas to their winter quarters in Central and South America. For this reason, their southbound flights can be monitored during the day as concentration points formed by the geography of the land.
A few hundred miles south of the Rio Grande in the Mexican state of Veracruz lies the grand champion of all New World hawk watching sites. It is aptly called the "River of Raptors" and it lives up to its name.
Here, where the flight path is squeezed down between the mountains and the sea to just a mile or so wide up to four million raptors are counted each fall. Tourists come from all over the world to view this river of large birds.
You don't have to be a bird watcher to appreciate the spectacle of thousands of raptors on the move. It is one of nature's most stirring sights.
Until you can make it to Veracruz, check out one of the Texas hawk watches.
Sue Heath is the director of conservation re search of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a non profit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.