The Excitement of Hawk Watching

Peregrine Falcon. Photo courtesy of Michael McDowell.

Observing hawks, falcons, and other birds of prey can bring an entirely different sense of excitement and magic to bird watching. Among them is the fastest flying creature on Earth—the Peregrine Falcon—which reaches speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour during a stoop as it descends upon its prey. Kettles of Broad-winged Hawks, numbering in the dozens or even hundreds, will keep you in awe as they stream and glide in thermals overhead. These predators are rulers of the skies in both flight and power, and to glimpse them in nature renders a sense of both perfection and mystery.

What size of binocular?

Soaring birds of prey can be difficult to view due to their higher flying altitudes, so an 8x binocular is generally not recommended for hawk watching. A 10x binocular with a 50mm aperture will provide more magnification to pull the bird in and greater resolution to aid in the identification process. A 12x50 binocular might also work well, but be mindful that you may not be able to hold them steady. A 10x50 binocular is the most popular combination of magnification and aperture for hawk watching.

Identification techniques

Would-be hawk watchers will benefit from learning to identify species by size and shape. Most raptors soaring overhead will be backlit and at a good distance. Even with higher magnification binoculars, most plumage variations between species are indiscernible. Learning how to distinguish the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture from a Peregrine Falcon is helpful to beginning birders. This approach to identifying birds doesn't limit itself to just raptor identification. Many experienced birders often use these techniques to assist in the identification of shorebirds and songbirds. Hawk watching is an excellent first step in improving your bird identification skills based on size, shape, and impression.

Best ways to observe hawks

Hawks can be observed just about anywhere in the United States, including your own backyard. The best places include peninsulas, high ridges, or mountains where large numbers of raptors concentrate during spring and fall migration. Most of the prime hawk migration zones host seasonal hawk watch events. Attending such an organized gathering assures the presence of experienced hawk watchers—the best source to learn from when it comes to identifying different species of raptors. To find specific "hot spots" for viewing hawks, check the Hawk Migration Association of North America.