Raptors and Fall Watching

With continuing restrictions on gatherings beyond family, the question on the floor had to do with watching wildlife, possible photo opportunities and fresh air. Given the season, and the magic of watching critters gather for long flights to winter, I suggested Red Top Mountain along the Teanaway Ridge in our eastern Cascade Mountains. I may have even suggested checking out the ridge tops in the Naneum Ridge State Forest. I noted that this is the time our raptors begin gathering for migration – and there are all those great thermal currents up along and over those high ridges…

The whole conversation got me thinking about raptors (from the Latin “rapere,” meaning to seize or plunder) — and fall and migration. Of course, we do have year-round eagles and vultures and hawks and falcons – some individuals of most any given species will hang out through winter supervising our bird feeders and fields. Others may migrate some relatively short distance to regional winter habitat, but the likely majority of our summer raptors will head to Mexico or farther south. Those are the birds, generally, which you may watch riding the thermals (rising warm air) found along our regional migration routes over Red Top, Chelan Ridge or one of a handful of other specific locales pretty much any day in early fall.

Since this is migration time, birds are preparing for a fall trip south. Often, numbers of them will gather in large swarms over certain easy to reach areas around Paradise.

I invited my questioner to consider the possibilities. What would be more fun than a sky of soaring Buteos, swooping Falcos or dashing Accipiters – our hawks of summer? “Take your family and a good guidebook and feed your souls,” I suggested.

Identifying raptors is really fairly simple. Start with shapes of wings and tails in flight and you will quickly have a sense of hunting patterns and speed (and even diet). (Males in virtually all birds of prey, by the way, will be smaller than females.)

The Buteos are the largest hawks. They are soaring birds with broad wings and tails, to swoop down on ground‑based prey (generally rabbits, rodents, snakes, frogs, insects and an occasional bird).

Many, if not most, of the Buteos in the thermals will be heading south. The ferruginous hawk (buteo regalis) will winter in Central Mexico and be back in April. Swainson’s (buteo swainsoni) will have the longest migration, flying clear to the Pampas of Argentina, then back to our country in spring.

The speed merchants are the Falcos, with their trademark long, pointed wings and narrow tails.  With blazing speed and maneuverability, they catch and kill birds and insects in flight, with an occasional rodent, rabbit or other ground‑runner.

Many falcons will be found in the state year-round, but some will head south. American kestrels (falco sparverius) will be scattered across town at our feeders, but others of their kin will head off to Panama. Peregrines (falco peregrinus) may migrate over the Cascades to the west side or head to Panama, while prairie falcons (falco mexicanus) may come to the east side or join the peregrines on their fall journey to Central America.

The Accipiters are the in‑between hawks. Their short, rounded wings and long, stabilizing tails enable them to dash after prey in and around trees. They take mostly birds, but also rodents, rabbits and other ground prey.

Among the Accipiters now gathering, a given Cooper’s hawk (accipiter cooperii) or northern goshawk (accipiter gentilis) may stick around for the winter, or it may head for Mexico and Guatemala. Some sharp-shinned hawk (accipiter striatus) may find a winter home at your bird feeder or it may take off for Panama.

My spies tell me that more than a dozen different species of birds of prey have already been observed above Chelan Ridge near Manson, and over Red Top Mountain along Teanaway Ridge off Blewett Pass. You will see many more than the few mentioned here. Both ridges are natural migration corridors for eagles, hawks, and falcons in September and October.

By the way, that migration urge is probably triggered by photoperiodism – the changing length of day and/or amount of sunlight reaching some critical level – touching some ancient knowledge within the birds’ brains.

Once they head out, exactly how they find their way over thousands of miles – or even just over the mountains – remains a mystery. More and more evidence, however, is pointing to fairly high intelligence and very good memories. Birds, in general, seem to acquire navigation information from the stars, the sun, the terrain they fly (including wind direction), earth’s magnetic field and scent. The long-lived raptors seem to remember migration routes and landscapes.

For some good photos and names of our Northwest raptors, check out the Northwest Nature Net site at or Learn more from a good field guide (such as The Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest) or go to Cornell Lab’s amazing and endless site

Red Top Mountain is on Teanaway Ridge, west of Mineral Springs Resort off the Blewett Pass road (FS road 9738 to 9702). You may find also find raptors rising over the Saddle Mountains, Yakima Ridge, and Rattlesnake Hills.

Take the family. As I have many times observed, watching birds of prey on the wing is as close as most of us will ever get to touching the sky. It’s a kind of magic, really.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized