Scanning the sky for returning migrating hawks By: Thomas W. Gorman

It is mid-September and the morning begins after a short (nearly) one mile hike to the top of the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA) hawk watch, with temperatures at about 52F with a ground fog cover rising off of the woods and wetlands. While most of the population is either still asleep, or just relaxing in the comfort of their home, a small group of dedicated volunteers are beginning their day at the Wildcat Ridge hawk watch.

American Bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle

These individuals are volunteers for the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife Endangered & Non Game Species Program (ENSP), and their task is to count the migrating hawks which are heading south to their wintering sites in Central & South America. These migrating raptors originated in places throughout northern Canada and Nova Scotia Canada. The fall hawk watch goes from August 15 to November 15. On average, the fall migration will tally anywhere from 8,000-10,000 raptors, and these numbers do vary from site to site. The highest seasonal numbers take place at the Cape May hawk watch which is the premier hawk watch location in New Jersey.

Broad- winged hawk

Broad- winged hawk

The Wildcat Ridge WMA hawk watch is one of 13 hawk watch sites in New Jersey, all of which are sanctioned by the Hawk Migration Association of North America, (HMANA). All of the data attained by these sites are presented to NJF&W ENSP and/or HMANA, for scientific research, and also as a means of determining the Raptor Population Index throughout North America. At any of the hawk watch sites in New Jersey, people have the chance to see at least 16 different raptor species throughout both seasons, and the species range from the smaller Merlin & American Kestrel, up to the larger Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle. As the hawks travel during their migration, they take advantage of the thermals created from heat rising off of the ridgelines, which help the hawks conserve energy during their migration. In general, nearly every raptor which migrates through New Jersey, all funnel through the ever popular Cape May hawk watch.

Broad-winged hawk flight sequence

Broad-winged hawk flight sequence

The views at Wildcat Ridge’s hawk watch encompass an area from Fort Lee, NJ and the NYC skyline to the northeast/east, south to the Watchung range, and the west/southwest horizons. The numbers of visitors to Wildcat Ridge can be quite high at times, especially during the mid-September time frame when hundreds, or even thousands of Broad-winged hawks can be seen flying over. There are numerous well marked trails which lead to the hawk watch. For the novice hiker it is recommended to simply take the “Tower Road” from the lower parking area on Upper Hibernia Road, walk around the chained gate and in 9/10th of a mile you will be at the hawk watch.

Broad-winged hawks kettling

Broad-winged hawks kettling

Further information about the Wildcat Ridge WMA hawk watch, its history and the trail systems, can be found at: http://www.wcrhawkwatch.com and they also can be found on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/WildcatRidgeHawkWatch?ref=hl

For information about other New Jersey hawk watch locations, please refer to the following link and simply click on NJ. The site still shows 14 watches in NJ, but one formerly at Picatinny Arsenal is no longer in use: http://hawkcount.org/

 

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