Migration Sensation - Winging Their Way Back Through

Yes of course, it's that time of year again. Many of us have our eyes on the skies or fixed upon that parkway overlook where bushes and brambles abound in search of avian travelers. After an effort (or the product of such an effort) at breeding they're either heading south in search of new sources of food in the case of songbirds or else they're following their south-bound food in the case of raptors. I've been captivated by the activity of both groups for several annual migrations in succession now, more than I'd care to tally up frankly lest it remind me that I'm kind of falling out of the "spring chicken" age classification.

I'd like to touch on Appalachian hawkwatching for a moment. For the past two weekends, I've occupied space on the summit of Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County, Virginia. Nothing particularly revealing came from inquiries about the potential or reputation of this site as a location from which to observe the migration. The roughly 1-mile rigorous hike to the summit from the parking area might have been enough to discourage others in the past who were inclined to make a concerted effort to evaluate it for observation potential. Heck, even the road to the parking lot is a long, narrow, basically one-lane pathway that could easily be blocked by a fallen tree at any time. So it's easy to see why it Buffalo might have never been given a fair shake. In all likelihood, Buffalo is like any number of prominent knobs or ridgelines in the southern Appalachians in that it could offer feast or famine depending upon a number of weather-related circumstances. Will a hurricane or tropical storm come inland along the coast and push birds up off the more heavily-traveled Blue Ridge escarpment? Will a timely cold front push birds south during that usual September 15th-25th window? Given how wildly unpredictable these weather factors have been over the last decade or so, hawkwatching at this site is likely, well....a crap-shoot. And that term kind of summed up the experience I had there over 5 days out of a 10-day period. The first day had little directional wind, but nevertheless yielded 90 Broad-winged Hawks. The second and third days were abysmal due to an incoming front from the south containing rain. The following weekend consisted of contrasting days as Saturday was highly unfavorable with southwest winds and resulted in only 10 Broad-winged Hawks and two each of American Kestrel and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Sunday looked as though it had great potential (1000+ Broad-wingeds for instance) and the first three hours beginning at 10:00 yielded most of the 165 Broad-winged Hawks (and representatives of 4 other species) that were winging their way through en route to Brazil. Unfortunately, the activity died down as the afternoon progressed, and what appeared to have been a day with tremendous numbers of passing birds never materialized. Perhaps Buffalo saw many passing Broadies this past week? Who knows, and until someone gives it a thorough examination it will remain something of a migration potential mystery. One positive preliminary conclusion is that it does offer great looks of many of the birds that do pass over its summit and along its ridges. Many Broad-wingeds were only a hundred or so feet above or out from those of us positioned on the summit. Many would argue that there is a trade-off at many sites where "big numbers" are more of a certainty due to the fact that birds are passing much farther from the observers at those sites compared to those that passed by Buffalo. Something that most closely resembles a "pin-dot" in the binocular doesn't evoke much excitement from the casual hawkwatcher.

So yes, go out there as I did to that uncharted territory and see if a ridge or knob you're curious about offers much in the way of raptor movement. Maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised, even if only modestly, and you'll find it worth your time to check this location on days during migration that have favorable weather. I have gone to many places that will only offer modest observations in the way of either numbers or proximity on most days, but now and then, expectations are exceeded. Look at it this way...even if the hawkwatching is in the tank, you might well find that time-to-yourself- in-the-peaceful-serenity-of-nature that you've been promising to get to. And that in itself is justification for taking the chance!

PS...please forgive my lame self for not taking any pics from Buffalo's summit!