Hawk Watching with Galax High School

Mahogany Rock Hawk Watch with Galax HS Biology Students. On September 24th, BRDC hosted this year’s final Avian Adventures program at Mahogany Rock Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Teachers Emily Brown and Sam Starkey brought 12 kids for a day of hawk observations and discussions on migration.BRDC guides William Roberts and Scott Jackson-Ricketts began the program with a focus on a map, compass and questions about migratory patterns and the dynamics of energy saving flight techniques.

As the sun’s warmth was dissipating the fog and heating up the valley, we talked about thermals, which are columns of rising air caused by this heating up process.

For more in depth information on this phenomenon see:


William and Scott also brought a box of raptor wings, talons and skulls (courtesy of the Carolina Raptor Center and William), giving the kids an opportunity to study up close the details and differences.

From the great horned owl to an Eastern screech owl, red-tailed hawk to a sharp-shinned hawk, we passed the parts around while referring to our hand-out guides, reminding everyone that shape and silhouette would be our key identification tools for the day…along with behavioral distinctions.

Wrapping up the primer session, we set up scopes, distributed binoculars and field guides and began to scan the skies.

We were not disappointed, and in fact, had a very good day.

Starting out slowly, with small numbers of broadwing hawks popping up over the ridge, eventually kettles (groups of birds that rise within the thermals) began to appear off in the distance.

Interspersed with the expected broadwings we also observed a couple of sharp-shinned hawks, a red-tailed hawk or two, one osprey high overhead, resident ravens, and both turkey and black vultures.

The culture of hawk-watching began as a protest and replacement for hawk gunning, a sport that has fortunately died out in the USA.

All over the world, but especially in North America, folks gather in the spring and fall to observe and count migrating hawks.

Carefully collecting the necessary data, including day, time, temperature, wind and other weather related information, hawk watching has grown from just a pleasurable past time to a serious effort to assess population trends and changing behavioral patterns.

BRDC would like to thank Jim Keighton and Blue Ridge Birders for their work as station monitors of Mahogany Rock, and for sharing the hand-outs, maps and space.

We also would like to thank the Matthews Foundation for their ongoing support through Avian Adventures.

Scott Jackson-Ricketts

President, BRDC