Migrating Golden Eagles

Why would otherwise sensible people perch themselves atop a rocky outcrop on a Pennsylvania mountaintop for ten hours on a windy bone-numbing bitter cold and sometimes snowy November day?  To watch migrating raptors of course.

November is the time when big hawks and eagles migrate through and into the lower Susquehanna valley.  And big birds rely on big wind to create updrafts and an easy ride along the region’s many ridges.  The most observable flights often accompany the arrival of cold air surging across the Appalachian Mountains from the northwest.  These conditions can propel season-high numbers of several of the largest species of raptors past hawk-counting sites.

Observers brave howling winds on the Waggoner’s Gap lookout to census migrating late-season raptors.

Earlier this week, two windy days followed the passage of a cold front to usher-in spectacular hawk and eagle flights at the the Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch station on Blue Mountain north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Steady 30 M.P.H. winds from the northwest on Monday, November 2, gusted to 50 M.P.H. at times.  Early that morning, two Rough-legged Hawks, rarities at eastern hawk watches, were seen.  They and two Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) provided a preview of the memorable sightings to come.  Two dozen Golden Eagles migrated past the lookout that day.  Then on November 3, thirty Golden Eagles were tallied, despite west winds at speeds not exceeding half those of the day before.

Here are some of the late-season raptors seen by hardy observers at Waggoner’s Gap on Monday and Tuesday, November 2 & 3.

In November, Red-tailed Hawks are the most common migratory raptor counted at hawk watch stations in the Susquehanna region.
An uncommon bird, a juvenile Northern Goshawk, passes the Waggoner’s Gap lookout.
An adult Golden Eagle circles on an updraft along the north face of Blue Mountain to gain altitude before continuing on its journey.
The plumage of juvenile and immature Golden Eagles often creates a sensation among crowds at a lookout.  Golden Eagles don’t attain a full set of adult feathers until their sixth year.  This individual is probably a juvenile, also known as a hatch-year or first-year bird.  At most, it could be in its second year.  Click the “Golden Eagle Aging Chart” tab on this page to learn more about these uncommon migrants and their molt sequences as they mature.
The gilded head feathers of a Golden Eagle glisten in the afternoon sun.
An adult Golden Eagle passing Waggoner’s Gap.  The population known as “Eastern Golden Eagles” winters in the Appalachian Mountains and, with increasing frequency, on the Piedmont and Atlantic Coastal Plain Provinces of the eastern United States, where it often subsists as a scavenger.
Another first-year (juvenile) or second-year Golden Eagle.
A local Red-tailed Hawk (top left) trying to bully a migrating Golden Eagle.  A dangerous business indeed.
Through December, Bald Eagles, presently the more common of our eagle species, are regular migrants at Waggoner’s Gap and other Susquehanna valley hawk watch sites.
Red-shouldered Hawks are reliable early November migrants.
An adult Red-shouldered Hawk from above.
And an adult Red-shouldered Hawk from below.
Though their numbers peak in early October, Sharp-shinned Hawks, particularly adults like this one, continue to be seen through early November.
A Northern Harrier on the glide path overhead.
Merlins, like other falcons, are more apt to be seen in late September and October, but a few trickle through in November.

While visiting a hawk watch, one will certainly have the opportunity to see other birds too.

Common Ravens are fascinating birds and regular visitors to the airspace around hawk watches.  Most are residents, but there appears to be some seasonal movement, particularly among younger birds.
Most people think of Common Loons as birds of northern lakes.  But loons spend their winters in the ocean surf, and to get there they fly in loose flocks over the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each spring and fall.  They are regularly seen by observers at hawk watches.
Like ducks, geese, and swans, migrating Double-crested Cormorants assemble into aerodynamic V-shaped flocks to conserve energy.
Pine Siskins continue their invasion from the north.  Dozens of small flocks numbering 10 to 20 birds each continue to be seen and/or heard daily at Waggoner’s Gap.  A flock of Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vesperitinus), another irruptive species of “winter finch”, was seen there on November 3.

As a finale of sorts, near the close of the day on November 3, two Golden Eagles sailed past the north side of the Waggoner’s Gap lookout, one possessing what appeared to be a tracking transmitter on its back.  An effort was commenced by the official count staff to report the sighting to the entity monitoring the bird—to track down the tracker, so to speak.

A Golden Eagle with a backpack transmitter passing Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch at 3:39 P.M. Eastern Standard Time on November 3, 2020.

To see the count reports from Waggoner’s Gap and other hawk watches throughout North America, be certain to visit hawkcount.org

A Visit to Waggoner’s Gap

Nothing beats spending a day at a hawk watch lookout—except of course spending a day at a hawk watch lookout when the birds are parading through nonstop for hours on end.

Check out Waggoner’s Gap, a hawk count site located on the border of Cumberland and Perry Counties atop Blue Mountain just north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  It is by far the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s best location for observing large numbers of migrating raptors during the October and November flights.

Waggoner’s Gap is located where Route 74 crosses Blue Mountain north of Carlisle.
The entrance to a parking area for hawk watch visitors is designated by this sign located along Route 74 several hundred yards north of the summit of Blue Mountain.
Since acquiring the site in 2000, Audubon Pennsylvania has added improvements to expand the function of Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch to include education for both formal students and the public at large.
The site is named in honor of the late conservationist Clifford L. Jones, a business leader, a former Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, a cabinet secretary for six Pennsylvania governors (both major parties), a director on the boards of numerous conservation organizations, and an active birder.
Orange falcon silhouettes function as blazes for the trails that lead from the parking area to the lookout.  The trail and the lookout consist entirely of boulders.  Some of these move when stepped upon.  Others may be slick.  Use caution at all times.
The lookout at Waggoner’s Gap is staffed by official counters from August through December each year.  They are tasked with enumerating every migratory raptor’s passage during that period.
Sure-footed observers climb into a comfortable position among the Tuscarora quartzite boulders and begin watching the flight.
The view from the lookout is spectacular.  To the east, downtown Harrisburg can be seen in the distance.
During a recent afternoon with breezes from the “southwesterlies”, a steady stream of  migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks, including this juvenile, passed by the lookout.
Sharp-shinned Hawks were ready subjects for photography as they sailed on updrafts along the south side of the ridge.
An adult Sharp-shinned Hawk.
A second-year Sharp-shinned Hawk.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk below eye level.  Over 400 Sharp-shinned Hawks migrated past Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch on this particular early October day.
The local Turkey Vultures at Waggoner’s Gap seem ubiquitous at times.  They’re on the radio towers, they’re flying overhead, and a few are cruising the slopes below the crest.  But on the day of our recent visit, their numbers were eclipsed by the more than 300 “T.V.s” that migrated down the ridge.
Black Vultures, both migrants and local birds, are seen from the lookout.
Northern Harriers are a hawk watch favorite.  Their long uptilted wings, long tail, and white rump make them easy to identify, even for beginners.  Their plummeting numbers make them a treasured sighting for everyone.
A Red-tailed Hawk on a close approach.
A distant Red-shouldered Hawk.  Numbers of these migrants peak later in the season.
A Peregrine Falcon darts past the lookout.  Note the white forehead, throat, and breast.  This bird is probably a “Tundra Peregrine” (Falco peregrinus tundrius).  In the lower Susquehanna valley, this subspecies is strictly migratory, a transient in spring and fall.  “Tundra Peregrines” breed in the arctic and winter as far south as South America.
An immature Bald Eagle.  Waggoner’s Gap is a superb place for sighting eagles, especially on a breezy day.
Hundreds of Blue Jays filtered through as their southbound exodus continues.  Other songbirds of interest included Blue-headed Vireos (Vireo solitarius), Winter Wrens, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, and both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Waggoner’s Gap is a hardy birder’s paradise.  During the latter portion of the season, excellent flights often occur on days that follow the passage of a cold front and have strong northwest winds.  But be prepared, it can be brutal on those rocks during a gusty late-October or early-November day after the leaves fall—so dress appropriately.

To see the daily totals for the raptor count at Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be sure to visit hawkcount.org

A Visit to Rocky Ridge

Early October is prime time for hawk watching, particularly if you want to have the chance to see the maximum variety of migratory species.  In coming days, a few Broad-winged Hawks and Ospreys will still be trickling through while numbers of Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, and falcons swell to reach their seasonal peak.  Numbers of migrating Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks are increasing during this time and late-season specialties including Golden Eagles can certainly make a surprise early visit.

If you enjoy the outdoors and live in the southernmost portion of the lower Susquehanna valley, Rocky Ridge County Park in the Hellam Hills just northwest of York, Pennsylvania, is a must see.  The park consists of oak forest and is owned and managed by the York County Parks Department.  It features an official hawk watch site staffed by volunteers and park naturalists.  Have a look.

The hawk watch lookout is reached by following the well-marked trail at the north side of the large gravel parking area in the utility right-of-way at the end of the park entrance road (Deininger Road).
The Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch lookout includes outcrops of bedrock, a viewing deck, and grassy areas suitable for lawn chairs.
The bedrock at the lookout is an unusual quartz-cemented conglomerate that forms the Hellam Member at the base of the Cambrian Chickies Formation.
Experienced hawk watchers conduct an official count of raptors and other birds during the autumn migration in September and October each year.  Visitors are welcome.  The view is spectacular.  Check out the concrete columns glowing in the sun to the north of the lookout.
It’s the cooling towers at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station and the smoke stacks at the Brunner Island Steam Generating Station.  Conewago Falls is located between the two.
Interpretive signage on the hawk watch deck includes raptor identification charts.
A migrating Osprey glides by the lookout.
Throughout the month, migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks will be flying in a southwesterly direction along ridges in the region, particularly on breezy days.  They are the most numerous raptor at hawk watches in the lower Susquehanna valley during the first half of October.
A Peregrine Falcon quickly passes the Rocky Ridge lookout.  These strong fliers often ignore the benefits provided by thermals and updrafts along our ridges and instead take a direct north to south route during migration.
A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk soars by.
And a little while later, an adult Red-tailed Hawk follows.
Bald Eagles, including both migratory and resident birds, are seen regularly from the Rocky Ridge lookout.
Other diurnal (daytime) migrants are counted at Rocky Ridge and some of the other regional hawk watches.  Massive flights of Blue Jays have been working their way through the lower Susquehanna valley for more than a week now.  Local hawk watches are often logging hundreds in a single day.
The utility right-of-way within which the Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch is located can be a great place to see nocturnal (nighttime) migrants while they rest and feed during the day.  Right now, Eastern Towhees are common there.
An uncommon sight, a shy Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) in the utility right-of-way near the hawk watch lookout.  This and other nocturnal migrants will take full advantage of a clear moonlit night to continue their southbound journey.

If you’re a nature photographer, you might be interested to know that there are still hundreds of active butterflies in Rocky Ridge’s utility right-of-way.  Here are a few.

A Gray Hairstreak.
An American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas),

To see the daily totals for the raptor count at Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be certain to visit hawkcount.org

A Flock of Seagulls?

At the moment there is a heavy snow falling, not an unusual occurrence for mid-February, nevertheless, it is a change in weather.  Forty-eight hours ago we were in the midst of a steady rain and temperatures were in the sixties.  The snow and ice had melted away and a touch of spring was in the air.

Big Bluestem in the Riverine Grasslands is inundated by the rising waters of the Susquehanna at Conewago Falls.   The river ice has been dispersed by the recent mild temperatures and rains.

Anyone casually looking about while outdoors during these last several days may have noticed that birds are indeed beginning to migrate north in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Killdeer, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles are easily seen or heard in most of the area now.

Just hours ago, between nine o’clock this morning and one o’clock this afternoon, there was a spectacular flight of birds following the river north, their spring migration well underway.  In the blue skies above Conewago Falls, a steady parade of Ring-billed Gulls was utilizing thermals and riding a tailwind from the south-southeast to cruise high overhead on a course toward their breeding range.

Ring-billed Gulls swarm in a thermal updraft above Conewago Falls to gain altitude prior to streaming off to the north and continuing their journey.
Ring-billed Gulls climbing to heights sometimes exceeding 1,000 feet before breaking off and gliding away to the north.

The swirling hoards of Ring-billed Gulls attracted other migrants to take advantage of the thermals and glide paths on the breeze.  Right among them were 44 Herring Gulls, 3 Great Black-backed Gulls, 12 Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus), 10 Canada Geese, 3 Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), 6 Common Mergansers, 3 Red-tailed Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, 6 Bald Eagles (non-adults), 8 Black Vultures, and 5 Turkey Vultures.

A first-year Herring Gull (top center) is a standout in a “kettle” of Ring-billed Gulls.
How many Ring-billed Gulls passed by today?  More than 18,000…with emphasis on MORE THAN.  You see, early this afternoon, the handy-dandy clicker-counter used to tick off and tally the big flights of birds as they pass by quit clicking and counting.  Therefore, 18,000 is the absolute minimum number of Ring-billed Gulls seen migrating north today.  Hopefully the trusty old oil can will get the clicker working again soon.

In the afternoon, the clouds closed in quickly, the flight ended, and by dusk more than an inch of snow was on the ground.  Looks like spring to me.

Loading Up For Winter

A very light fog lifted quickly at sunrise.  Afterward, there was a minor movement of migrants: forty-nine Ring-billed Gulls, a few Herring Gulls, a Red-shouldered Hawk following the river to the southeast, and small flocks totaling nine Cedar Waxwings and twenty-eight Red-winged Blackbirds.

A Belted Kingfisher in the morning fog.
A Ring-billed Gull calls as active migrants pass overhead on their way downriver.
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In the Riparian Woodland, small mixed flocks of winter resident and year-round resident birds were actively feeding.  They must build and maintain a layer of body fat to survive blustery cold nights and the possible lack of access to food during snowstorms.  There’s no time to waste; nasty weather could bring fatal hardship to these birds soon.

A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) feeds on the seeds of an Eastern Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), also known as American Sycamore.  Chickadees are generalist feeders, eating invertebrates and suet at feeding stations in addition to the seeds of many plants.  Carolina Chickadees are year-round residents at Conewago Falls.
A fast-moving Golden-crowned Kinglet zips from limb to limb to grab tiny insects and other invertebrates.  During the winter, these petite birds will carefully probe the bark and crevices of trees to glean enough food to survive.  Golden-crowned Kinglets are winter residents at Conewago Falls.  In spring, they will depart to nest in coniferous forests.
A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) searches an infected tree for insects.  They are year-round residents.
Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are considered year-round residents at Conewago Falls, though they may withdraw to the south during severe winters.  Carolina Wrens sing year-round.  Today, their loud melody echoed through the Riparian Woodland all morning.
The tiny bob-tailed Winter Wren is an elusive ground-dwelling winter resident at the falls.  You may hear their scolding chatter from rocky areas and tree logs where they climb around mouse-like in search of small invertebrates.  Their song is a fast jumble of dainty musical trills that can sometimes be heard echoing through the Riparian Woodland in winter.  In spring, they’ll depart to nest in damp coniferous forests.

Feathered Fallout

The NOAA National Weather Service radar images from last evening provided an indication that there may be a good fallout of birds at daybreak in the lower Susquehanna valley.  The moon was bright, nearly full, and there was a gentle breeze from the north to move the nocturnal migrants along.  The conditions were ideal.

Rising from daytime roosts in New York and Pennsylvania, then streaming south in moonlit skies, migrating birds are recorded as echoes on this post-sunset composite NEXRAD loop from last evening.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

The Riparian Woodlands at Conewago Falls were alive with migrants this morning.  American Robins and White-throated Sparrows were joined by new arrivals for the season: Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa), Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata).  These are the perching birds one would expect to have comprised the overnight flight.  While the individuals that will remain may not yet be among them, these are the species we will see wintering in the Mid-Atlantic states.  No trip to the tropics for these hardy passerines.

American Robins continued migratory flight into the first hour of daylight this morning.  Their calls are commonly heard at night as migrating individuals pass overhead.
White-throated Sparrows are nocturnal migrants, and are a familiar find on woodland edges and at suburban feeding stations through the winter.
Dark-eyed Juncos, also nocturnal migrants, are common winter residents in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, frequently visiting bird feeders.
Heavy rain earlier this week in the Susquehanna River drainage basin has flooded most of the Pothole Rocks; the rapids of Conewago Falls have returned.
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A Quick Getaway

It was a placid morning on Conewago Falls with blue skies dotted every now and then by a small flock of migrating robins or blackbirds.  The jumbled notes of a singing Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) in the Riparian Woodland softly mixed with the sounds of water spilling over the dam.  The season’s first Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors), Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) were seen.

There was a small ruckus when one of the adult Bald Eagles from a local pair spotted an Osprey passing through carrying a fish.  This eagle’s effort to steal the Osprey’s catch was soon interrupted when an adult eagle from a second pair that has been lingering in the area joined the pursuit.  Two eagles are certainly better than one when it’s time to hustle a skinny little Osprey, don’t you think?

But you see, this just won’t do.  It’s a breach of eagle etiquette, don’t you know?  Soon both pairs of adult eagles were engaged in a noisy dogfight.  It was fussing and cackling and the four eagles going in every direction overhead.  Things calmed down after about five minutes, then a staring match commenced on the crest of the dam with the two pairs of eagles, the “home team” and the “visiting team”, perched about 100 feet from each other.  Soon the pair which seems to be visiting gave up and moved out of the falls for the remainder of the day.  The Osprey, in the meantime, was able to slip away.

In recent weeks, the “home team” pair of Bald Eagles, seen regularly defending territory at Conewago Falls, has been hanging sticks and branched tree limbs on the cross members of the power line tower where they often perch.  They seem only to collect and display these would-be nest materials when the “visiting team” pair is perched in the nearby tower just several hundred yards away…an attempt to intimidate by homesteading.  It appears that with winter and breeding time approaching, territorial behavior is on the increase.

The second migrating Osprey of the day ran the gauntlet of marauding eagles without incident.

In the afternoon, a fresh breeze from the south sent ripples across the waters among the Pothole Rocks.  The updraft on the south face of the diabase ridge on the east shore was like a highway for some migrating hawks, falcons, and vultures.  Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vultures streamed off to the south headlong into the wind after leaving the ridge and crossing the river.  A male and female Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), ten Red-tailed Hawks, two Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), six Sharp-shinned Hawks, and two Merlins crossed the river and continued along the diabase ridge on the west shore, accessing a strong updraft along its slope to propel their journey further to the southwest.  Four high-flying Bald Eagles migrated through, each following the east river shore downstream and making little use of the ridge except to gain a little altitude while passing by.

(Top and Middle) Turkey Vultures riding the fresh breeze and teetering to-and-fro on up-tilted wings.  This wing posture is known as a dihedral.  (Bottom) More than 100 migrating Black Vultures climbed high on the afternoon breeze to make an oblique crossing of the river and maintain a southbound course.

Late in the afternoon, the local Bald Eagles were again airborne and cackling up a storm.  This time they intercepted an eagle coming down the ridge toward the river and immediately forced the bird to climb if it intended to pass.  It turned out to be the best sighting of the day, and these “home team” eagles found it first.  It was a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) in crisp juvenile plumage.  On its first southward voyage, it seemed to linger after climbing high enough for the Bald Eagles to loose concern, then finally selected the ridge route and crossed the river to head off to the southwest.

Ring-billed Gulls began feeding during the afternoon as clouds preceding stormy weather approached.
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