Friday, September 30, 2016

Hawk Watch at Caesars Head

You’ll find members of the Greenville County Bird Club “Wing Nuts” at the Caesars Head State Park overlook this time of year, volunteers participating in the count of migrating hawks. The Hawk Watch starts in early September and runs through November, during which time the hawks are on their way to Central and South America on their migration route. The geography of the Blue Ridge Escarpment provides ideal air currents and thermals for the migrating birds of prey, and the 3,266 ft Caesars Head overlook affords a dramatic view of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area and the thousands of migrating raptors.

We had planned a day to meet some friends up on Caesars Head for a morning of birdwatching, with hopes of learning some of the general characteristics that distinguish hawks from eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. For weeks the Upstate had seen clear, blue skies with no rain, so it was to some dismay that we awoke to a forecast of thunderstorms. Upon our arrival a thick fog rolled in, and although the kids were thrilled to be up in the clouds, visibility dropped to less than 50 feet. In hopes that the fog would soon burn off, we started at the picnic tables with this printout from Clemson University that shows the silhouettes and coloring of some of the birds most often seen during Hawk Watch. Armed with more extensive bird identification books (such as my go-to Peterson’s Field Guide), we colored in our booklets and discussed wing formations before heading on a short hike down to the viewing platform that looks at Caesars Head in profile.

The fog was still steadily blowing in and only Caesar’s nose was visible, and so we didn't spend much time there and instead climbed up through the Devil’s Kitchen to the overlook. Members of the Wing Nuts were in already in place despite the foggy conditions, and as we waited for a break in the weather we queried them on this year’s Watch.

According to our newfound (and very patient!) friend Mr. Brady, the previous week’s tally included a Peregrine Falcon and a dozen Bald Eagles. On a good day in September, hundreds even thousands of raptors might be seen passing through, but it was obvious that we would not be seeing much of anything on our visit. We learned that it is not unusual to see 200 to 300 hawks at one time soaring or circling in a thermal overhead which is known as “kettling” or a “kettle ” of hawks. We also discovered that the highest single day count to date was over 5,200 birds. Suddenly there was a break in the crowds, and two large birds soared directly overhead and into the fog.

It was just a brief glance, but the guess was Turkey Vultures, a more common (but no less exciting to watch!) sight for us here in the Upstate. We saw almost a dozen of these large birds during the 2 hours we were watching, as well as two of the local Ravens. The majority of the fall count consists of Broad-winged Hawks (in 2001 more than 10,000 were seen from the overlook during fall migration), but other species documented include Ospreys, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Merlins, American Kestrels, Mississippi Kites and Black Vultures. The fog did lift near the end of our vigil, and just as we were leaving Mr. Brady was studying a bird in the distance with his binoculars – a Bald Eagle. (Note, the day’s tally includes 14 Broad-winged Hawks that passed by later in the day, just before the thunderstorms…)

On our way back down the winding road that descends the edge of the Escarpment we stopped at Bald Rock Heritage Preserve for a different perspective on the Upstate. The first leaves are turning in the Foothills, and I’m looking forward to returning every couple of weeks to see the progression into winter; our Hawk Watch experience and the foggy morning on Caesars Head was a great kick-off to my favorite season in South Carolina.

For more information on Hawk Watch, visit the Greenville County Bird Club website.
For the current year’s tally and archive results since 2007 visit the HawkCount website.
For the Clemson Caesars Head Hawk Watch brochure click here.
...and here are my previous posts on Caesars Head and Bald Rock.

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