As the days become shorter and summer slowly winds down, bird migration begins. Raptor migration is getting underway now and stretches right into December, with peak numbers being observed in mid September. One of the best places to view large quantities of migrating raptors is at Hawk Cliff in Port Stanley, Ontario. Hawk Cliff Hawkwatch begins September 1st and runs until November 30th. During this time, daily counts of each species of raptor are recorded. As part of Hawkwatch, there are two Hawk Cliff weekends in mid September with ground displays featuring live birds, information sessions, and hawk banding. For more on Hawk Cliff Hawkwatch, including directions to the cliff, click here.
Mid September is the best time to go if you wish to see the most hawks. September 16, 2013 saw over forty six thousand hawks counted, while on September 15, 2012 over twenty thousand hawks were counted. I was there on that day in 2012, and let me tell you, it was a sight to see. The sky was filled with hawks, falcons and eagles, as far as the eye could see. Some, like the Sharp-shinned Hawks and Northern Harriers pass by low overhead, while buteos like Broad-winged Hawks can be seen circling high overhead in large flocks, also known as kettles. Large kettles of Broad-winged Hawks can be made up of thousands of birds. It is these large kettles that lead to daily counts being so high.
Hawk Cliff is located at the end of Hawk Cliff Road overlooking Lake Erie. Parking is permitted at the sides of the road and this area gets quite busy especially during peak migration times. Carpooling is a good idea as I have heard complaints in the past about parking and accessibility at these times. Don’t let the crowds keep you from experiencing this incredible event. Crowds are much lighter during week days, so keep this in mind. You do not need to be right at the cliff to observe the migrating hawks. Great views of the birds are had along many of the county roads to the east and west of Port Stanley or from within the town itself. In fact, many species like Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Northern Harriers pass by inland of the cliff itself.
Songbirds and butterflies also migrate through this area as they too follow the north shore of Lake Erie. Warblers, swallows, and vireos are among the many bird species that are observed. Before their decline, hundreds of Monarch Butterflies could be seen migrating through.
Weather plays an important role in raptor migration. Wind, cloud cover and rain all factor in. Birds follow the shoreline looking for a the shortest distance to cross over. This typically occurs at the western basin of Lake Erie. Many hawks use northwest winds to push them towards the shoreline of the lake. They then lower their altitude to avoid being pushed out over the lake, making for excellent views. Falcons, Eagles, and Osprey tend to prefer a southwest wind as they use the lift created by the wind hitting the cliff to push them along. Migration slows on rainy, foggy days as most birds wait for more navigable conditions. If planning a trip, pay close attention to the weather. Look for a northwest wind following a couple days of rain to produce the best flight.
For me, no trip to Port Stanley is complete without a visit to the sewage lagoons. Located on the cliff west of town, great views of raptors can be seen soaring over the open fields. Two large observation towers overlook four lagoons, a great place to observe migrating shorebirds. Yellowlegs, sandpipers, and Great Egrets can all be seen. Many waterfowl species also stop over to rest and feed on the lagoons. As is the case near Hawk Cliff, Eastern Bluebirds are present in this area. Keeping an eye on the wire fences and power lines overhead often produces good views. To access the lagoons, turn west on Warren Street from Colborne Street (Highway 4). Go straight up the hill at the four way stop. Here it turns into Lake Line. From Lake Line turn right onto Scotch Line and follow the curve in the road. The first observation tower will be visible on your left.
If you are looking for a great place to do some late summer and fall birding, then check out the Port Stanley Lagoons and Hawk Cliff. Given the right weather conditions, you could be in for some of your highest day counts ever.