Hawk Watch

Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch 2023

September 20th – September 30th

For more than 35 years, members of Audubon Society of Forsyth County have been observing the fall migration of Broad-winged Hawks and other raptors from Little Pinnacle at Pilot Mountain State Park in Surry County. A few Broad-winged Hawks (or broadwings) breed locally but most nest in the forests of Ontario, Quebec and the northeastern United States. Each fall, they ride the thermals and mountain updrafts along the Appalachian ridges on their way to their winter grounds in Central and northern South America.

At Pilot Mountain, observers can see these birds and about a dozen other raptor species on their journey south. Sometimes, the birds pass by in small kettles or groups of 5, 10, 30 or so. Occasionally, the kettles include 100s or even 1000s of birds. Typically, 2000 – 5000 hawks fly by the mountain each fall. However, on one day in 1993 nearly 11,000 broadwings sailed by. In 2006, observers counted a single kettle of nearly 1800 birds.

History of the Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch

Toby Gordon has been watching the hawk migration from Little Pinnacle at Pilot Mountain State Park for 20 years. He recount how, on October 4, 1973, Ramona Snavely and members of Forsyth Audubon made a field trip to Pilot Mountain State Park. Pilot Mountain had just opened in 1968 as North Carolina’s fourteenth state park, so perhaps the group was checking to see what migrants might be present. While at the Little Pinnacle Overlook, the group saw something unexpected: a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks drifting southwest over the mountain.

According to Toby, Ramona recognized the importance of the sighting and returned in following years to study the raptor migration. She wrote papers about the site, collected hawk migration data and joined with Janice Levitt in arguing for the protection of the park’s Big Pinnacle due to the presence of nesting Common Ravens (see Hawk Migration Resources, below). Since that day in 1973 many people have shared their time and talent to support Pilot Mountain’s hawk watch, but Ramona Snavely started it all.

Pilot Mountain Raptors

Pilot Mountain State Park is one of about 200 sites that submit data to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, an “organization committed to the conservation of raptors through scientific study, enjoyment and appreciation of raptor migration”. As Toby says, “the presence of migrating raptors at the park is interesting since the site is more than 20 miles south of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is unclear why southbound raptors would deviate from their path along the Appalachians, and yet they do.” During the ten years from 1991 through 2000, the average count was about 4500 migrants with about 110 hours of observations. Of these, 95% were Broad-winged Hawks, followed by Sharp-shinned Hawks (1%), Osprey (0.7%) and Cooper’s Hawks (0.5%).

Thirteen species of raptors are seen regularly at Pilot Mountain. In addition to the four previously mentioned, they include: Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, American Kestrel, Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture. Most migrating raptors are seen between mid-September and mid-October, with the peak of the Broad-winged Hawk migration usually occurring between September 20 and September 30. Look for clear cool days with winds out of the north. Visitors to the Little Pinnacle Overlook may also see resident Common Ravens as well as a variety of passerines – notably warblers and perhaps an occasional Red-headed Woodpecker.

Do you have difficulty telling one raptor from another. Click here for a Raptor Chart that describes field marks and behaviors. Print it out and bring it to the mountain. We also have some Hawk Watch Guidelines with tips on how to find and observe the raptors while you are there.

Other Nearby Hawk Watch Sites

Mahogany Rock – Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 235. Jim Keighton and other members of Blue Ridge Birders have been watching hawks for several years at this site just above Roaring Gap, NC. Contact: Jim Keighton, brbirders@skybest.com.

Lenoir, NC – Next to Parkway Bank on Wilkesboro Blvd. Contact: Sonny Hines, 828-302-3666, shine@nelsonlubricants.com. This is a new site, beginning in Fall 2008.

Harvey’s Knob – Roanoke, Virginia, Blue Ridge Parkway between Mileposts 94 and 95. Contact: bijame@gmail.com.

Hawk Migration Resources

Guidelines for Hawk Watch at Pilot Mountain by Toby Gordon

The Influence of Weather Conditions on Hawk Migration at Pilot Mountain State Park, N.C., 1982, Ramona R. Snavely Observation data for Pilot Mountain and other Hawk Watch sites: http://www.hawkcount.org

General and species-specific information about hawk migration in North America: http://www.hmana.org

Hawk migration learning resources and Raptor ID Quiz: http://www.hawkmountain.org