Watching the fall migration

The fall migration is in full swing. Shorebirds and warblers started south in July, and in a few weeks, the hawks will join them. The most convenient place to see these birds is nearby Hammonasset Beach State Park.

I recently discovered a group of immature American redstarts flitting about the shrubs along Hammonasset’s Willard Trail. Then, on my way back from this trail, in the grassy area near the Nature Center parking lot, I met two birders who had just seen a long-billed dowitcher and a Wilson’s phalarope. And when I went for a walk along the beach, I witnessed two broad-winged hawks soaring far above me. I quickly realized, that in one brief visit, without traveling far or visiting multiple sites, I was able to experience the beginnings of the fall migration. I found three bird groups: warblers, shorebirds, and hawks, all heading south.

Although we usually associate hawk watching with mountain ridges and escarpments, coastal sites such as Hammonassett offer an opportunity to witness hawk migration, too. Watching hawks along the coast is more challenging, though, because it is the route that atypically marked juvenile hawks follow. Mature, experienced hawks are able to learn the migration routes that follow the mountain ridges. Juveniles can follow the coastline more easily and can work their way south without confusion.

I have learned and committed to memory the significant differences between wide-winged buteos and slender accipiters. Knowing some basic differences between the common hawks will help you with identification should you choose to go hawk watching.

Of the group known as the buteos, it is the broad-winged hawk that is most often talked about. This is the hawk that so many birders see from lofty peaks and precarious ridges during hawk migration. It is along these escarpments that the birds catch the rising air or thermals. Broad-winged hawks, like other hawks, hitch a lift from the thermals and soar for miles. Broad-winged hawks can be distinguished from other hawks by their short wings, fanned tails, and short, stocky bodies.

Red-tailed hawks often confuse birders who are expecting to see red tails. The red tail is not usually visible, and when seen, it is more likely to appear rufous. Much of the time, this hawk is identified by its dull-colored body and large size.

The red-shouldered hawk is noticed by its behavior, which is more hyperactive than that of the other buteos. During hawk watches, the red-shouldered hawk can be distinguished from others by the crescent patch on the end of its wing and rich brown coloring.

People ask me about three accipiters: two of them — the Cooper’s and the sharp-shinned — are nearly indistinguishable, unless you are aware of the minor differences between them. The Cooper’s, is a bit larger — about the size of a crow — and has a lanky look to its wings, which are longer than those of the sharp-shinned. The head of the Cooper’s is also larger, and the tail is rounded at the end. The sharp-shinned hawk is pigeon-sized and has a long, narrow tail and a small body.

The third accipiter seen during migration is the northern goshawk. The northern goshawk has a wide tail that is covered with contrasting heavy banding. It also has a great deal of streaking on the breast and a faster wing beat than the Cooper’s. Northern goshawks are significantly larger than sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.

This year, I am going to do my hawk watching at Hammonasset and leave the long drive to the mountains for somebody else. The experience may not be quite as dramatic, but the added thrill of migrating warblers and shorebirds will make up the difference.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester-based birder. You can email him questions at






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