Eyes in the sky: Annual Hawk Watch coming to Grandfather Mountain

Published 9:33 am Friday, August 18, 2023

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Grandfather Mountain, the not-for-profit nature park run by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, will host its annual Hawk Watch throughout September, included with park admission. Visitors can witness firsthand a stunning aerial spectacle – the migration of thousands of raptors heading over the mountains and south toward their wintering grounds.

Guests are invited to join the mountain’s naturalists as they count and celebrate the number of passersby in the sky.

Participants can observe the migration from viewing locations on Linville Peak (across the Mile High Swinging Bridge) and Half Moon Overlook (the first major overlook when entering the park).

Raptors are birds of prey, such as hawks, eagles, owls and vultures. The telltale signs of the raptor are sharp talons, a hooked upper bill and keen eyesight. While some raptors remain in place during winter, most will travel south, where food is more abundant.

Because it sits along the eastern escarpment of the Appalachian Mountains, and its rocky peaks generate strong thermal uplifts and allow excellent visibility, Grandfather Mountain is a prime viewing spot for this phenomenon.

Perhaps the most dramatic visual display comes courtesy of the broad-winged hawk, which migrates in groups of hundreds or thousands, called kettles. Those sightings are most common around the second or third week of September.

During 2015’s Hawk Watch, Grandfather Mountain President and Executive Director Jesse Pope spotted a kettle of some 4,800 broad-wings passing over in less than 30 minutes, along with numerous other kettles of considerable size, amounting to nearly 10,000 raptors in one day.

Grandfather Mountain is one of more than 300 Hawk Watch sites officially designated by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.

Beyond nature putting on quite a show, Hawk Watch serves a vital purpose. The annual tallies amassed from Grandfather Mountain and other locations are crucial in tracking hawk populations and migration routes over time. This data proves instrumental in making informed land management decisions. Between both volunteer and staff time, more than 900 hours were invested in Hawk Watch at Grandfather in September of 2022.

Counts will be conducted every day the weather permits – the hawks don’t typically fly in fog or storms – from an area inaccessible to the general public and will be posted daily at HawkCount.org.

Furthermore, Grandfather Mountain is welcoming volunteers to aid in the official count. Volunteers must attend a mandatory orientation session on the second floor of the Top Shop on Aug. 25 at 1 p.m. to participate. Registration is required. Those interested should contact hawkwatch@grandfather.com.

“We are thrilled to offer an experience that is as much a captivating sight as it is a significant research effort,” said John Caveny, director of conservation and education for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “It is such a special event because it gives our guests the opportunity to share in an experience of natural wonder with our staff and volunteers.”

Along with the migration, September is a very transformative month and a time when Grandfather sees a number of seasonal changes, where the mountain goes from the flora and fauna of summer to those of autumn.

To learn more about Hawk Watch at Grandfather Mountain, visit www.grandfather.com/hawk-watch.

The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, visit www.grandfather.com.