The fall raptor migration is upon us

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It’s the last week of September, and here in northern California’s Bay Area, the fall raptor migration is peaking, as far as sheer numbers go. We still have a lot of variety to go (we’re waiting for some of the more northern birds to make their way down from Alaska and Canada), but the daily totals we have in our sky right now are hard to beat. The Rough-legged hawks haven’t showed yet, and the Ferruginous Hawks have just started to pass through.

Red-shouldered Hawk banded on its migration through the Marin Headlands

Many people around San Francisco don’t realize it, but just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the only spots on the West Coast where you can see a noticeable hawk migration. An abundant food supply (small birds, rodents, snakes, etc.), and inviting updrafts created by coastal hills bring hawks, falcons, kites and eagles into the area on their southern journey. They are stopped by the Pacific Ocean (they don’t like to fly over water- no updrafts, so it is too much work and too little food), and are turned south. They are spread out, but begin to be funneled together by San Francisco Bay (if you look on a map, Marin County is almost becomes funnel shaped as it approaches the Golden Gate, with the Pacific on one side and the Bay on the other). And so you get numbers. Sometimes more than a thousand a day.

Red-tailed Hawk flying through the grassy hills of Marin

It makes it an ideal place for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, a largely volunteer raptor studying group that is led by a small group of dedicated raptor biologists. They spend the season counting the different raptors that migrate through (here are their daily hawk watch totals). Throughout the migration season they stand atop Hawk Hill in a loose circle, with a different team monitoring each of the cardinal points. They stand there in the elements gathering data to further our understanding of raptors. A very brief article I wrote for a travel website on how to find your way to Hawk Hill has been syndicated in Salon’s recent article on fall migrations.

While the migration will continue strongly for a few more weeks, its peak will conclude around the end of September. During the average migration we see 19 different species of raptor. I hope you can make it out there to enjoy some of the activity.In the meantime, enjoy the slideshow of raptor photographs at the top of this post. I can let all of you guess each of the species, or I can caption each image with what each bird is. Let me know what people prefer.

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
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9 Responses to The fall raptor migration is upon us

  1. samirclark says:

    Very very cool shots!

  2. Chris Knowles says:

    This series will be really fun to follow. I’d prefer that you tag each one as I only know a few by sight.

  3. Mattie Ivy says:

    I’m with Chris. Definitely identify the birds.

  4. john granatir says:

    great pix. I’ve never seen the black band on the tail so pronounced in a light adult red tail (3rd image below slide show)

  5. john granatir says:

    oops – I see now that was a Kestresl

  6. john granatir says:

    I meant Kestrel. Hawks are hard to ID, they have so many different phases

    • They do indeed. Kestrels have a few different plumages, the males and females looking very distinct from each other, and they also have some slight differences between when they are adult birds and just fledging from the nest.

      The amount of red on the tail of a male kestrel can be pretty surprising (on a female it is horizontally striped for the entire length). It’s not uncommon to mistake them for a Red-tail on that basis

  7. Vicki says:

    Great group of shots. I especially love the close up of the red shouldered hawk, something most of us don’t get to see. I agree, identify for those of us that don’t know and please talk a bit about the subltlties that help identify the different hawks/genders/ages, etc., that would be really helpful.
    Thanks Galen

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