A Ringside Seat to an Ancient Ritual

Peregrin falcons have been known to migrate long distances, from the Arctic Circle to Argentina. Photo: National Park Service

OCRACOKE — “Raptor over pole four, just above the wires!”

Four sets of binoculars swerved to find the tiny dot, moving southward.

“It’s approaching pole three, closer to the water now. Looks like a kestrel.”

Perched on the top of a dune, four people — two men and two women — sat in canvas chairs with binoculars pressed to their eyes. Their rapt gazes were focused on the distant specks which they identified as raptors — birds of prey. When someone called out an approaching raptor, all binoculars turned to watch it.

Gil Randell, a silver-haired man, was usually the one to identify the birds. Based on its size and the erratic pattern of its flight, he knew the one approaching was an American kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America. The identification was confirmed when the bird flew nearer, satisfying Randell’s wife, Jann, who then recorded the sighting in a notebook.

The few people on the beach took little notice. With the busy summer season over, most of the crowds have left Ocracoke Island. There were still, however, a few groups of people walking along the ocean beach, searching the sand for sea shells, gazing across the ocean, perhaps watching the graceful squadrons of brown pelicans as they glided in formation above the waves. All seemed to be enjoying the beautiful early fall morning, but few, if any, were aware of the great autumnal event taking place behind them.

Barely visible to the naked eye, great rafts of birds were following an ancient route, flying above the waters of Pamlico Sound, to their wintering grounds to the south.

Counting hawks in New Jersey can involve fiddles, banjos and bluegrass.

Few, however escaped notice by the hawk-eyed Randells. Residents of Mayville, N.Y, they are avid hawk watchers in their home state. Each spring they participate in the Ripley Hawk Watch on the south shore of Lake Erie, and Gil is on the board of the Hawk Migration Association of North America. They own a house on Ocracoke and come down during the fall migration season, spending several hours each day sitting on this dune with their binoculars and notebooks.

They began watching and recording their sightings on Sept. 12 this year, missing only a few days due to weather. Their biggest day was Oct. 4, when they recorded 122 peregrine falcon sightings. By late October, they had identified 11 species of raptors, some 700 birds.

Peter Vankevich, who retired from the Library of Congress and now lives on Ocracoke, was also peering from binoculars. He helped start in 1981 the Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count, which is part of an annual national effort to have citizen scientists help monitor bird populations. He has not missed a year since and in 1988 expanded it to include nearby Portsmouth Island.

I was the fourth member of the group. An avid bird lover, I had little experience in identifying raptors in flight. The day proved to be an incredible learning experience. The Randells pointed out nine species of migrating raptors that day, including three kinds of falcons (four peregrines, 14 kestrels and three merlins), two species of accipiters (two Cooper’s and three sharp-shinned hawks), three harriers, two ospreys, seven turkey vultures and a bald eagle.

Bird watchers are perched on a sand dune on Ocracoke scanning the skies for migrating raptors. Photo: Pat Garber

They explained that unlike songbirds, raptors generally migrate during the day, when they can take advantage of air currents known as thermals. Buzzards in particular like to ride the thermals, but falcons are the least reliant on them. Some scientists say they have seen peregrines migrating at night, when there are no thermals. Turkey vultures, according to Gil, are the only ones that seem to move during ferocious winds, at which time they fly very low to the ground.

By definition, migration is the movement of animals from breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds, and from areas of low or decreasing resources to ones of high or increasing resources.

This usually means traveling south in the fall to areas of warmer temperatures where there is better feeding, and north in the spring when warming temperatures lead to burgeoning new food sources. Whales, sea turtles, fish, antelope and even certain butterflies undertake amazing journeys, as well as many species of birds.

While not all birds migrate, most songbirds, shorebirds and raptors in North America do. Some move short distances, from lake to lake or up or down a mountain, while others are partial migrants, crossing one or several states. Even within species that are long-distance migrants, a few individuals may stay all winter, and some move because of unusual weather or to find food resources.

Bird migration has puzzled naturalists for centuries. Early European naturalists speculated that when swallows vanished from their summer breeding grounds, they buried down into the mud like frogs. Some even thought that migrating birds flew to the moon. Modern science has provided many answers, but there are still many unsolved questions. How do the birds know when to leave? It is believed that they are triggered in part by changes in daylight and a decline in food. Escaping the cold may be a factor, but many birds, including hummingbirds, can survive freezing temperatures. There may well be a genetic predisposition to migrate, but there is enough variation from year to year and from flock to flock to indicate that the birds make some of the decisions themselves.

It is the long distance migrations that pose the biggest puzzle to scientists. Peregrine falcons have been known to migrate from the Arctic Circle to Argentina, and in 2008 one osprey flew from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to French Guinea in South America, a trip of 2,700 miles, in 13 days. First year birds migrate to winter homes they’ve never seen, often unattended by adults, and fly back in the spring. Raptors, which generally mate for life, often separate during migration but reunite at the spring breeding grounds. How do they find each other? How do they know where to go and how to get there? Theories include following the stars, using magnetic fields, an internal compass, a genetic code, even smell.

Cooper’s hawks were among the more than 700 migrating raptors that bird watchers counted on Ocracoke recently. Photo: Audubon

All migratory birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Act of 1917, which makes it illegal to capture them or kill them without a license. As changing climate and habitat threaten the survival of many species, scientists use a number of methods to study their movements, including banding, radio transmitters, satellite telemetry and radioisotope analysis of feathers.

Hawk watch organizations also help to understand migration patterns by monitoring population increases and decreases. There are currently no registered organizations in eastern North Carolina, the nearest being Kiptopeke Hawk Watch, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and the South Carolina Coastal Migration Survey just north of  Charleston. A hawk watch began operating on Hatteras Island in the 1980s, but it was last active in 2007. So now, to quote Jann, what happens between Virginia and South Carolina is “uncharted territory.”

While our main goal was to watch raptors, we were also pleased to observe a number of palm warblers and a scattering of monarch butterflies embarking on their own, equally fantastic, journeys south. We were disturbed, however, when someone called Peter to report a grounded peregrine falcon near the north end of the island. The bird was taken to a wildlife rehabilitator, and it was later learned that its body weight was extremely low. The bird could not be saved.

The death toll during migration is high. Birds migrating over water may hit bad weather or winds that sweep them far out to sea, where they eventually drown. Some hit cell phone towers, high buildings or industrial wind turbines. Others weaken and starve along the way, as was probably the case with this peregrine falcon.

Indeed, the miracle is that any of these birds can and do survive these annual epic journeys, fraught with danger, providing for the continued survival of their species. Watching them, as we did, was a privilege to be treasured.

About the Author

Pat Garber

Naturalist Pat Garber washed up on Ocracoke Island in 1984. She immersed herself in the island’s natural environment and later wrote a series of award-winning columns based on her experiences for the "Island Breeze." She later published the columns as a collection of essays, called "Ocracoke Wild." Garber’s stories are gleaned from her experiences as an environmental anthropologist, wildlife rehabilitator, teacher, kayak guide and volunteer at the Hatteras National Seashore.