As I scanned the early August skies above Quiver Lake, an Illinois River backwater, my mind was on migrating shorebirds. The river level was still high, but falling; so it would be at least a few days before mudflats would form and provide suitable shorebird stopover habitat. A few ring-billed gulls soared above nearby Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge holding my attention, just as a steadily flying double-crested cormorant came into view over the distant tree line. At that instant, in my mind’s eye, I was abruptly transported back to the late 1980s.
At that time, I had only recently discovered a popular activity known as “hawkwatching,” which involves placing oneself at a strategic location where migrating raptors tend to pass over, all the while scanning the skies over and over for hours, in order to count every raptor within sight. A gathering of like-minded folks at such a location engaged in watching and counting hawks is what constitutes the phenomenon known as a “hawkwatch,” although it is certainly possible to watch hawks alone.
My first hawkwatch experience was at the Blackwell Forest Preserve in DuPage County, Illinois, on top of an old landfill, called Mt. Hoy, that was converted to a park. The landfill, covered with mowed grass with numerous vents that allow for escaping gases from the breakdown of garbage, is the highest elevation for miles around in the otherwise rather flat terrain of northeastern Illinois. Fall migrating raptors from the north tend to be guided by the north-south oriented shoreline of Lake Michigan. So Mt. Hoy, only about 30 miles west of the lake, is a good place to intercept the migration before the birds move further south and disperse into the vast Midwestern interior.
At the top of Mt. Hoy with gas vent.
Sitting on top of Mt. Hoy, staring into the clouds for hours at a time, almost seemed like the act of flying itself. Sometimes I would lose the sense of being on the ground and see nothing but sky. After finding a high-flying raptor, I would keep the bird in sight as long as possible, watching it fly into and out of billowy clouds, soaring ever higher, until settling upon a purposeful glide, sometimes directly overhead, and then continuing southward out of sight. If there were other hawkwatchers, they would continually be calling out sightings of different raptors: “Red-tailed hawk!” “Cooper’s hawk; I’ve got a Cooper’s hawk just over the tree line at 45 degrees.” “Adult bald eagle!” With many eyes and binoculars focused on the sky, it is doubtful that any raptor could pass overhead without being noticed.
Some of the hawkwatchers are competitive; they wish to be the first to sight a bird and the first to proclaim a positive identification. When the less experienced attempt to join in the competition, the result can sometimes be a humiliation, which is what happened years ago when I misidentified a double-crested cormorant for a migrating hawk. “Raptor in the west,” I proudly announced. “No, it’s a cormorant,” someone quickly and authoritatively corrected. One soon learns to defer to the more experienced hawkwatchers; challenging an identification is not a smart move for a novice. Sometimes the more experienced of the novices will engage in a debate, for example, discussing the finer points of differentiating between a red-tailed hawk and a red-shouldered hawk. I recall one instance when the red-tail advocate was shouting at one individual he must have deemed his subordinate: “Look at the belly band! Look at the belly band!” Red-tailed hawks have a dark, mottled pattern across their otherwise light-colored underside; seeing the belly band pretty much clinches the identification.
The social interactions and debates can be amusing, and listening is a great way to learn hawk identification. But my preference is for a lonely, remote hillside near my home at Sand Ridge State Forest, along the Illinois River valley. Few visit this site, except the occasional botanist looking for the unique plants that occur there. The river presents somewhat of a leading line for hawks to follow, but it is not like Lake Michigan. At Sand Ridge, I’ve never seen more than a trickle of raptors even on days when, according to my understanding, the birds should be moving. At Mt. Hoy, much greater numbers of raptors over the course of a day are not uncommon. Counts closer to the lakeshore, such as Illinois Beach State Park, are even better.
It has been years since I have attended an official hawkwatch. In my part of central Illinois, far from a large urban area with an energetic birding community, few seem excited by such an activity. Even so, I’ll try to visit my favorite hillside perch at Sand Ridge Forest at least a few times during both spring and fall migrations. This year, the first osprey of August along Quiver Lake has already signaled the beginning of the fall hawk migration. And soon, when weather conditions are right, large numbers of broad-winged hawks will be soaring overhead. Though I sometimes wonder what is happening at Mt. Hoy, for the time being I’m content with a good memory. And I will never again mistake a cormorant for a hawk.