Fall Raptor Migration: What You Need to Know (with video)

Northern Harrier ( ) Photo taken by Donna L. Long
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) Photo taken by Donna L. Long

Autumn and Spring are raptor migration seasons. Here is a resource guide to fact sheets, websites, field guides, and hawk watch locations. The video does an excellent job of explaining raptor migration.


When Raptors Migrate

Birds of Prey, raptors begin their annual fall migration south in late August. Birds of prey migration begins in the northern hemisphere when days grow short and the weather grows colder. Birds of Prey Facts: What Makes a Raptor, a Raptor?

Food becomes less abundant. The usual food sources (songbirds) migrate, burrow underground or hibernate (small rodents). Raptors leave for places where small birds, reptiles and small mammals are active and easily found.

Raptors will migrate a few hundred miles or several thousand each way to better food sources. Some raptors travel to different parts of North America and others to Central and South America.

The songbirds are flying south for the winter. The songbirds, being wise to the ways of raptors, migrate in huge flocks at night, using the stars as their guides. They rest and feed during the day.

The raptors, being wise to the ways of songbirds, migrate during the day. They search for songbird meals along the way.

A Video About Raptor Migration

Here is a video that explains the ins and outs of raptor migration.


Where to Watch Fall Raptor Migration

They travel along using the same flyways and navigation methods as other birds. Hawk migration routes often follow isthmuses, peninsulas, and mountain ridges.

Raptors are birds that soar. That is one of the most noticeable things about them. It is that effortless soaring that mesmerizes us as we gaze at them in the sky.

Flapping your wings all the way to South America is hard work. Raptors like to ride along on air currents and columns of warm air.

Raptors soar by “catching thermals” like surfers catch a wave.

Thermals are columns of warm air that rise over sun-heated surfaces such as parking lots, agricultural fields, and rocky areas that reflect heat. The birds float on the rising columns of heat. When one thermal dissipates, the bird glides to another and continue on over long distances.

Raptors are unable to fly over water for long-distances. Because water doesn’t conduct heat into thermals as landforms do.

By soaring and gliding, raptors expend little energy.

There are many places in North America to see hawk migration. They return north in the spring. When northern food sources are awake and running or flying around. then there is more food to feed hungry nestlings. Watching Birds of Prey


Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).

Raptor Migration Paths

Hawk Mountain’s Raptorpedia: Migration Paths 

Hawk Watch International: Raptor Migration 

Hawk Migration Association of North America’s
Raptor Migration Database
: Find a Raptor Watching Site 

HawkCount.org: Daily Migration Statistics


Places to watch raptor migration in the Philadelphia area

How to Identify Migrating Raptors

Birds of Prey Checklist for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey

Hawk International: Raptor ID Fact Sheets (webpage)

Hawk Mountian’s Raptorpedia: How to Identify Hawks  (webpage)

Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America by Peter Dunne

A Field Guide to Hawks of North America, 2nd Edition (Peterson Field Guides)

The book links are affiliate links to Amazon.com. 


This post was originally published, October 5, 2011, and has been updated and expanded.



  1. Here in the Pacific northwest the most visible migrants are turkey vultures and osprey. We usually see osprey heading south, sometimes far from water, singly in late September and early October, while turkey vultures come together in huge ‘kettles’ that roost together, then rise on thermals before coasting southwards together.

    It’s really interesting to watch!

    • Thanks, Sonja

      Here is an interesting tidbit – Birds that depend on thermals to travel can’t travel over water, because there are no thermals over water. That is why you see the Ospreys far inland.

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