Know the Migrating Birds Above Your Trail

Guest writer: Dwayne Smith

Even if you don’t consider yourself a birder (or even a bird watcher), the fact that you are a hiker means you spend an above-average amount of time in the great outdoors.  At certain times of the year, especially along the Appalachian Trail (AT), you can get an in-depth look at the birding world.  International Hawk Migration Week (IHMW) is one of those times.

IHMW, which will take place September 17-25, 2016, is a great time to see some of our most magnificent birds; and not just a few at a time.  On September 16th, 2016, watchers at Snicker’s Gap, VA cataloged 16 Osprey, 9 Sharp-shinned Hawks, a Cooper’s Hawk, and – brace yourself – 4,747 Broad-winged Hawks!  That’s right – all those birds in just a single day!*  The record count for a total season (September – December 2011) is 40,759.  But why Snicker’s Gap?  What’s so special about that location in Virginia? It’s the Appalachian Trail!  Well, sort of…  You pass through Snicker’s Gap because that’s where the trail is, and hawks are there for the same reason.  You’re interested in the foot path, but they are all about the updrafts.

Raptors may migrate from Canada to as far south as Texas, Central America or even South America.  With their broad wings, they are well-suited for gliding, and take advantage of thermal currents rising from the mountains to sustain lift with minimal effort.

Image courtesy of Francesco Veronesi from Italy (Broad-winged Hawk - Cuba_S4E9781-Modifica) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Francesco Veronesi from Italy (Broad-winged Hawk - Cuba_S4E9781-Modifica) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Soaring high overhead, raptors such as this Broad-winged Hawk may cover as many as 4,500 miles in nine weeks.  You can understand their need to conserve as much energy as possible.  After all, as you rest your weary feet at the end of a long day, wouldn’t you have preferred gliding?

Snicker’s Gap is located at the Loudoun/Clarke County line in Northern Virginia, less than a mile from the Bears Den Hostel.  The AT trail head off of VA Routes 7 and 601 VA is a great parking place to start a hike or to join the Hawk Watch.  For more information, start with the Snickers Gap page of Virtual Birder.

*Count data courtesy of the American Birding Association. See this online resource for information on other dates and locations.

About the Author

Dwayne Smith grew up in a hunting, fishing and hiking family. As an adult, most of his shooting is done with a camera, and he primarily hunts for the next entry in his birding life list with a pair of binoculars and his trusty field identification guide.

Dwayne and his wife in the great outdoors.