Broad-winged hawks and monarch butterflies are on the move

Broad-winged hawks and monarch butterflies are on the move
Bruce Glick

Eight adult broad-winged hawks at Erie Metropark on Sept. 16, 2019.


Each September perhaps a million or more medium-sized raptors called broad-winged hawks make the long journey from Canada and the United States to Southern Mexico, Central America and South America. For those of us who eagerly look forward to the hawk migration season, broadwings are the big draw, both in the spring and in the fall. We watch the weather forecasts, hoping for the perfect mix of wind, clouds and temperatures.

In the fall broadwings are coming out of Canada, heading south until they come to Lake Erie, which they want to avoid. If the wind is from the north, the hawks are pushed toward the big lake, finally working their way around the west end, crossing from Ontario into Michigan at the south side of Detroit. That’s where Erie Metropark is located, home of the Detroit River Hawk Watch, one of the best places in the country to see migrating raptors.

Broadwings are woodland hawks. They are perch hunters, eating small rodents, snakes, amphibians and even large insects. These hawks are solitary and secretive during the nesting season, although they form huge flocks during migration.

All broadwings in North America are of the same race, but there are five other races, all found on islands including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Antigua, Grenada and Trinidad/Tobago. They come in two color morphs, although the dark one is mainly seen in the western part of the range.

Each fall broad-winged hawks fly south, gathering in huge flocks as they head for Eastern Texas and then on to Veracruz, Mexico, where the mountain ranges funnel millions of raptors through a narrow opening along the coast.

Last week the weather forecast showed only one day with the possibility of light north winds for the Detroit area. The day was Sept. 16, a bit on the early side for peak broadwing migration, but Gary Keister and I decided to go for it. We arrived at Erie Metropark at 10 a.m. to find at least 20 other hawk-watchers already in place. Everyone was marveling at the thousands of monarch butterflies. Everywhere you looked there were monarchs. I have never seen anything like it. They were coming from Canada, passing overhead, just like migrant raptors.

There was a light north breeze, the sky was mostly cloudy, and only a few sharp-shinned hawks and two American kestrels had passed overhead. As we settled in to watch, two more sharpies appeared, quite low and easy to see as they flapped and glided on to the southwest. Mainly we were seeing butterflies.

For the next hour it was much the same, although we were entertained by an osprey diving into the water feet first, coming up with a large gold carp it could barely lift out of the water. To see this sequence, check the Facebook page for Detroit River Hawk Watch. We also watched several local bald eagles, lots of terns, and a few cormorants and gulls.

The first broadwings appeared about an hour later, and before long we were treated to “kettles” of 200, 350, 500, 700 or more. Because the wind was light, the huge flocks of birds moved by slower than usual, sometimes spending five minutes gradually soaring higher and higher before gliding on through. They also were not very high, giving us wonderful views, often directly overhead.

It was an amazing day with the final official broadwing total just under 35,000. Although there have been days with higher broadwing counts, this was one of the best in recent years. For my friend Gary, it was his first time at a hawk-watch site, and I’m afraid it will be hard to top this one.

For me it was another memorable day. The sight of hundreds of broadwings appearing in the distance and then soaring directly overhead will stay with me for a long time.

Good birding.

Email Bruce Glick at or call 330-317-7798.

Loading next article...

End of content

No more pages to load