They're back! Those continent-crossing, current-catching birds of prey have returned to the Upstate this fall, crossing the 12,000-acre Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area as they make their annual migration from their summer grounds to the warmer climates of Central and South America.
To conserve energy for their long trip south, the hawks take the Appalachian Flyway where they can catch thermal winds that send them skyward without having to flap their wings. The Blue Ridge Escarpment in Caesars Head State Park is the only place in the South Carolina mountains with the natural characteristics to create the updrafts.
"If they run into a rising column of air, they'll make a tight circle to stay in the column and conserve energy," explained Caesars Head Interpretive Ranger Tim Lee, who led a Hawk Watch program last weekend from the park's 3,266-foot overlook. "The process of circling is called kettling."
During the 90-minute program, experienced birders spotted several "kettles" of broad-winged hawks in the escarpment. The most prevalent species migrating through the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, the broad-winged hawk is easily identified by the white and black bands on its broad, fanned tail.
Volunteers participating in the annual hawk count also spotted a peregrine falcon that looked no bigger than a mosquito with the naked eye.
"How in the world can you tell it's a peregrine falcon?" a visitor asked.
Lee directed the birding newbie to the Hawk Watch booklet he had handed out at the beginning of the program. Inside were silhouettes and markings of a variety of raptors, including kestrels, osprey, sharp-shinned hawks and peregrine falcons.
"The peregrine's tail and wings are long and narrow," Lee said. "They're built for speed. Falcons can fly more than 200 miles per hour."
Sure enough. We saw one casually cruising through the sky and then suddenly tuck in its wings and nose-dive into the escarpment like a rocket.
"It's 11:15 a.m.," Lee said. "Must be feeding time."
Caesars Head State Park has been an official North American Hawk Migration Site since 1988. At the peak of the Sept. 1-to-Dec. 1-counting period, it's possible to see as many as 6,000 hawks in one day. The best time to catch the aerial show is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
You can also keep track of the daily bird count at www.hawkcount.org.