Mountaintop Hawk Watch

Sep 30, 2021

The hawk watchers use binoculars to spot birds along the ridge line.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

Each fall, the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch assembles at the top of Afton Mountain to collect data on migrating birds of prey that pass overhead. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[Sound of wind on the top of the mountain]

Charlottesville's David Hunter has been coming to the top of the mountain to spot hawks for more than 20 years.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

HAWK WATCHER: One broad-wing and one coop! Both high up there.

A rotating group of hawk watchers gathers nearly every day through the fall at the old, abandoned Inn at Afton Mountain. With binoculars pointed up to the sky and out over the horizon, they scan for the dark silhouettes of hawks, eagles, and falcons headed south for the winter. Their vantage point provides a panoramic view of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont foothills to the east. David Hunter, who lives south of Charlottesville, has been coming up here for more than 20 years.

DAVID HUNTER: To see the passage of the season in the migration of the hawks, up here on such a grand scale -- we almost never get to actually see something like that out in nature. And standing up here on the mountain, you can literally watch them come over, heading south every year, year after year, in droves, and it's like watching the earth move. The living earth, coming over everything. It's phenomenal! And of course the view here in either direction beats any day at any office! [laughs]

A distant osprey is recognizable by its unique silhouette.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

This is one of the nearly 200 raptor monitoring sites across the continent that report their daily counts to the Hawk Migration Association of North America. The group looks out for trends in bird populations and movement patterns.

HUNTER: Imagine that each one of the birds we see up here is, in breeding season, has a square mile kingdom sometimes, right? And you're seeing a thousand, or yesterday they had 7,000 hawks all in a single day. How many kings of how many kingdoms came by all at once?! It's astonishing when you think about it on that level.

The hawk watch members also count monarch butterflies that migrate through the gap.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

Hunter noted that, because the birds they observe are so far away, it takes time for your eyes to learn how to discern the distinct silhouettes of each species. The hawk watchers use binoculars to scan for the raptors, and if needed, follow up with spotting scopes with a magnification of 20 to 60 times the naked eye to identify the birds.

Gabriel Mapel first started honing these skills in 2010, when he was just 11 years old. He's now stationed in California with the National Park Service, but spent some time on Afton Mountain last week while on a trip back home to New Hope.

Now stationed in California with the National Park Service, Gabriel Mapel spent some time on Afton Mountain in September while on a trip back home to New Hope.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

GABRIEL MAPEL: We have this wide, expansive view here. It's not quite a 360, but almost … the birds do tend to follow the ridgelines because it's windy along the ridge and they utilize that to gain height and aid in their migration.

There are 13 species of raptors the group regularly observes. The most common are broad-winged hawks -- their record is 11,000 in a single day. The broad-wings, and most of the species they count, appear to be doing well.

MAPEL: I can speak for broad-winged hawks specifically because it's the 24th of September, so we're near the end of their migration season … we've had almost 29,000 total broad-wings so far this season. As I said our season averages around 20 or 21,000, and our season all-time record for one season is 32,000, so we're well above average, approaching a record.

Spotting scopes can magnify the view 20 to 60 times what the naked eye sees.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

He said you really need to look at population trends over a decade or longer to see how a species is faring.

MAPEL: The American Kestrel, which is one of our small falcons, they're decreasing in number. We've seen a steady decline. We don't know exactly why. … They're not endangered or anything. That's just, it is a species we've seen decline slowly over the last 10, 20, 30 years, so that's something that the scientists want to know, and then they can figure out conservation efforts from there. That's why what we do is so important.

Besides the significance of collecting this ecological data, David Hunter just appreciates the majesty of the animals they're scoping out.

Certified counters and other birdwatchers gather at the abandoned Inn at Afton on the top of Afton Mountain.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

HUNTER: It's really beautiful up here. And if you're here when the hawks are running, it can be a spectacular sight. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of moments when you get a huge kettle of hawks up in the sun, gleaming, circling around each other like a moving funnel.

The migration season lasts through the end of November. For more information about the group and stopping by to see the birds for yourself, check out