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Where to Go Hawkwatching: An Introduction and Directions to Fall Hawk Watch Sites in Massachusetts*

by Paul M. Roberts

Where should you go hawkwatching? Massachusetts birders are fortunate in having many excellent sites from which to chose. Three of the state’s premier hawkwatching sites are discussed in some detail below. Go to any of these three locations in September, on a weekend in October and early November, or on a weekday with a nice cold front, and you are likely to find another hawkwatcher or two. Additional pairs of eyes are quite valuable, and their experience may be helpful in identification. Wachusett Mountain averaged over 12,000 hawks a season over 24 years, and that total represents primarily September counts, as later coverage is sporadic. With better coverage in October and early November, the average would likely be much higher. Mount Watatic has averaged 7700 hawks a season over fourteen years and 11,400 over the past five years. (Watatic numbers basically reflect more extensive coverage in the second half of the season.) Mount Tom averages around 2500 hawks with only several days’ coverage a year, primarily during Broadwing season. No doubt many more hawks would be seen at either site with additional coverage.

You need not go to a major site to see a good flight, however, especially in September. Massachusetts has many excellent but lesser known and infrequently covered hawkwatch sites, several of which are briefly described below.

Be Prepared

When you go hawkwatching, take clothing more than adequate to keep you warm. It can turn quite cold on windy, exposed hawkwatch sites. Also take adequate food and drink. If the hawks are flying, you won’t want to leave the site in pursuit of physical sustenance. It's also advisable to take binoculars, a spotting scope, a compass, a notebook, and one or more friends with you. The more eyes the better. The compass will help you find the site and evaluate the view as well as determine flight directions. The notebook is for recording the numbers you count, the time you see each bird or kettle, and what you observe about the hawks, including questions you have about the birds you can’t identify. Using your binoculars and scope, you should regularly scan the sky in all directions, including directly overhead and behind you. It's amazing how many hawks can pass by unnoticed, only to be seen flying away from you! Finally, you should take several field guides with you, so you can look up those questionable birds.

With time, patience, good judgment, and a bit of luck, you can discover the unique rewards of hawkwatching.


Massachusetts Spring Hawkwatch Sites

Barre Falls Dam, Barre, MA

Barre Falls’ hawk watching potential was recognized in the late 1980’s by Bart Kamp. Regular Spring migration coverage began in 2000, and daily Fall coverage began in 2001. At about 1,000 feet, this spot affords a 180-degree view over the Ware River Valley. The site is accessible to observers as soon as spring migration begins in March and until fall migration concludes in mid-November.

From 2008 through 2012, Barre Falls has averaged 275 hours of Fall observation, with an average total of 7,100 raptors tallied each year. Mid-season hawk watching is very productive; over the same five years, the average count for October has been 1,550 raptors.

Directions: From the Greater Boston area, take Route 2 west to Route 68 south. Follow Route 68 south to Route 62 west (9.2 miles). Turn right, and follow Route 62 west (2.2 miles). The entrance to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Barre Falls Dam property is on the left. Follow Barre Road /Coldbrook Road south to the parking lot 0.5 mile on the left. Restrooms and a shaded picnic area are located across the Dam (continue 0.6 mile on Coldbrook Road).

Site Coordinators: Bart Kamp bartdk@charter.net Donna Schilling dschilling15@verizon.net and Dave Grant 508-852-3243.

Favorable wind direction for migration:

Most favorable: Southwest

Favorable: West or Northwest

Least Favorable: Northeast

Pilgrim Heights, Truro

The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, in partnership with Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch and with permission from the Cape Cod National Seashore, conducts a hawk watch at Pilgrim Heights in Truro.

The hawk watch officially runs from April through May, during the peak migration.

Directions: Pilgrim Heights is located within the Cape Cod National Seashore in North Truro on the east side of Route 6, just north of the Truro and Provincetown town line. Park in the first parking lot and take the Small's Swamp Trail to the second overlook.

For more information, please contact Melissa Lowe at 508-349-2615 or mlowe@wellfleetbay.org.

Site Coordinator: Don Manchester

Favorable wind direction for migration:

Most favorable: Southwest

Least favorable: East, Northeast

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Plum Island, Newburyport

Directions: From Interstate 95 take exit 57 for Route 113 ( Newburyport). Travel east on Rte 113 (which becomes Route 1A in Newbury) for a distance of 3.5 miles to the intersection with Rolfe’s Lane (there is a traffic light at this intersection) Take a left onto Rolfe’s Lane and follow to the end of the road which terminates at a stop sign. Take a right at the stop sign. This is the Plum Island Turnpike / Water Street, the only access to Plum Island. Follow the Plum Island Turnpike until you go over the Sgt. Donald Wilkerson Bridge. After you have crossed the Bridge, take your first right. This road will lead you directly to the entrance to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

The watch is conducted from the first parking lot (Parking Lot #1) on your left after you enter the refuge. Observers will be there (unless there is inclement weather) on most weekend days, and some weekdays as well, during the months of April and May.

For more information and/or to be placed on the Plum Island hawkwatch mailing list, please email the site coordinator, Ted Mara - tsloon@verizon.net

Favorable wind direction for migration:

Most favorable: Strong Northwest winds

Favorable: Any wind with a Westerly component

Least favorable: East, or anything with an Easterly component


 Major Massachusetts Fall Hawkwatch Sites 

Mount Tom State Reservation, Easthampton, MA

Mount Watatic, Ashburnham, MA

Wachusett Mountain State Park, Princeton, MA

Other Massachusetts Fall Hawkwatch Sites

Barre Falls Dam, Barre Falls

Downtown, Newburyport

Page School, Route 113, West Newbury

Buck Hill (Blue Hills Reservation)

Pinnacle Rock

Wachusett Mountain State Park, Princeton, MA

The best-known site in Massachusetts is Wachusett Mountain (2004 feet), a monadnock offering excellent views in all directions. The primary advantages of Wachusett are its proximity to many eastern Massachusetts birders – it is only an hour west of Boston – and that you can drive to the summit (the road opens at 9 a.m. Memorial Day through the last Sunday in October). The summit also accommodates people more comfortably than can Mount Tom, which can be both an asset and a liability on weekends when foliage is at peak. If you prefer to hike, there are a number of beautiful trails to the summit. When the road is closed, the Pine Hill Trail is the shortest, quickest, and of course steepest route to the summit, requiring about twenty minutes.

In fall, the best observation site is from the northeast edge of the summit parking lot, scanning the sky from Gardner in the northwest to Boston in the east and Worcester to the south/southeast. A second lookout only several dozen yards away, just to the right of the fire tower, provides a good view to the west and northwest.

Another good site is the Oxbow, located just a relatively short walk (quarter mile) from the Visitor Center on the "down road" only a few hundred feet from its merger with the "up road." When winds are strong, thermals are often blown apart, encouraging hawks to tend to rely more on orographic lift, created by wind deflecting off surfaces like mountain slopes or ridges. Also, some species, such as sharpshins, tend to be ridge fliers, using orographic lift to help them migrate and often to hunt in the process. Even under prime thermal conditions in September, with Broad-winged Hawks kettling by hundreds or thousands, a number of sharpshins, kestrels, and other hawks may skirt the summit. (Hawkwatching from Little Wachusett, to the south of Wachusett, long ago revealed that at times a number of hawks don’t go over the summit, or past the Oxbow.) Late in the season, when you’re looking for birds such as Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks that don’t migrate as far as Broad-winged Hawks, the Oxbow may offer excellent views of hawks that might not be seen from the summit.

Steve Olson Co-Coordinator: kandsolson@gmail.com

Rod Chase Co-Coordinator: rodchase@rocketmail.com

Favorable wind direction for migration:

Most favorable: Northeast

Favorable: Northwest, West

Least: South, anything with a Southerly component

Directions: Take Route 2 to Route 140 (south) in Westminster. Take Route 140 south several miles to Wachusett Lake, where you turn right onto Mile Hill Road, following the signs to the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area. Drive past the ski area to the reservation entrance partially up the mountain on your right. Restrooms and water are available in the Visitor Center to your left. Immediately inside the reservation, turn right again onto the all-weather road to the summit. Don’t have an extra large coffee on your way to the hawkwatch. There are no facilities on the summit. The drive to the restrooms is about three miles roundtrip. You can pretty well guarantee that when you drive to the restrooms, the flight or the bird of the day will occur.

Mount Watatic, Ashburnham, MA

Mount Watatic (1832 ft) has emerged as one of New England’s top hawkwatching sites, due to the efforts of Tom McCullough and, more recently, Petti Staub. The bad news is that a moderately long, steep hike is required to reach the site. The good news is that means there is no auto congestion and relatively few people at the watch on any one day. Fall hawkwatching is best done from East Watatic, the bare knob to the southeast of the summit. Watatic, the southern terminus of the twenty-mile-long Wapack range or ridge, is an excellent site for observing thermal and ridge fliers.

Tom Pirro Co-Coordinator: Tpirro2010@gmail.com

Brian Rusnica Co-Coordinator: 14hawks8owls@gmail.com

Favorable wind direction for migration:

Most favorable: North, Northeast, as long as the Northeast wind is not associated with a storm system

Favorable: anything with a Northerly component

Least favorable: South, anything with a Southerly component

Directions: From Boston, take Route 2 west to Route 31, then 31 north to Route 12. Follow Route 12 to Ashburnham, turn right onto Route 101, and take it to Route 119. Turn left onto Route 119. Continue 1.5 miles west on 119 to an off-road parking area and an old logging road on your right. The Wapack trail, well marked with signs and yellow blazes along its 1.1 mile, approximately 45 minute route to the summit starts .2 miles from the parking lot and is the most direct route from this lot. East Watatic is quite exposed to strong winds; pack adequate clothing and beverage. Water and restrooms are not available on the mountain.

Mount Tom State Reservation, Easthampton, MA

The first major hawkwatch site identified in New England (1936), Mount Tom , at 1202 feet, offers beautiful views of the Connecticut River Valley. In the fall, Goat’s Peak Tower is the best observation point. It is essential to use the tower, and that is one of the drawbacks to Mount Tom. On weekends, when a good flight is anticipated, the tower can be crowded. On such occasions some hawkwatchers will migrate to Skinner State Park, across the Connecticut River from Mount Tom, to hawkwatch.

Directions: Take Interstate 91 north from Interstate 90. Take Exit 17W onto Route 141, continuing 1.7 miles to the reservation entrance, Christopher Clark Road, to the east. Take Clark Road 2.9 miles. Not far beyond the park headquarters, you’ll see a large parking lot to your right. Park here, and walk up the surfaced road that climbs the hill at the rear of the lot. A fairly steep ten-minute hike will take you to Goat’s Peak Tower. Restrooms are available at the park headquarters.

Other Massachusetts Fall Hawkwatch Sites

Barre Falls Dam, Barre, MA

Barre Falls’ hawk watching potential was recognized in the late 1980’s by Bart Kamp. Regular Spring migration coverage began in 2000, and daily Fall coverage began in 2001. At about 1,000 feet, this spot affords a 180-degree view over the Ware River Valley. The site is accessible to observers as soon as spring migration begins in March and until fall migration concludes in mid-November.

From 2008 through 2012, Barre Falls has averaged 275 hours of Fall observation, with an average total of 7,100 raptors tallied each year. Mid-season hawk watching is very productive; over the same five years, the average count for October has been 1,550 raptors.

Directions: From the Greater Boston area, take Route 2 west to Route 68 south. Follow Route 68 south to Route 62 west (9.2 miles). Turn right, and follow Route 62 west (2.2 miles). The entrance to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Barre Falls Dam property is on the left. Follow Barre Road /Coldbrook Road south to the parking lot 0.5 mile on the left. Restrooms and a shaded picnic area are located across the Dam (continue 0.6 mile on Coldbrook Road).

Site Coordinators: Bart Kamp bartdk@charter.net Donna Schilling dschilling15@verizon.net and Dave Grant 508-852-3243.

Favorable wind direction for migration:

Most favorable: Northwest, on the 1st day after a cold front

Favorable: North or West

Least favorable: South

Downtown, Newburyport

Downtown Newburyport between Cashman Park and the public parking lot east of the Route 1 bridge, offers excellent opportunities. Some observers, like Jim Barton, have had good numbers of Osprey coming from coastal New Hampshire and turning westward up the Merrimack here. On October 3, 1998, Rick Heil observed a flight of 250 hawks, including an amazing 71 Ospreys, 57 Northern Harriers, 5 Merlins, and 13 Peregrine Falcons (Fall 1998 EMHW Report). The assumption is that hawks migrating close to the coast follow the southwest-oriented curve of the New Hampshire coast and continue southwest through Newburyport rather than swing southeast toward Plum Island.

Page School, Route 113, West Newbury

The Page School appears to be most productive on the day of or following strong northwest winds. As many as 5000 hawks have been seen here in a single day. Take Route 113 west from Interstate 95 in West Newbury. Cross the Artichoke Reservoir (Garden Street on left). In about .8 mile after Garden Street, the entrance to the Page School will be on your right. Drive left around to the back of the school building. On weekdays, when school is in session, please stop at the school office to request permission to hawkwatch.

Buck Hill (Blue Hills Reservation)

Buck Hill offers a 360 degree unobstructed panoramic view of the Blue Hills and surrounding
environs including the Boston Harbor & Islands and the hills to the West and North West
including Wachuset and all those between and as far as Mt. Monadnock 75 miles away on a clear day. This is a good fall location for hawk watching and is relatively quiet with the occasional hiker passing through.
Directions: Route 128 / 93 to Exit 5B (Route 28 North, Milton, MA) Follow Route 28 North approximately 7/10 mile
Buck Hill parking area is on the left.
You will see a break between the guard rail, a trail map kiosk and a granite Buck Hill marker at the head of the trail to the summit. Follow the blue dot (Skyline Trail) to the summit.

Although this is a short hike it is rocky and somewhat steep in a few areas so wear appropriate footwear Information provided by Mike McWade

*A revision of an article originally published by Bird Observer, Vol. 29, No. 4, 2001, pp. 268-279. Printed with permission

Pinnacle Rock, Malden, Massachusetts

Southeast corner of Middlesex Fells Reservation, Malden, Massachusetts

Finding Pinnacle Rock seems to present a problem. Although there is a map of the site on Hawkcount.org. that will get you in the right vicinity, the trail signs for the Rock are not very helpful and may indeed lead you astray. There are two entrance gates that can be used to find Pinnacle Rock – Gate 52 and Gate 56

To get to gate 52 first find the first parking lot on Fellsway East [in Malden], just north of East Border Road. The map at the parking lot will indicate the Rock; it's in the extreme southeast corner of the Fells Reservation. Cross the road and head south toward East Border Road. Shortly on your left will be gate 52. Follow the Rock Circuit Trail (white blazes). It will lead you right onto the Rock. When you get there, the only hill to the south will be an old metal tower with a radio antennae/ airport beacons? [Some of them were round disks, but as of this writing only one remains].

To get to gate 56, park on Woodland right off East Border Road. The gate will be directly opposite Woodland on East Border Road. [On the map this is labeled Pinnacle Rock Path]. Walk up the path to the crest of the hill. The radio tower will be on your right. Crest the hill and go down the other side. On your right you will see the Rock. At the bottom of the hill on your right you will see a fallen tree trunk lying in the trunks of another tree. Head up this hill and you will see a path to the top of the Rock. [It is possible to walk to this entrance from the Orange Line (Oak Grove Station), although it is a bit of a hike].

Site Coordinator: Craig Jackson jalecr49@gmail.com

Favorable wind direction for migration:

Most favorable: Northwest, North Northwest, the stronger, the better

Favorable: West, Southwest, again, needs to be strong

Least favorable: East, Southeast

Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch, 2016
To contact EMHW, email
scarey@avfx.com
EMHW, PO Box 663, Newburyport, MA 01950
updated 09/01/2016