WAYNESBORO — Lots of people like to travel along the mountains in the fall. Hawks are no different.
Those hawks, eagles and other raptors, however, aren’t looking for pretty fall leaves. They are winging south on a beautiful and dangerous migration to their winter homes.
“Falcon!” cried out Gabriel Mapel, 15, of Augusta County.
On Afton Mountain, Mapel had just spotted the sleek, pointy-winged figure of an American kestrel. It’s a type of falcon similar to that famed feathered jet the peregrine falcon, but smaller and more common.
Mapel and others were participating in the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch, where every fall since 1976 people have spotted and counted birds of prey as they migrate along the Blue Ridge Mountains
The watchers gather behind the Inn at Afton, a motel between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, about 20 miles west of Charlottesville. Visitors are welcome.
One of the coolest things Mapel saw this brisk, late-September day was a merlin — yet another type of falcon — dive-bomb a sharp-shinned hawk.
“I think it was basically saying, ‘Get out of my space. I’m a merlin,’” Mapel said.
The group would see nearly 900 birds by day’s end. The watchers spotted 35,121 birds in 2010, a single-season record. They saw 11,783 broad-winged hawks on Sept. 16, 1986, a record for one species in a day.
They call it a “hawk watch,” but they are looking and counting all raptors, or birds of prey. The counted birds include bald eagles, vultures, various hawks, falcons, ospreys and northern harriers.
The watch officially lasts from mid-August to late November. Some raptors, such as golden eagles, migrate into December.
Every day at the hawk watch can be an adventure, said Brenda Tekin of Stuarts Draft, who helps to coordinate the effort.
“These birds have wings, and you never know when they’re going to show up and what’s going to show up,” Tekin said.
That adventure is far more challenging from the hawks’ perspective.
Migrating is dangerous, and raptors sometimes end up injured and spending time at the nearby Wildlife Center of Virginia, a wild-animal hospital.
The center gets about 30 to 50 raptors a month from September through November. That’s not a huge increase over other months, but the injuries are different, said Dave McRuer, director of veterinary medicine. Food gets scarce in fall, and the birds look harder for things to eat, often colliding with objects, such as cars and limbs.
At the center this same day, the staff treated a red-tailed hawk that apparently got hit by a car in Shenandoah County, a bald eagle from King George County with a shoulder problem and another bald eagle that probably ate something toxic in Accomack County.
The hawk had to be euthanized. The center’s experts said the eagles probably would recover and be released.
These birds could have been migrating, although there is no way to know for sure.
Not all raptors follow ridges. Indeed, someone with binoculars and patience can sit in an open area in Richmond and watch migrating hawks in fall.
But the Blue Ridge Mountains are a hawk superhighway. Wind that hits the hills rises and provides lift that allows the birds to soar without expending a lot of energy.
“Without even moving their wings, they can just move miles that way,” said Bryan Watts, a bird expert with Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William & Mary.
There are nearly 200 hawk watches in the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to the Hawk Migration Association of North America.
Hawk watches help scientists monitor how raptors are moving and faring. That information may become increasingly important, Watts said, as birds face challenges from climate change.
The watches — and those charismatic birds — also get people interested in conservation, Watts said.
People, especially in the mountains, can witness a wonder of nature if they take time to look up during fall, said Ed Clark, president of the wildlife center.
“These birds are coming over in a pipeline, and tens of thousands of people are right under them,” Clark said. “They are right under one of the most prolific passages of migratory birds that exist.”