Regardless of the warm weather we have been enjoying, migratory birds will still head south on schedule. Raptor migration is underway and that means a trip to Hawk Cliff should be on your calendar. Driving to Hawk Cliff takes approximately 1h 30m from the Sarnia area. The site is located only a few kilometers from Port Stanley on the north shore of Lake Erie, and is a prime place to view raptors flying overhead.
There are several routes to get to Hawk Cliff, but we like to go through downtown Port Stanley and stop for a coffee or tea at a local coffee shop before heading out to the site. Be advised that Hawk Cliff is really nothing more than a rough gravel road that goes south from Dexter Line and dead-ends at the lake. This is not a conservation area or a park. Parking for hawk watchers is along the sides of the narrow road, although last year there was a small area in a cornfield provided for parking. On weekends the road can get a bit crowded. Bring a chair, and binoculars of course. There has been a porta-potty near the end of the road in previous years, but that is the extent of facilities. There is a farmer’s field along the east side that provides the best viewing for migrating raptors, but this is private property and should be treated with respect.
The actual cliff is fenced off for your safety. The drop is substantial and the edge of the bluff is sketchy due to it being undercut by erosion. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the edge, and especially keep an eye on children.
The raptors almost always travel from east to west, so knowledgeable birders keep their eyes trained to the east to spot birds coming in low over the tree tops. There are designated counters on site every day of migration whom maintain an official record of how many birds pass over. This information is accessible online and is updated daily. The “regulars” have a list of field markers to describe where the birds are appearing in the distance, and it might take a while to get the hang of what tree or geographical feature they are referring to when they call out. The raptors typically are flying quickly and they can be a challenge to photograph as they pass overhead. The best close-up photo opportunities are when the bird banders bring some hawks from their netting site a few kilometres away to show to visitors.
These avian demonstrations are usually held over two weekends and this year will be Saturday and Sunday, September 10 and 11, and September 17 and 18. Monarch butterfly and hawk talks are given at 11am and 2pm, on the same four days, and are brought to you by the St Thomas Field Naturalist Club. Some lucky children even get to hold the raptors and release them. These sessions are highly recommended.
The best opportunities to view large numbers of raptors are when the wind conditions are favorable. Winds from the north or northwest tend to push migrating birds towards the lake. The birds do not want to fly across the wide lake so they fly along the north shore on their way towards Detroit. Under those circumstances you should see the highest number of raptors flying over Hawk Cliff. If winds are from the south you won’t see many.
In addition, Thames Talbot Land Trust is inviting everyone to Hawk Cliff Weekends, featuring the dedication and official opening of Hawk Cliff Woods! The Hawk Cliff Weekends Celebration is a free outdoor event taking place on September 10th, 11th, 17th and 18th from 10am – 3:30pm, with the dedication and official opening taking place on September 18th at 12:30pm. The celebration is hosted by the St Thomas Field Naturalist Club (STFNC), the Hawk Cliff Banders, and volunteers of Monarch Watch. The Thames Talbot Property runs along the west side of Hawk Cliff Road.
We always find a visit to Hawk Cliff to be enjoyable. Hope to see you there!
*The photos were taken at Hawk Cliff in Septembers of 2014 and 2015.