Keep an eye out for the hawks coming into the keys — it’s time for their migration

Tom Sweets, executive director of the Key West Wildlife Center, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5 FM this morning to talk about what’s happening at the center.

Hawk migration is kicking into full strength right now.

Sweets said, “We’ve had many, many, many hawks and raptors have been through, large groups of hawks and vultures, a bunch of different raptors. We’re really getting to the height of the hawk migration. They are heading south for the winter. A lot of the ones that we see are first year, they were just born last spring, they’re on their first migration.”

The first trim can be tough and a number of hawks can end up on the ground week and dehydrated.

Sweets said, “Thankfully if we get to them in time and get them hydrated, they bounce back pretty quickly. A lot of these are not injured. They’re just weak and dehydrated from the long migration. Florida is sort of a choke point for all of the East Coast, the hawks all the way up into Canada, and even as far west as the Mississippi River, all the way up into Canada, that’s where their journeys are originating, and then they’re heading down into the East Coast corridor, down through Florida. Key West is really sort of the last gathering point before they have to make the most difficult part of the journey, which is the 90 nautical miles between Key West and Cuba. A lot of the first years don’t have the experience. They’re already tired and worn down by the time they get here and then they see that large expanse of water. They try to fuel up and get ready for it.”

Some of the hawks may opt to stay here.

Sweets said, “Most of them do make the journey. You will get some that find everything they need here. If they get set up in a situation where they have everything they need, they may not cross over there. A lot of the adults that have made the trip before, they will travel a little bit off shore just out over the water because the flying is a little easier, but the first years, they don’t really have that experience and they end up really closely following the land.”

If you see a hawk on the ground, it’s likely because they’re trying to hunt.

Sweets said, “The hawks will land with their catch, and they will eat it on the ground, and then they will spend some time on the ground before they’re going to get back up in the air. So seeing a hawk on the ground is not the strangest thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong, but we do get the ones that are dehydrated as well and they do need help. So if anybody has a question about a hawk that they see in their yard, or if it’s in the same yard in the same spot for more than 24 hours for a couple of days, that can usually mean that something is not right.”

If you have birds in a cage, it might be a good idea to cover them up or take them in because of the hawks coming through.

Sweets said, “They’re not going to take any large animals. I mean, I think some people think they might grab cats and dogs, but that’s not really the case at all, but they will go after small birds in cages. That’s one thing they sort of get obsessed about. They won’t be much longer that they will be coming through in such large numbers, but this is the height of the season.”

The chickens have a pretty good instinct to stay away from the hawks.

Sweets said, “So they’re going to be taking measures to protect themselves, even the little ones, that’s sort of ingrained into their minds. When hawks come around, they are going to seek shelter. A lot of them will take off because they’re most vulnerable on the ground and if they can get up higher than the hawk, then their chances of surviving that kind of attack are good. Birds will act differently when the birds of prey get into town because they know what that means.”

What are some of the other cases the center has seen lately?

Sweets said, “We’ve also had a lot of great blue herons, we’ve had quite a few of those recently. Again, some of those are first year birds, that don’t have a lot of experience. One day we had seven hawks in about three hours, a couple great blue herons. So really what ties all this together is that that first year of life for the wild bird, that’s a real struggle in tropics. If they can get through that first year, the chances of survival go way up. So we do see just based on where we are in Key West, we do get a lot of first year birds here. So we do see a lot of young juvenile first year birds as opposed to maybe some of other types of bird rescues in the country. We’re very unique in that we do see a lot of first years.”

After the hawks move through, the pelicans will show up.

Sweets said, “The pelicans really start showing up in numbers usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s when we get our large numbers. Most of the pelicans that we see are the brown headed pelicans that are first year. A lot of them are born up in the Carolina coast. We do have some born in Florida as well but they make their first trip down and they don’t go really past Key West. They stop here. So we get a lot of young first year pelicans and they will be showing up soon.”

Pelicans tend to fly in a V shape.

Sweets said, “They will have a leader and then the rest of the pelicans will follow. But hawks are sort of sneaky because what they will do is you’ll see big groups or kettles of turkey vultures, that birds on the ground don’t see turkey vultures as a threat because they only eat things that have already passed away. They don’t actively grab prey. So what the hawks do is they will hide up in the kettles of the turkey vultures. So if you look up at a large group of turkey vultures, you will see hawks and raptors dotted in those big formations. So hawks generally circle around up high and then they don’t really move together during migration. They’re sort of loners. The pelicans are definitely more social oriented and they will follow the leader there. The hawks are really sort of circling around up in the thermals, and looking down, and at some point, they will make that jump across the 90 nautical miles to Cuba and then on into Central and South America. But they do tend to stay here a little bit longer, because it is the biggest challenge of the migration.”

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