If you’d like to see some of Canada’s majestic birds of prey in the wild, choosing diurnal, or day-hunting, species is a good place to start.
You can always search your local parks and reserves from April to July to look for a pair of eagles, hawks, or falcons nesting high in a mature tree. Many raptors are now breeding in our cities, too. Check out the skyscrapers in downtown Montreal or other large Canadian cities for an excellent chance of spotting Peregrine Falcons raising young. Mature coniferous trees in green spaces may bear old crow nests that have been adopted by Merlins, a smaller version of the Peregrine Falcon, which feed on House Sparrows.
Residents of the west coast are particularly blessed with excellent raptor-watching opportunities. If you drive along the highways leading into Victoria, BC, it’s not difficult to see one of the many Cooper’s Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks now inhabiting that city and hunting from the lamp posts.
Bald Eagles can now be seen all over the place on both coasts, but particularly in the land surrounding the city of Vancouver. During the annual fall salmon run, the Chehalis River Flats near the Harrison River in BC is home to the largest gathering of Bald Eagles in the world, sometimes numbering around 7,000 birds all at once! If you want variety, a rich area, boasting more than ten species of birds of prey, is the farmlands stretching from the Tsawwassen Ferry Port to Delta, BC, especially in the vicinity of the Boundary Bay Regional Park.
However, if you want to see a large number of a wide variety of hawks, falcons, and eagles in Canada all in a day’s outing (weather permitting), you’ll have to think about going out to special places in one of two periods in the year—the fall migration running from September through early November and the spring migration occurring from early March to late May. Based upon my experience, the fall season will generally prove to be more rewarding.
Keep in mind that local weather conditions can affect what you might see in any given day during migration. In the fall, a strong wind coming from the northwest generally produces lots of migrating raptors, and in the spring, winds from the southeast have the same effect. Depending on factors such as the food supply in the far north or the success of a breeding season, some years can produce great numbers of any given species, and others not as much.
According to the informative book Raptor Watch: A Global Directory of Raptor Migration Sites compiled by Jorje Zalles and Keith Bildstein, Canada is home to 17 raptor watch sites. Most if not all of these sites occur along four major migration flyways— Pacific, Western Mountain, Prairie, and Eastern.
Here is a listing of some of the best places to see large concentrations of migrating raptors across Canada (see corresponding map here):
Becher Bay Headlands (1), a coastal-plain watch site near the southern tip of Vancouver Island about 25 km west of Victoria, BC, hosts as many as 13 raptor species, and 2,000 to 3,000 birds pass by there from September to early October.
Windy Point (2), located about 20 km southwest of Calgary in Sheep Valley Provincial Park, offers a mountaintop watch site where roughly 2,000 raptors comprising 13 different species can be seen in the fall. Canmore (3), also in Alberta about 105 km west of Calgary, is special in that it is best place to view up to 500 Golden Eagles, a species often rare to see, in just one October weekend!
Heading eastward, St. Adolphe (4), about 10 km south of Winnipeg, MB, is a river valley watch site offering sightings of 3,800 raptors comprising 16 different species in March and April.
In Ontario, the three most productive raptor watch sites are the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (5) 40 km south of Windsor in Amherstburg, the Beamer Conservation Area (6) in Grimsby 20 km west of Niagara Falls, and the aptly named Hawk Cliff (7) 10 km south of St. Thomas. All three are lakeside watch sites that concentrate large numbers of migrating hawks, falcons, and eagles comprising 15 different species, but what makes Holiday Beach different from the other two fall congregations is that it is primarily a spring watch site. If you’d like to combine raptor-watching with other bird watching, you can’t go wrong with a fall or spring visit to Point Pelee National Park (8) where lots of raptors congregate to hunt other migrating birds.
In Quebec, the two best places for sighting raptors in the fall are the lands in and around the Morgan Arboretum (9), which is part of the Macdonald Campus of McGill University at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, and the Tadoussac Bird Observatory (10) located in the Parc du Saguenay Provincial Park about 4 km northeast of Tadoussac. Each fall, the former watch site offers close to 5,000 raptors comprising 15 species, while the latter has only 12 species but as many as 18,000 raptors passing by! As for spring watch sites, Quebec has one notable spring lookout called Eagle Crossing (11), 50 km southwest of Montreal, which gets an average of 2,000 raptors of 15 species.
Note that there are not really any decent watch sites in Canada’s Maritimes, if only because many of these hawks, falcons, and eagles from that region northward fly down the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and over the watch sites described above in Quebec and Ontario.
It’s not possible to provide detailed tips on how to identify these birds within the space of this article. It often takes year of practise to become proficient at it, and even the experts get them wrong sometimes! However, at the hawk watch sites described above, there are often experts on hand to count the birds who are usually all too happy to shout out the names and even ages of the raptors flying overhead and to help with identifying characteristics. A good field guide also helps.
You’ll need only two items to enjoy watching raptors—a pair of binoculars and a list of the usual suspects (a field guide) to identify them.
Binoculars are a personal choice. The top brands are Swarovski, Zeiss, Leica, and Bausch & Lomb, but keep in mind they are not light on the pocketbook! To get started, I recommend less expensive makes such as Eagle Optics, Vortex, and Nikon. I personally prefer using 8X40s for bird-watching in general, but birders specializing in raptor watching usually like 10X50s to bring those faraway raptors in close. If you really get into hawk-watching, having a telescope mounted on a decent tripod is beneficial. I prefer a 20-60X zoom with an angled eyepiece.
There are a number of useful general bird identification guide books, including those by Roger Tory Peterson, David Sibley, Kenn Kaufmann, and the National Geographic Society. If you want a handy field guide to cover the bird species in just Canada alone that includes the raptors, DK Canada’s recently published Pocket Birds of Canada fits nicely in the back pocket of your jeans. Once you become more adept at identifying raptors and want more information, there are a number of excellent books that specialize in raptors, including Hawks by William Clark and the Crossley Field Guide for Raptors by Richard Crossley.
A final tip: Take care to protect yourself from the sun by wearing proper headgear, sunscreen, and even sunglasses. A lawn chair, a tasty lunch, and a thermos of hot coffee or chocolate can also make hawk-watching even more enjoyable during those afternoon lulls!
David M. Bird is Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Biology and former Director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre at McGill University. As a past president of the Society of Canadian Ornithologists, a director with Bird Studies Canada, and a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, he has received several awards for his conservation and education efforts. Dr. Bird is a regular columnist for both Bird Watcher’s Digest and Canadian Wildlife and is the author of several books and over 200 scientific publications. He is the consultant editor for DK’s Birds of Canada, Birds of Eastern Canada, Birds of Western Canada, and Pocket Birds of Canada. Visit his website at askprofessorbird.com.
Image credits: Cooper’s Hawk: Tom Grey, Peregrine falcon: Dorling Kindersley: Frank Greenaway / The National Birds of Prey Centre, Gloucestershire, Bald eagle: Dorling Kindersley: Pail Whitfield / Rough Guides, Golden eagle: Getty Images: Digital Zoo / Digital Vision