Blue Ridge Parkway’s Mahogany Rock: Prime viewing for migration of hawks and other birds of prey

Each fall, thousands of hawks, eagles and other birds of prey migrate along the Blue Ridge Mountains journeying from Canada and the U.S. northeast to South America.  Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks and clearings provide prime viewing spots to observe the annual migration.  One of the most popular is Mahogany Rock Overlook, located near milepost 235 near Sparta, North Carolina.

Stop by Mahogany Rock most days from September to early November and you’ll find Jim Keighton and a band of volunteers sporting binoculars and counting the passing birds of prey. Keighton makes daily tallies of hawks, eagles, osprey, vultures, peregrine falcons and other raptors. He’s a volunteer for the nationwide “Hawk Count,” a project of the Hawk Migration Association of North America where Keighton and others post daily counts on www.hawkcount.org.

Mahogany Rock Blue Ridge Parkway Hawk Bird Prey Migration
Volunteers scan the skies for birds of prey from Mahogany Rock Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A retired school teacher, Keighton’s passion for teaching carries over to birds. When he sets up for a day of bird watching at Mahogany Rock, he transforms the exterior of his car into a bird of prey interpretive display to help visitors identify the birds and understand their migration. Keighton and his volunteer corps is happy to take a break from sky watching to educate Blue Ridge Parkway visitors about the migration occurring overhead.

It was overcast the day Wandering Rose Travels visited the site. First disappointed, we learned that is a good thing. Often little more than black dots to the naked eye, the birds stand out especially well on cloudy days. The migrating birds most often pass in singles or small groups, but occasionally watchers see flocks of more than 100 clustered in “kettles” as the birds circle in updrafts to save energy for the flight to South America.

Hawk Watch North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway
Bird counts are logged and reported to a national database.

Best time for viewing bird of prey migration on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Keighton says that the best time for seeing hawks, weather permitting, is 10 a.m.-1 p.m. If your timing is right, you could see hundreds of hawks and other raptors using updrafts against the mountains gliding from thermal to thermal to save energy.

We had great fun and learned a lot the couple of hours we hung out with Keighton and three volunteers assisting that day. It’s great to find people with such a passion and commitment to nature and the outdoors. In addition to birds, the volunteers count migrating monarch butterflies. That was a fun task that we amateurs could easily do since our bird identification skills are shaky.