Outer Banks Birding: Fall Raptor Migration

While on your fall Outer Banks vacation, grab your binoculars, field guide, and camera and then head to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore to witness the spectacular arrival of migrating raptors. Every fall, hundreds of thousands of hawks, falcons, eagles, and ospreys, which originate from summer breeding areas as far north as the Arctic, fly to their wintering habitat. Some of their destinations are as far away as southern South America.

Most raptors are soaring birds that depend on updrafts to help them travel. With model efficiency, they ride updrafts and thermals where they lock their wings and rarely need to flap them. Upon reaching enormous heights, they dive at an angle covering great lateral distances where they catch another updraft and repeat the process. These maneuvers enable them to conserve their body fat and travel long distances in just a few weeks.

Because they are reluctant to cross large bodies of water where there are no updrafts, kettles of migrating species follow well-defined land routes and shorelines as they navigate toward their southern homes. For this reason, certain geographical locations become concentration areas where these birds of prey gather prior to crossing a narrow stretch of water. These locations, such as the Outer Banks, are excellent places to observe migrating species.

Here are some species that you might encounter on the Outer Banks, plus information about their hunting and eating habits that will help you decide where you can best spot them.


These birds of prey of the Accipitridae family are slender with short, broad, and rounded wings and a long tail that aids their stealth flight and quick turns as they pursue other birds on the wing. They use their long legs and long, sharp talons to kill their prey, and use their sharp, hooked bill for feeding. These hawks often ambush their prey, mainly small birds, and capture it after a short chase.

Accipiters that visit the Outer Banks include the following:

Sharp-shinned Hawks: These raptors surprise and capture all their prey from cover or while flying swiftly through dense vegetation. The majority of this hawk’s diet includes small birds, especially songbirds.
Cooper’s Hawks (pictured): Some raptors, such as the Cooper’s Hawk, remain in North America and hunt birds in backyards or any place where people set up feeders.


Falcons have long, tapered wings and tails. These agile, high-speed divers prey on other birds and small animals.

Peregrine Falcons (duck hawks, pictured): Peregrines have been clocked diving or stooping at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, which makes them the fastest-moving animals on Earth. These falcons feed primarily on birds that they capture in the air such as ducks, pheasants, and pigeons.
American Kestrels (sparrow hawks): This small falcon hunts by hovering or perching and scanning the ground for prey. Its diet consists mainly of insects, reptiles, small mammals, and other birds.
Merlins (pigeon hawks): Merlins hunt larger birds than themselves such as sandpipers and flickers; insects including dragonflies and moths; small mammals, especially bats and voles; and reptiles.


Harriers characteristically hunt by flying low over open ground, feeding on small mammals, reptiles, or birds.

Northern Harriers (marsh hawks): This bird’s preferred diet includes voles, rats, and ground squirrels.


Black Vultures: These vultures are scavengers who feed on carrion, but they will also eat eggs and kill newborn animals.
Turkey Vultures (pictured): The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger also and its diet is nearly all carrion. It finds its food using its sharp eye sight and smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by decaying animals.


Ospreys: The Osprey, the only species in the Pandion group, is a fish-eating bird of prey that hunts during daylight. The Osprey’s talons are adapted for capturing and carrying fish. The talon surface is course and their toes can be positioned with three forward and one back, or with two forward and two back, an arrangement used by owls but not by other diurnal raptors.


Buteo is a genus of medium to large, wide-ranging raptors that have a stout body and broad wings. These are the soaring hawks that most people recognize.

All Buteo species are somewhat opportunistic when it comes to hunting as they will prey on almost any type of small animal. However, most have a strong preference for small mammals and mostly rodents.

Buteos that you can see on the Outer Banks include the following:

Red-tailed Hawks: The Red-tailed Hawk is carnivorous and an opportunistic feeder. Its diet is mainly small mammals, but it also eats birds and reptiles. Their prey varies with regional and seasonal availability but rodents can be up to 85% of a Red-tailed Hawk’s diet.
Red-shouldered Hawks (pictured): Red-shouldered Hawks are permanent residents throughout most of their range; however, northern birds do migrate, mostly to central Mexico. Red-shouldered Hawks hunt small mammals, particularly voles, gophers, mice, moles, and chipmunks. They are also known for hunting rabbits and tree squirrels and attacking birds as large as pigeons.


Golden Eagles: Golden Eagles use their agility and speed combined with powerful feet and huge, sharp talons to catch a variety of prey such as hares, rabbits, marmots, and ground squirrels.
Bald Eagles (pictured): The Bald Eagle is an opportunistic carnivore. Fish makes up about 56% of their diet, depending on their range, and they also feed on birds and mammals. It is common to see them scavenging their meals.
Birders from all over the United States visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore to enjoy the fall migration of these awe-inspiring birds of prey. On your fall Outer Banks vacation, take your family to one of the lookouts along the seashore where you can watch the raptors hunting in the thickets and over the waters.

Are you looking for the perfect vacation rental on Hatteras Island? Contact Shore Vacations at 1-877-866-5640.


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