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From Lenoir, hawk-eyed watchers count hawks on their 4,300-mile annual journey

Man sitting with binoculars
Edward Terry
Special to WFAE
Sonny Hines watches for Broad-winged hawks in Lenoir.

Every fall, thousands of raptors cruise above Western North Carolina on the thermals rising up from the Blue Ridge and the Brushy Mountains on their annual migration south. And every fall, a flock of dedicated volunteers camps out in a small field to count every hawk passing over a busy neighborhood in Lenoir — about 70 miles north of Charlotte as the crow, or, rather, the hawk, flies.

The group in Lenoir is part of an extensive network of hawk watchers along the East Coast who lend their expertise and eyes to help access bird populations and ecosystem trends. For Sonny Hines, birding has been a hobby for seven decades.

"Every September the hawks come out of Canada. These are the Broad-winged hawks primarily, will come out of Canada and they are heading for Central and South America. Broad-wings eat only insects and so they've got to go where the food is and in the winter time we have no insects up here," he said.

The birds follow the food to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and other points south. They can fly more than 4,300 miles. Sitting at Lower Creek Elementary School, Hines and his fellow watchers know that everyone might not understand their rapt interest.

"Seems like a bunch of nuts and maybe we are, but we enjoy looking at the sky," he said.

Edward Terry
Special to WFAE

It’s a tradition started years ago by avid birdwatchers and raptor enthusiasts. They’re there for the thrill of seeing majestic birds in flight, says Barbara Miller.

"You realize, oh my gosh, there are so many birds up there, and they are migrating from way up north all the way down to South America and here they are over Lenoir — nobody realizes they are here and doing this," she said.

"It’s not all about the watchers’ excitement, however. They track and report what they see, which helps scientists assess populations, environmental trends and the overall health of the ecosystem. The information is shared in real-time with a network of fellow raptor lovers through HawkCount.org. You can read the Lenoir group’s report — and the reports from other sites in the area, including Grandfather Mountain, River Bend Park in Catawba County and Pilot Mountain State Park in Surry County.

"All that information is helping hopefully people understand what’s going on," said Miller.

This September, the volunteers in Lenoir recorded more than 4,000 raptors, including 3,989 Broad-winged hawks, nine bald eagles, nine Cooper’s hawks and eight osprey as part of their official count. The group is always open to more birders on the team, whether it be in Lenoir or one of the other sites across North Carolina or the United States.

"The more the merrier. The more eyes on the sky, the more birds you will see," said Hines.

They’ll be back next September, in the same place at the same time — just like the birds.