Each fall, up to 20 raptor species pass this hawk watch, located in western Iowa’s globally significant Loess Hills.
By Mark Orsag | Published: 8/18/2015
Birders in the Great Plains know Hitchcock Nature Center for its excellent fall raptor flights. To the west, Iowa’s Loess Hills tower hundreds of feet above the nearly flat valley floor, reaching a height of 1,400 feet above sea level. A nearly unique land formation in North America, the hills are composed of soils deposited long ago on the eastern side of the Missouri River Valley by prevailing westerly winds. The topography and winds create conditions perfect for migrating raptors.
We hawk watchers count about 11,000 individuals of 18-20 species annually. North or northwest winds are generally best, but during the prime period, between September 20 and October 20, good flights can occur during a broad spectrum of conditions. Many other species, including Red-headed Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American White Pelican, and Snow Goose, can be seen migrating (at times in huge numbers) along with the raptors. While the fall flights are Hitchcock’s main attraction, the property and surrounding areas have much else to offer. Spring brings migrant songbirds, and in summer, approximately 100 species, including Lark Sparrow, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Blue Grosbeak, breed around the nature center. — Mark Orsag
Mark Orsag is a professor of history at Doane College, in Crete, Nebraska. He is the official counter at the Hitchcock Nature Center Hawk Watch.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
Prairie remnants, forest, and bur oak savanna.
Trails vary from easy walks to difficult climbs.
More than 300 species. Fall raptors: Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Broad-winged, Swainson’s, and Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcon, and American Kestrel. American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Snow Goose, Franklin’s and Ring-billed Gulls, Red-headed Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Purple Martin, swallows, and blackbirds. Summer: Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Bobolink, and Scarlet Tanager.
When to go
Late September through early November for hawks. Bald Eagle peaks mid-November through early December. Passerine migration best in May and September.
Loess Hills Lodge has exhibits and trail maps. Fifty-foot hawk-watch tower adjacent to lodge, wheelchair-accessible observation decks, and boardwalk trail. Raptor- and owl-banding program (in season).
County park. Open 6-10 daily. Admission $2 per vehicle per day or $10 for annual permit. Hawk watch run by the Pottawattamie County Conservation Board and the Hitchcock Hawkwatch Association.
It is much colder atop the tower than most people think it will be. Dress warm and in layers! Park trails can be surprisingly steep and demanding. If you hike the trails in spring or fall, bring bug spray.
For more info
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
About 20 minutes northwest of Hitchcock. Great spot for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds and grassland birds.
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge
On Cty. Rd. 34 near Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. Missouri River floodplain forests and wetlands provide habitat for more than 150 species.