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History of Hawk Cliff Woods

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Each Thames Talbot Land Trust property has a unique history.  At Hawk Cliff Woods the legacy includes deep valleys sculpted by streams, dramatic shoreline bluffs, two centuries of wood harvest, as well as small pockets of meadow and formerly cultivated land.  An added feature is the fame of this stretch of Lake Erie coastline as an exceptional place to witness the passage of hundreds of thousands of southward-bound raptors each fall.  The Elgin County shore was first recognized in the late 19th-century as a significant observation point for migration.  Since the 1930s, Hawk Cliff has been a mecca for visitors who come to enjoy the multitudes of hawks, jays, hummingbirds, Monarch butterflies and more. 


Early Birdwatchers - Elgin archivesNaturalists of the late nineteenth century had some knowledge of hawk movement along the north shore of Lake Erie, but recognition of Hawk Cliff as a significant observation point did not reach the public consciousness until the early 1930s.

Frank Farley, an early Elgin County naturalist, was born in St Thomas in 1870.  In an 1889 diary entry, he recorded an October trip to Port Stanley in search of Sharp-shinned Hawks.  Two years later, Farley published a list of the birds of Elgin County, in which he made reference to migrations of both Sharp-shinned and Broad-winged hawks.

Another prominent naturalist, London’s W.E. Saunders, was well acquainted with Farley.  The two remained in contact after Farley moved to Alberta in 1892.  Writing in the Ontario Natural Science Bulletin in 1908, Saunders stated, “I had not been studying birds many years before rumours began to reach me of autumn flights of [sharp-shinned hawks] passing west not far from the shore of Lake Erie…”  It is very likely that Farley was at least one source of the “rumours” mentioned by Saunders.

In November 1929, Saunders began writing a weekly newspaper column, first in the London Advertiser, and later in the London Free Press.  In his very first column, Saunders wrote about the conservation of hawks, a theme dear to his heart during an era when prevailing public attitudes viewed birds of prey as targets for guns.

Between 1931 and 1942, Saunders wrote frequently about his experiences at Hawk Cliff, including references to other migrants such as hummingbirds, Blue Jays and Monarch butterflies.  He also spoke of the beauty of the autumn wildflowers.  Apparently his best day of hawk viewing came in September 1942, the fall before his death.  Under the heading “A Huge Migration of Hawks”, Saunders described a day when the numbers of Broad-winged Hawks reached 5,000:  “The flocks are not close, but often they gather in the upper air to float around in astonishing circles, and thus one may see twenty-five, fifty, or even a hundred in a single group, and he may have many more in the field of his glass than he can possibly count.”  This column from the London Free Press was later published in the Canadian Field Naturalist, and thus the word about Hawk Cliff reached a wider audience.

Following World War II, local birders continued to take note of migration at Hawk Cliff.  In September 1950, naturalists from London and St Thomas organized public hawk-viewing weekends at Hawk Cliff, beginning a tradition of public education and awareness that continues to this day.  The Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature) also became involved in the monitoring and public education activities.

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As early as 1956, the McIlwraith Ornithological Club of London and the St Thomas Field Naturalists explored the possibility of
purchasing land at Hawk Cliff, though nothing came of it.

Interest in hawk migration increased and evolved through time, leading to development of a banding station in 1969.  Through many years, the work of a dedicated group of banders at Hawk Cliff has been contributing to improved understanding of hawk migration.  Also for many years, Monarch butterflies have been tagged at Hawk Cliff, as part of an international effort by Monarch Watch.

Every year, naturalists from London and St. Thomas and beyond join members of the general public at Hawk Cliff, to enjoy the magnificent phenomenon of huge numbers of migrating birds and insects streaming by. Of all the southbound travelers, it is perhaps the Broad-winged Hawks, drifting by on rising thermals of warm air, that best exemplify the wonder of the annual ritual of migration.

The History of Hawk Cliff Woods was prepared by TTLT volunteers Dave Wake and Stan Caveney for publication in Nature London's publication The Cardinal”, August 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Please visit the Hawk Cliff Woods Archive for historic pictures and articles relating to Hawk Cliff Woods

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