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Raptor-watching just west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Avian and architectural drama combine spectacularly this fall as the West's largest known migration of raptors passes just west of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

From the expansive hilltop of abandoned Battery 129 in the Marin Headlands, at the north end of the bridge, anyone with binoculars can watch this September-through-October procession of feathered hunters and learn slow to tell them apart. During peak migration, September 18 through 30, several hundred raptors fly over "Hawk Hill" each day (between 10 and 3 on September 21, 1984, more than 2,400 hawks passed this point). Fog or low clouds hamper viewing, and winds from the south discourage the birds from crossing the gate.

Experienced birders, under the auspices of the two-year-old Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (a joint effort of the Golden Gate National Park Association and the National Park Service), are on the hilltop daily throughout the migration. They can often determine the species of a hawk so distant it's the size of a speck-and happily explain how they do it. We found it easy to get caught up in the excitement when an unusual bird sailed over.

About 20 species including bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, and peregrine falcons - have been sighted making the trip.

The commonest commuters, in order of numbers, are Cooper's, sharp-shinned, and red-tailed hawks, and American kestrels. Here's how to tell them apart.

Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks look similar. Both have long, narrow tails and somewhat short wings. The Cooper's is slightly larger, has a rounded tail end, and its head sticks out beyond the front of its wings. It flies with wingbeats slow enough to count, The sharp-shinned is smaller, has a square tail end, and its head is barely forward of its wings. It flies with wingbeats described as "twinkling"; they are too fast to count.

The red- tailed hawk is large, and adults have red tail tops. It is the only large hawk to "kite," or hang motionless in the sky. Juveniles may be large, but lack red tail. For positive identification, look for dark areas on the front of wings near the body.

The American kestrel is the smallest raptor in the migration. Its erratic flight easily marks it. It has a reddish back and wing tops, and often hovers by flapping its wings.

Saturday banding demonstrations take place on the hill at 2 P.M. on September 19 and 26. Raptor observatory personnel use either a wild bird trapped that day or a human-tolerant captive bird to demonstrate how hawks are measured and banded. The identifying band fixed to the bird's leg helps scientists chart its travels. Wild birds are launched back into the air, where they usually pause momentarily to give their feathers a shake before soaring out of sight toward San Francisco. To learn of other migration-related events such as identification classes and guided hikes, you can also check newspapers' outdoor activity sections.

It's not known exactly where the birds go from Hawk Hill. If you see an unusual number of south-heading hawks south of the Golden Gate, the observatory wants to know about them. Hawks soar on rising air; look for them above the windward side of ridges, San Bruno Mountain State and County Park, on the trails north of the picnic area, and Mount Livermore, which is the summit of San Francisco Bay's Angel Island, are likely bets.

The observatory is working to identify the flyways of Pacific Coast raptors in order to protect their habitats and populations. If you happen to spot a number of hawks, call observatory coordinator Allen Fish at (415) 331-0730. If you can, identify and count the birds, and give the time and date when you saw them.

To get to Hawk Hill from San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take the Alexander Avenue exit. Go left under the freeway, then right up Conzelman Road about 2 miles to the road's high point (parking is limited; you may have to park farther down the hill). To reach the hilltop, walk along the fork of the road that goes uphill behind a gate.
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Date:Sep 1, 1987
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