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Robert Spaul scans the skies over downtown Toronto and the Toronto Islands searching for migrating raptors on Oct. 8, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Every year around this time, thousands of raptors heading south for the winter pass through the Toronto area: hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures. It is a magnificent sight. At key watching points, you can see hundreds sail overhead on a good day. Yet most people have no idea it is even happening. Raptors often pass far above, unnoticed by those who don’t know to scan the sky for their distinctive shapes.

Robert Spaul thinks that’s a shame. A transplanted American with binoculars hung semi-permanently around his suntanned neck, he has made it his mission to get more people turned on to the addictive pastime of watching and counting hawks. More kinds of people, too. The birding crowd tends to be older and less diverse than the norm in brilliantly multicultural Toronto. Grey heads under Tilley hats are common. Mr. Spaul, who is 38, would like to let people of all ages, backgrounds and incomes in on the secret.

“We are lucky here in Toronto to have this going on right above our heads,” he says. “If you can find the right spot, it can be just captivating for people to see.”

So he has embarked on a little project. This fall, he will Hawkwatch the Horseshoe, travelling all over Southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe to observe migrating raptors. He is visiting well-known spots such as Hawk Hill in Toronto’s High Park and Cranberry Marsh in neighbouring Whitby. He is searching out less popular or “hidden hawk watches” in the city’s suburbs and hinterland. When he can’t get out of town, he will Hawkwatch at Home, riding his bike around to find more good sites for viewing the hawk parade.

Not everyone has the time and the money to drive an hour or more outside of town, he says. If he can identify places reachable by transit, by bicycle or on foot, he hopes people will say, "Holy smokes, this is happening 10 minutes way from me. I might just go and have a try.”

When this season is over, he will reach out to schools, conservation groups and community organizations to urge them to spread the word. In the meantime, he is documenting his search on – what else? – Twitter.

A recent Monday found him standing on a grassy hilltop in a Mississauga park, watching the distant tree line as noisy blue jays and bright butterflies flew past him. It was a slow day – the wind was blowing in the wrong direction – but before long he managed to spy a turkey vulture, a red-tailed hawk, a “Coop” (Cooper’s hawk) and a “sharpie” (sharp-shinned hawk). A few days later, he was down at Ontario Place, the waterfront park. He counted 400 turkey vultures passing the CN Tower.

Mr. Spaul grew up in Ohio, the son of British immigrants. He studied wildlife biology at university, got into hawk watching and “just kind of fell in love with it.” He has studied raptors everywhere from Sweden to Wyoming to the Yukon. He has lived in Canada since 2016.

When he came to Toronto, where his wife is studying for a PhD on dinosaurs, he was delighted to learn that it’s an excellent place to watch birds. Everything from tiny warblers to yodelling loons pause in the city on their annual migrations. Many stop to rest and refuel before or after they cross Lake Ontario, taking advantage of the city’s parks, ravines and promontories, such as the Leslie Street Spit.

Raptors are a bit different. They don’t like travelling over big bodies of water. They need currents of rising air over land for their soaring, gliding flight patterns. So when they reach the lake on their southbound course, they hang a right, following the lakeshore westward toward Hamilton before moving down to Lake Erie and then tracking that shore until they reach Detroit and cross into the United States.

It is on this east-to-west progress that they are easiest to spot around Toronto. Bluffs, cliffs, hills, peninsulas and shores are the best place for watchers to plant themselves, but Mr. Spaul says neighbourhood parks or other open spaces in some of Toronto’s populous, diverse suburbs can be perfectly good places to view the migration, if only more people knew about it. Just a few days ago, a birder shot dramatic video of a “kettle” – a swirling mass – of hawks over a park right near the intersection of two major highways: the 427 and the 401. Spectacles like that are available to just about anyone with sharp eyes, a pair of binos and a little patience.

Now is a good time to start. Mr. Spaul notes that hawk watching is a COVID-safe activity that people can do at a social distance. It is even good for the hawks. Hawk watchers keep tallies of migrating raptors that help conservationists learn which species are thriving and which declining. Some watching sites have data that go back decades, an invaluable resource for ornithologists. The more watchers in the more places, the better, Mr. Spaul says.

Just by craning their necks and staring at the sky for a few hours, watchers can do something not just for themselves, but for nature. Mr. Spaul’s project continues until mid-November.

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