Monday, August 25, 2014

Hawkwatching guides: where to begin

Guides - Luke Tiller
I thought it would be interesting to do a few posts looking at equipment you might use at a hawkwatch, and that lead me to approach Rick Bacher to write a blog post about what to look for in a pair of hawkwatching sunglasses (post here). Recently I've been thinking about Raptor ID guides: there has been a slew of excellent ones published over the last few years, but which ones do raptor professionals recommend? I thought it would be fun to ask a few selected raptorphiles and hawkwatching amigos what they liked.

With that in mind I set them these two questions and let them have at it: 
Question 1: Which raptor guides do you think are essential for hawkwatching fans to own?
Question 2: If you had to give a beginner JUST ONE guide to hawks to start off with which one would you give them?

Just so it doesn't seem like I am getting my friends to completely write my blog posts for me I thought I'd chip in with my thoughts too...

Julie Brown at HMANA's 2012 Fall Conference
Julie Brown - Site Coordinator for HMANA
Question 1: I think I have them all but I would say the most essential are Hawks In Flight (Sibley, Sutton and Dunne) and Hawks From Every Angle, J Liguori. My old standby for years was The Photographic Guide to North American Raptors by Clark and Wheeler and I really like the extensive background and detail given in Raptors of Eastern/Western N America, Wheeler..but that's not great for the field.

Question 2: Choosing just one is hard because I like different things about each one but a good beginner guide would be Hawks From Every Angle. And although not a field guide, I ALWAYS recommend Hawks in Flight to anyone getting into hawk watching. I think the authors captured perfectly the essence of hawks and how they look, behave and move.

Angela Woodside and friend
Angela Woodside - Lead Counter Chelan Ridge Hawkwatch, Washington
Question 1: When I showed up for my first hawkwatching internship three years ago, I was pretty sure I knew how to identify a red-tailed hawk. I knew bald eagles had white heads, and who didn’t know what a peregrine falcon looked like? Needless to say, I was completely unprepared for what fall migration back East had in store for me, and how all those facts that I “knew” would change with distance, lighting and weather conditions. The counter—my raptor guru—handed me the first edition of Hawks in Flight, and essentially said, “Read this. It’s the hawk-watching Bible.” Over the next couple months, having the descriptions in that book constantly reinforced by the birds I was seeing daily was incredibly helpful. Using this book in conjunction with Jerry Liguori’s books Hawks from Every Angle and Hawks at a Distance as a way of fact-checking what I was seeing in the field with the photos on the page served me well at the two sites where I counted—in particular because distance and lighting more or less precluded using any plumage characteristics for identification. Shape and flight style pretty much ruled the day.

Question 2: That being said, I think Hawks in Flight might scare off a total beginner. It’s a lot of information to take in, particularly if you haven’t spent a great deal of time watching birds in flight. Don’t all birds just flap? How can one bird flap differently than another similarly sized bird? For that person I might hand them a copy of Hawks from Every Angle to start with, just to familiarize them with the idea that the bird you’ve seen perched on a telephone pole can take on so many different shapes up in the air.

Derek Lovitch at Bradbury Mountain
Derek Lovitch - Author, co owner of Freeport Wild Bird Supply and founder of Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch, ME (Hawkwatch website here).
Question 1 and 2: In my opinion, there is only one "essential" reference to hawkwatching, for both beginners and veterans, and it is the venerable "Hawks in Flight" by Dunne, Sutton, and Sibley. While I definitely recommend theCrossley Raptors, and secondarily, Hawks from Every Angle, as a great book to take up to the count site for a quick reference and for studying, nothing will ever adequately represent all of the angles, shapes, silhouettes, and especially the sometimes-distinct motions that we use to identify distant raptors. Movements (wingbeats, flight style, behavior) simply cannot be represented by photos or paintings. Only Hawks in Flight actually instructs people on how to look, and so adeptly describes how to look beyond field marks (often of limited value at a hawkwatch) to truly SEE a raptor. It should be read before and after visits to your local count site, especially when getting started!

Ryan MacLean at Quaker Ridge


Ryan MacLean - Official Hawkwatcher Quaker Ridge, CT (Quaker Facebook Page - here).
Question 1: As a hawkwatcher who has to put a good percent of his effort into identifying very distant raptors, both 'Hawks at Every Angle' and 'Hawks at a Distance' by Jerry Liguori have been definitive in helping to decipher differences in little black dots in the sky. What his guides cover that I've rarely seen in other guides (especially in 'Hawks at a Distance') is how to factor in changes in a birds appearance with different lighting or landscapes. All too often we've called that horribly backlit Kestrel a Merlin or mistaken juvies of a species for adults (or vice versa), but Liguori prepares us for these instances by reminding us of the more telltale but sometime more subtle markings or behaviors that can clinch a tough ID when color and lighting fail. I'll still refer to 'Hawks in Flight' (Dunne/Silbey/Sutton) alot of times as well because it contains not only great ID pointers but also information on different species' migration habits and routes which in many cases could also be helpful in IDing a bird.

Question 2: I owned a lot of hawk related books as a kid, but I have more memories of flipping through 'A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors' by Brian K. Wheeler and William S. Clark than others. I would suggest this or Wheeler's 'Raptors of Eastern North America' to any novice because its not only very picture-heavy but it has pictures of both perched and flying birds. Many novices obviously want to equate themselves with the perched birds first, so jumping straight to the strictly flight ID Liguori guides might be a bit overwhelming for people just getting into the game. Having page after page of pictures of perched birds right next to flying birds though is a great stepping stone to focusing only on the birds in flight. Once people start to equate the shape of a bird in flight with the image they see of a perched bird, then they are ready to move on to the texts that make up Hawk Watching's higher education.

Genevieve Rozhon -watching out west
Genevieve Rozhon - Graduate student studying Rough-legged Hawks at Humboldt and previous counter and trapper at sites across the US (website here).
Question 1: I think every hawkwatcher should own Hawks from Every Angle and Hawks in Flight at a minimum. Between the thorough descriptions of raptor shapes and the highly accurate black and white drawings, Hawks in Flight, in my opinion, has the most utility as a hawkwatching guide. That being said, Ligouri's Hawks from Every Angle really captures what hawks look like from a hawkwatch site (birds migrating past you from every possible direction). I particularly appreciate the photos comparing species that can look similar in tricky lighting. I like to re-read both these books once a year before every hawkwatching season as a refresher and I always take Hawks from Every Angle up to the hawkwatch. Wheeler's Raptors of Western North America can also be nice to have around as a plumage reference.

Question 2: I've now given Hawks in Flight to several aspiring hawkwatchers in the past and now, at least one of them, has gone on to run several hawkwatches herself.

Rick Bacher and lunch
Rick Bacher - Hawkwatcher and bander from Western NY to Cape May. (Read his blog here).
Question 1: I am a bit of a field guide nerd, and happen to have an extensive collection myself. I'll narrow it down to three selections based on leaning style. I'll start with Jerry Liguori's "Hawks at a Distance" book. This is a great visual reference, and Mr. Liguori is one of North America's most trusted raptor experts. I want to mention that he is always beyond helpful to anyone that contacts him. The book focuses on what the title says, and it does it a great job of it, while providing ample photographs of hawks just like you might see them at a Hawkwatch. I refer to this book constantly when looking at pictures of high up hawks that people post online or send to me. The next book I like is "Hawks in Flight" by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton. This book has fantastically written literature on each raptor, and serves well for those that retain information best by reading. I should't have to mention that the illustrations and photographs in this book are top-notch as well. The last book is a bit of an outlaw in some circles, and seems to raise eyebrows whenever it is mentioned. "The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors" is last, but certainly not least on my list. This guide broke all the rules by superimposing multiple photographs of raptors over the landscapes you might see them in, and doesn't follow any sort of traditional field guide rules as far as that goes. The book is a visual masterpiece, and perfect for the hands-on learners among us.

Question 2 If you're a heavily hands-on learner like myself, I recommend you start off with the "Crossley ID Guide: Raptors." The book doesn't just serve as a guide to check when you want to confirm a raptor, or casually study up on them. This book forces you to learn! It makes you look at raptors in ways that other books do not. The book includes multiple pages of mixed raptors in flight with answer keys in the back. That means it is constantly begging you to take critical looks at raptors in flight, and make calls based on shape and plumage like you would in the field. I often find myself picking it up just for fun so that I can test my id skills when no raptors are flying. No other book provides a similar experience. Short of being at the Hawkwatch in person, this is the closest you can get to actually testing your skills. It's almost like you're right in the field.

Luke Tiller at the HMANA Raptor ID Workshop 2014
Luke Tiller - Board Member and Tour Committee chair HMANA and counter Braddock Bay Hawkwatch. (Blog)
Question 1: I think there is value in owning any guide to identifying raptors and we have been lucky enough to have been treated to a number of excellent guides recently. I like to get into the mind of any fellow hawkwatcher and try to see the birds through their eyes. There is always something new to learn and therefore I voraciously read anything that covers raptor ID. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but though I like the writing style of Hawks in Flight I find Liguori's two guides somewhat more utilitarian. That said you'd be mad to not have both on your shelf. Perhaps a less recommended guide, maybe because it's out of print, that I like is Wheeler's Raptor's Eastern North America. Through photos it highlights the myriad variety of plumages within species and has an amazing wealth of notes on age, molt, subspecies, color morphs, status and distribution among other things.

Question 2: A difficult choice, but I think I'd start them off with Liguori's Hawks at every Angle. Perhaps because it's the book I really started with.

So there you go, what do you all think?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

HMANA's 1st Annual International Hawk Migration Week


 
Share the magic of migration with someone.

 Come one, come all. We are inviting all hawk watchers and raptor enthusiasts to celebrate migration with us this fall! HMANA is excited to announce the first annual International Hawk Migration Week, taking place September 20-28, 2014.  The purpose of IHMW is to raise awareness of hawks, hawk migration and the HMANA network of sites that count hawks.
We chose this week because it is the week when peak numbers are counted across the continent. But it doesn’t matter whether your site is known for thousands of broadwings or just a few redtails. It’s not about the numbers.  Our hope is just for people to head outside and spend time hawk watching and enjoying the spectacle of migration. Here are a few suggestions of ways you can take part.....

-Submit Your Daily Data to HawkCount during this week. This should include standard data on number/species of raptors counted, number of visitors, weather etc. (Data must be submitted by September 29).

-Participate in the “IHMW Big Day”. Modeled after a Raptorthon, teams and/or individual hawk watchers gather sponsors for a day of hawk watching from a chosen hawk watch site. After the event, pledges are collected and 50% goes to HMANA programs while 50% goes to the watchsite.  See links to registration and forms online.

-Help us Reach More Hawkwatchers! Hold a HMANA Membership Drive at Your Watchsite. Set up a table or display sometime during the week in efforts to recruit new members to HMANA. HMANA will provide membership brochures. Recruit at least 5 new members and get a HawkCount sponsorship for your site!

-Host a Hawkwatching Festival. Everyone loves festivals and there are lots of ways you can celebrate migration.  You could sell t-shirts to support your site, have a volunteer available to answer questions about your site or give raptor ID instruction, offer banding station tours or work with a local wildlife rehab or education center to have a live raptor presentation.

-Hold an Identification Workshop. Late September is the perfect time to offer a raptor ID workshop and connect people with the excitement of migration. An indoor slideshow or onsite program could be a great way to engage the public. Contact us for ideas.

-Choose to Sponsor a Watchsite on HawkCount. You can choose to support HMANA’s data archive to celebrate IHMW! If you sponsor a site during the week of September 20-28, your name will appear with IHMW designation and you will receive a special gift (while supplies last). This sponsorship would expire September, 2015 like normal sponsorships. See www.hawkcount.org.

-Create an IHMW banner for your site. This is a great way to draw people to your hawkwatch site during the week. “Come celebrate HMANA’s International Hawk Migration Week with us at xxx Hawk Watch! September 20-28th.” Be sure to send us a photo of your banner!
 
Following the week of September 20-28, we will release a report with the overall number of species and raptors counted which will show the extent of the migration occurring during that time. It should be interesting to see.

If you plan to take part, send me an email at brown@hmana.org and we’ll list your events on our webpage.  For more details on how to take part or to download a flyer, visit www.hmana.org.

We hope you will join us in celebrating the annual spectacle of fall raptor migration!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

And they are off...


Northern Harrier - Kimberly Kaufman
As July turns into August and southbound migration begins to gather apace, hawkwatches across the country start to get into gear for the oncoming raptors. I am sure that many readers here are already starting to eagerly anticipate both the arrival of hawks at their local watches and the chance to get together with friends that they may not have seen much of for the last nine months. A few watches will be starting their counts today and as we roll further into the month of August we will see more and more watches come online. You can, of course, keep up with all the daily developments across the continent on Hawkcount.org (link here).

Northern Harrier - Ashli Maruster Gorbet
Everyone loves a 'Gray Ghost', but recently it seems like there just haven't been enough of them around. Participants at the Kittatinny Roundtable gathering (see previous post) observed a notable decline in Northern Harrier numbers at New Jersey and Pennsylvania count sites last Fall, with Hawk Mountain tallying their lowest total since 1942. Northern Harrier is a species of special concern in a number of the states our watches are conducted in, and that I have counted at, but with highly variable returns watch numbers currently show little in the way of any concrete overall picture of how they are fairing. It does however feel like numbers have been trending down for a few Falls now. In the Northeast the figures seem to back this up with five out of the last six seasons being poor ones that are down below average. It'll be interesting to see if this continues and whether a trend is developing.

When I was counting in Connecticut my friend Tom just insisted we weren't staying late enough in the day to catch them all and I think he was only kind of joking. Anyway something to note and perhaps a species to maybe focus a little effort on collecting solid data on. As well as being fun, hawkwatching, and the data collected, can play an important part in the puzzle that helps us work out what is happening with individual raptor species.

Northern Harrier - Alex Lamoreaux
Of course many watches like to go above and beyond merely identifying passing individuals to species to aging and sexing birds and this of course can add value to collected data. Harriers ostensibly are one of the easiest raptors to do this with as juveniles, adult females and adult males are all theoretically pretty readily identifiable in the field. That said as with all birding activities that require parsing of information with birds that are in view for a short period of time, in bad light, or at distance (and often all three) care should be taken. If you haven't read Liguori and Sullivan's American Birding Association article about adult harriers that retain brown plumage and the intricacies of their molt then you should, it's quite an eye opener. (PDF online here). Jerry also posted a brief but excellent post a while back on his blog about being careful with using coloration when it comes to separating brown female and juvenile birds at a distance. (Blog post here).

Northen Harrier - Rick Bacher
Personally I have found Northern Harriers, though in many ways highly distinctive, one of those birds that seems to be surprisingly difficult for even intermediate level birders to initially identify at the watch. The obvious reason for this is the disparity in flight style between the way we generally see them coursing low over fields and marshes to the way they look flapping in direct flight or soaring within a kettle of migrant raptors. If you are interested in seriously improving your skills picking out those migrant harriers, or want to get better at aging or sexing them then come join HMANA for it's week long Raptor ID Workshop in 2015. To find out more about that event and to read the report from the incredible 2014 Workshop visit our website (link here).

So keep 'em peeled for Northern Harriers, it will be interesting to see what this season brings.

Northern Harrier - Sue Barth
Talking of keeping your eyes peeled, if you live in the Northeast perhaps this Fall is the Fall to bring yourself hero status at your local hawkwatch: by spotting a migrant Zone-tailed Hawk. After an exciting initial sighting this spring of a extremely out of range Zone-tailed Hawk out on Martha's Vinyard, MA (here), there were further sightings in both Nova Scotia on June 1st (photos here) and in Halifax, Massachusetts in July (photos here). They have to go somewhere right? If you don't fancy your chances and want better odds of seeing Zone-tailed Hawks in North America you might want to keep an eye on HMANA's soon-to-be-announced tour offerings to Texas and Arizona (here).

Northern Harrier - © Dominic Mitchell (www.birdingetc.com)
On behalf of HMANA I hope all our supporters, members and readers have an enjoyable and productive Fall season. Thanks to all of my friends who generously donated their photographs for this blog post. The harriers pictured come from Cape May, New Jersey to Vancouver, British Columbia and most points between. It's these birds that unite us - let's get together and enjoy them for the next few months!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hawk Fun in the Summer

 
HMANA’s vice-chair and Hawk Mountain’s senior monitoring biologist Laurie Goodrich hosts an annual event, the Kittatinny Roundtable, each July. For the day-long event, hawk counters and site leaders from along the Kittattiny Ridge in Pennsylvania and New Jersey come together to hear about ongoing raptor research and share results from the prior migration season. It’s a rare opportunity for hawk people from different sites to get together for some fellowship and information.

Last weekend’s event was no exception. We heard Nick Bolgiano discuss his research studying distribution changes for the American Kestrel in eastern North America. Nick looked at Christmas Bird Counts, banding data, breeding bird surveys as well as migration information from HawkCount from the 1970’s to the present to see how kestrel reports shifted over time. He’s discovered that kestrel breeding seems to occur in more southerly locations now than earlier. Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and similar states report increased breeding. Migration data shows kestrel numbers are down, except at Hawk Ridge in Minnesota where results are up, which makes sense if the breeding population is also shifting. Banding recoveries are found now more to the southwest than along the coast. He speculates that smaller and fewer farms as well as more fragmented farmlands are a factor in the decline in the east. The increase in Cooper’s Hawk predation may also be a factor.

Jeanne Ortiz from Pennsylvania Audubon talked about conserving the Kittatinny Ridge by identifying the most important parcels along the ridge with a goal of creating a connected corridor of protected lands. She is also working to raise awareness and show the economic value of conservation, which was estimated at $1.2 billion annually in Cumberland County PA alone.

Laurie gave us an update on her own Broad-winged Hawk tracking project where several fledglings and an adult female are equipped with radios so they can be tracked. She is hoping to discover where these Pennsylvania birds winter and monitor their trip south. Click here to learn more about the research.
 
Jacks Mountain Pennsylvania gave an update on the wind power companies that are seeking to build wind farms both in front of and behind their watchsite. While the ultimate outcome is still unknown, the Save Our Jacks Mtn. group now has 240 members and was instrumental in getting four nearby townships to pass wind ordinances. While such ordinances can’t keep the wind farms out, the ordinances do regulate their operation and construction. The group is also working with two other townships. They are selling patches to raise money. Visit
www.savejacksmountain.org to keep up with their work.

Long-time Picatinny Peak New Jersey counter John Reed reported his count there may soon end its full-time coverage. As the site is on a military reservation, it is difficult for the public to reach it, and he has been unable to get someone to replace him. He did say he will likely move into the Hudson Valley and hopes to prospect for a new site in that area.

Then it was time to explore the migration data from the 11 attending fall migration sites. One thing was discovered pretty quickly. Northern Harrier counts were all very low or even at the lowest totals ever for several sites. One year’s result is not enough to sound the alarm but it is certainly enough to make other sites aware of this possible trend and to keep a close eye on what happens next year. Also discovered was that the other accipters, namely Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawks, were also counted in below average numbers at the attending sites, though none of these declines were as dramatic as that of the harrier.

Finally, what has now become an annual "award" went to Waggoner’s Gap, Pennsylvania, for yet again posting the area’s highest count of eagles. They counted 499 Bald Eagles and 245 Golden Eagles during fall 2013. The award is a plastic eagle with red, white and blue blinking lights. Counter Dave Grove has been hoping some other site will win and take the traveling trophy off his hands and his mantelpiece for a while.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tour Report: HMANA Raptor ID Workshop 2014


Sharp-shinned Hawk - Catherine Hamilton
 Seven days on the Great Lakes plus a great week of weather divided by two expert hawkwatchers equals 10,928 diurnal raptors of fifteen different species! This is the story of HMANA’s 2014 Raptor ID Workshop.

Held between April 6 and April 12, the workshop assembled participants from the far flung corners of the United States in order to witness the diversity of raptor migration around the Great Lakes and to hone their proficiency as hawkwatchers. A major draw was the rare opportunity to spend a week learning from perhaps one of the most accomplished raptor experts in the country: Frank Nicoletti. Across the board, by the end of an unbelievable week of hawkwatching, everyone’s skills had been sharpened, friendships had been made an incredible number of raptors had been tallied.

Tired but happy hawkwatchers - Catherine Hamilton
In all, over the week, we totaled 135 species of birds. Highlights included: two stunning adult dark Swainson’s Hawks that graced Braddock Bay on back to back days, a Black Vulture - in a down season for them, good numbers and great views of Golden Eagles -especially at Derby Hill. We were also treated to a variety of flavors of Red-tailed Hawks: Dark/rufous morph adults, a Krider’s-like adult (are there many really pure ones left?) and plenty that fitted the seemingly refashionable albieticola subspecies. Rough-legged Hawks of all ages and sexes also put on a great show too, which is always a treat.

Among the non-raptors bugling Sandhill Cranes passed over the watch, we enjoyed the haunting calls of Common Loons from the lake, a collection of rare King Eiders on the bay, Red-headed Woodpeckers foraging at our feet, Purple Martins, Snowy Owls, Lapland Longspurs, Saw-whet Owls, Snow Buntings, Long and Short-eared Owls, Northern Shrike: the list goes on and on and on.

You can see details for the 2015 Workshop on the HMANA Website (here). We hope to see you there.

2014 participants - Catherine Hamilton

Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical Harlan's: Second US East Coast Record?

Harlan's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research
So about a year I stuck up a blog (here) with photographs of some dark buteos either seen (but mainly banded) at Braddock Bay in Western New York State, which is incidentally the base camp for the 2015 HMANA Raptor ID Workshop (details here). The attached photographs were taken at BBRR's main banding station on May 1st 2003 and through the magic of the internet the pictures from this blog ended up with Jerry Liguori. After carefully studying the pictures he confirmed that the bird pictured here is in fact an image of an incredibly regionally rare Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk. To give you an idea of how rare, there is one accepted US Harlan's record east of central Kentucky in eBird and this is the first with photographic documentation. There is at least one accepted record for Ontario but none for New York State

Harlan's Hawk breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada, but spends winters as far east as the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It's plumage was distinct enough for it to have initially been considered a separate species by Audubon, when he sent the type specimen to the British Museum in 1831. In 1891 it was relegated to a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, though it was elevated to species level again for thirty years in 1944. Though currently lumped with Red-tailed Hawk there are at least a couple of raptor experts who lobby for it to be reinstated as a species. 
Dark/Rufous Red-tailed Hawk and friend - Catherine Hamilton
The 1995 Virginia record is probably pretty reliable given that it was seen from Kiptopeke Hawkwatch by Brian Sullivan one of the authors of this excellent ABA article that discusses successfully identifying the subspecies (here). Dark Red-tailed Hawks of any kind do not breed in the east and sightings of dark birds are rare in and of themselves. Frank Nicoletti actually helped the group tally a stunning adult dark/rufous morph at the 2014 Raptor ID Workshop among the other 10,928 passing raptors, but as you can see from the picture above, assigning some of these to subspecies can be pretty tough given that sightings at hawkwatches can often be frustratingly distant and/or views tantalizingly brief.

The roundabout way this record came to be uncovered probably highlights two of the most important recent developments in birding and hawkwatching: the import of the digital camera and the value of the internet. As my friend Pete said, quoting the old Joni Mitchell lyric: "Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone" Thanks to Jerry Liguori for bringing this record to light and to Daena Ford at BBRR for loaning me the photographs for the original article.

Harlan's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research
EDIT: Since writing this piece I have uncovered at least one more accepted Eastern record from North Carolina coincidentally also from 2003 (more here).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Who's Watching Your Eyes? Sunglasses for hawkwatching

Happy Hawkwatchers
Have you ever stepped off of a hawkwatch platform or out of a trapping blind and felt like your eyes were bleeding? You are not alone. Ultraviolet (UV) rays can really take a toll on your eyes after staring into the sky for upwards of eight hours a day. Many hawkwatchers and bird banders experience the same exact issues, and after years of doing either activity, UV rays can severely damage your eyes. Since vision is one of a hawkwatcher’s most valuable assets, let’s talk about how to save it. We don’t want you missing a single bird out there.
            
I’ve been in the sunglasses industry for nearly five years. My company sells multiple brands, and I have no specific brand bias aside from my own preferences. What I do have is a working knowledge of many of the best brands available, and field experience wearing sunglasses both in the blind, and at the hawkwatch platform. This entire piece is written as my opinion, and without any endorsed bias. With all that out of the way, let’s get down to business.
            
The most basic question revolves around a price point. “How much do I need to shell out for good sunglasses?” Most respectable sunglasses range in price from $60-$320. I like to tell birders that they have to think about sunglasses the same way they think about binoculars. Both optical technologies cost money to make, and even more money to make well. Optical clarity is important to most birders. How much did your binoculars cost? Birders are the one group of people who can really appreciate the quality of good optics. Now you don’t actually have to spend $320, but just like with binoculars, you get what you pay for. You’ll probably spend around $200 for a nice polarized pair of sunglasses with a high clarity index and superior color portrayal, but you could get by with a $60 pair just as well.

Future's so bright....
The next standard question is: “What is polarization, and do I need it?” Polarization, specifically, has to do with sun glare. Almost every pair of sunglasses you buy at a reputable brick and mortar dealer will already be 100 percent UV-A and UV-B protectant. That means all those UV rays you have been soaking in for years will be blocked. But without polarization you will see a lot more sun glare, and be prone to squinting. At its most simplistic explanation, polarization is a sort of filter system within the lens that blocks out sun glare wavelengths. Polarization is going to increase the price of your glasses anywhere from $20 to $100, but I had already figured that into the price points when I quoted them above. I shy most casual sunglass customers away from polarization as they don’t really need it, but I always encourage anglers, golfers, serious drivers, birders, and those with more than casual visual needs to spend the extra money. It makes all the difference in the world if you’re staring into the sky for long hours at a time.
            
A large consideration to take into account when buying sunglasses for hawkwatching is the lens color. Brown lenses will give you a higher contrast on edges, and superficially “highlight” objects (especially hawks in the sky). The downside to brown lenses is that they will distort colors a bit. For instance, a distant juvenile Bald Eagle whose heavy mottling tends to come off as brown might appear a different shade with a brown lens. Black or neutral-gray lenses will stay much more true to color, but will not give you any advantage as far as contrast or “highlighting.” Finally, black/gray lenses tend to heavily shade the world, whereas brown lenses appear to brighten it up. I suggest trying both colors out in the store and deciding what you like best for your hawkwatching needs.

Blue Skies of Death!
Finally, you might think about lens material. The two main choices are polycarbonate (plastic) and glass. Glass lenses are going to give you a much higher clarity than plastic lenses right away. Another advantage to purchasing glass lenses is that they are much harder to scratch than plastic ones. The main disadvantages to wearing actual glass is that it is noticeably heavier, and there is always the chance that they can shatter if you drop them on a hard surface. The main advantage to purchasing plastic lenses is going to be weight. They also are much harder to shatter, but easier to scratch, and the clarity is never going to be as good as glass.
            
I am always asked to recommend glasses brands, and what my preferences are, so I will include my personal opinions as closure to this article. I almost always wear Maui Jim sunglasses. I believe they have an unparalleled color spectrum and clarity index. I lean towards their non-glass models for hawkwatching because of the long hours involved. I wear brown lenses for the advantages they provide described above. My second choice is Smith Optics. You get great optics for your dollar with this brand ($120-$200), and they are the only brand that comes with a lifetime warranty that I am familiar with. Another great bang for your buck is Ray-Ban. I would recommend getting a polarized pair with glass lenses from them. They will be about your cheapest option to obtain real polarized glass. If you are on a budget, I would recommend Polaroid (just like the instant cameras) sunglasses. They actually introduced polarized lenses into the civilian market, and the lens quality appears to be much better than similar priced competitors that have come back to my store with layer flaking, pressure cracks, and so on.

You can go cheaper if you want, but think about the decisions you made when purchasing your binoculars, and how a higher-end model price probably seemed insane to you when you first looked. Think about the quality difference between low-end bins in the $100 range, and high-end bins in the $1,000 or more range. Every dollar in optics counts in the end, and luckily sunglasses won’t cost you more than $2,000 like a good pair of bins will.


Author Rick Bacher
Rick Bacher: As well as being an English teacher and full-time student Rick also volunteers as a Junior Audubon leader at Buffalo Audubon, is a leader for the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage, takes public relations photographs at Tifft Nature Preserve and is a hobby wildlife photographer and birder. He spends autumns at Cape May with his mentor where he is learning to identify, process, and band raptors. Rick can also be found watching and counting hawks throughout Western New York during the Spring migration. He's a serious hawk bum. Follow Rick's photography on his birding blog at http://rickbee.weebly.com/adventure-blog.html.