Wednesday, October 7, 2015

1.3 Million Hawks and Counting.....

Militia Hill Hawk Watch displaying its banner during IHMW.
Photo by Rich Conroy.
Congratulations to the 102 watchsites from Ontario to Mexico that counted over 1 million raptors during HMANA’s 2nd annual International Hawk Migration Week (IHMW) September 19-27, 2015.

Thirty-one states and provinces counted thirty species of raptors, the vast majority being Broad-winged Hawks (1,304,132) - since IHMW took place during their peak migration. Other high counts included 23,244 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 6,659 Turkey Vultures, 6,182 Mississippi Kites, 5,696 American Kestrels and 3,661 Osprey.
Graham Scarborough, Eli Gross and Dave Youker
at Kiptopeke, VA. Photo by Brian Taber.
 HMANA started IHMW in 2014 as a way to celebrate raptor migration. We wanted to shine a light on the incredible spectacle that takes place each fall and highlight all the watchsites in the HawkCount monitoring network. 
Jerry Ligouri raptor talk, Celebration of Flight,
Corpus Christi, TX. Photo by Patty Waits Beasley
It’s the perfect opportunity to connect people with the cycle of migration. I think many of my fellow hawk watchers would agree that one of the great joys is introducing someone to a big flight or low-flying peregrine for the first time. It gives my goose bumps to see the excitement in their eyes. Recently during a spectacular flight of broad-wings at my local watchsite, I heard a man say, “Wow, I feel like a better person having witnessed this.”

So the goal of IHMW is to share these experiences with others. And I think we were successful in that. In addition to submitting daily counts to, sites celebrated across the map with various hawk watching festivals, identification workshops and live bird of prey events. Some celebrations included a handful of people on remote mountaintops while other events drew thousands to multi-day festivals but no matter the size, it all revolved around the love of raptors and the pure joy of migration.

For more information about IHMW, please visit 

Hawk watchers at Wellsville Hawk Watch, UT. Photo by Neil Paprocki

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Monitoring Count Traineeship a Great Success!

The Hawk Ridge count team: Alex Lamoreaux, counter; Karl Bardon, count director and Kaija Gahm, count trainee

When Hawk Ridge Observatory was awarded HMANA’s 2015 Hawk Watch Fund to fund a migration monitoring “count” traineeship, we were excited to hear more about it.

Well it’s mid-season and it seems the position has been wildly successful so far. This year’s count trainee, Kaija Gahm, Kaija is an enthusiastic and accomplished young woman who is taking a "gap year" between high school and going off to college at Yale. Among her other accomplishments, she has been a participant in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology "Young Birders Event"; she has won the Massachusetts (overall & Wildlife categories) and national (Wildlife category) Envirothon; and she has been an active participant in E-bird and the Massachusetts Audubon Bird-a-thon for several years throughout high school.

Kaija has been involved in some fantastic days of counting at Hawk Ridge, including a day of 90,000+ songbirds on September 1. Karen Stubenvoll, Hawk Ridge Board Chair is thrilled with Kaija. “It has really enhanced our count by having her here, and we are so happy to be training the next generation.”

The goal of the count traineeship is to provide a unique, hands-on, professional training opportunity for those interested in learning the skills to conduct migration monitoring research. The trainee learns identification of birds by both sight and sound for raptors and non-raptors, data collection, data entry, public relations with visitors, and other valuable research tools.   

Here is a video clip of Kaija in action with hawk counter Alex Lamoreaux from the Duluth News Tribune.
The duty of a counter at Hawk Ridge:

Kaija scanning the sky for raptors at Hawk Ridge
Hearing this story makes us very happy at HMANA. This is what the Hawk Watch Fund is all about! We offer grants each year to watch sites in the monitoring network with the purpose of providing grants to assist watch sites looking for support whether it’s educational materials and displays, construction and maintenance of viewing platforms, hiring hawk watchers, or purchase of equipment. Funding comes from proceeds of HMANA’s annual spring Raptorthon and from direct donations to the Fund.

Sites may apply from December 1-February 15 and awards are chosen April 1. For more information on how to apply, please visit

All photos by Karen Stubenvoll

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Raptors on your Radar?

Duluth Area Map
I'm sure many of you will have stumbled upon the concept of birders and ornithologists checking out the night's NEXRAD Radar readings to look for migrant land birds flying during the night. What many don't seem to have cottoned on to is that you can do exactly the same thing with raptors. For some basics on using radar to observe bird migration check out eBird (here). 

Tom Carrolan, author of the irreverent Hawks Aloft blog (read it here), from Derby Hill is a big proponent of studying hawk flights on radar. He sent me an email this week with some cool images and video from the first big flight at Hawk Ridge on September 12th. Above I have attached an image of Duluth so that you can see where the lake etc is. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is a couple of miles north of Duluth, right along the lake shore.

From here I'll let Tom explain:

Radar capture of Hawk Ridge Flight (the thin blue line)
"Above is a still image showing the typical Hawk Ridge flight line affected by the lake line… initially it’s on rails at the shore (indicated by the thin blue line of raptors). As the day goes along you can observe the raptor flight drifts inland (west). From the day's hawkcount report conditions were described as southwest to east, however, they were certainly northwest inland as indicated by the still image and radar loop, which would indicate the SW-E readings at the lake were caused by a lake breeze.

This link is for a two-hour sample, showing the flight. Note birds at the northeast end of the loop first, then look towards the hawkwatch

The radar shows exactly what was observed on the ground. From the report: "Broad-wings started strong during morning lift off, but the kettles drifted off to our west with the light easterly breeze, two more dark Swainson's were spotted, the fifth day in a row” (you can read the days report on BirdHawk here)."

As far as I'm concerned it's really cool to be able to see and capture the flight of birds during a day like this. It allows you to see both how a large flight of raptors looks on radar but also to get an idea of what you were missing by being stuck at one site if the flight lines of the birds move. Another thing for radar fans to mess around with. 

Out of interest, here's the radar loop from their 17 thousand bird day on the 19th of September (click link).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Hawkwatching Across The Globe - Israel

Hawkwatching panorama Israel - Luke Tiller
1/ Tell us a little about your watch.
The Israeli Ornithological Center Soaring Birds Count has been going on for over 30 years. During this period the survey has been held in 2 different parts of Israel: in the Northern Valleys and in recent years the west Samaria Hills, about 10 miles east of Tel Aviv. The survey consists of three to five posts, several miles apart spanning the width of the country. The posts are manned daily and the season is eight weeks in length from mid-August to mid-October. We have used volunteers over the years but in recent years we have moved over to using mainly paid local surveyors. 

In spring 2015 we returned to the Eilat mountains after 18 years and re-established a Spring Soaring Birds Count. This is also a long term project that is run by a mixture of paid surveyors and volunteers.

Red-footed Falcon - Luke Tiller
2/ What is the most numerous raptor species seen at your count? 
In the fall, Honey Buzzards (Honeys) are the most common with an average of over 400,000 individuals, also 300,000 White Storks, 110,000 Lesser Spotted Eagles and 50,000 Pelicans and Levant Sparrowhawks. In the Spring half a million Steppe Buzzards and close to half a million Honey Buzzards as well. Both seasons have another 200,000 soaring birds of other species. 

3/ What are the most sought after?
We put special emphasis on different species for different reasons. Storks we count as part of the flight safety project. Levant Sparrowhawks and Lesser Spotted Eagles are counted as means of monitoring the populations of these species as the majority of their population passes through Israel in migration. There is special interest in "pulling out" the larger Eagles, especially in the fall, Eastern Imperial, Greater Spotted and Steppe. There is always interest in rarities and when possible we search for Crested (Oriental) Honey Buzzards within the streams of Honey Buzzards and we always keep an eye out for the rarer Falcons, Eleonora's, Lanner, Saker etc.

Steppe Eagle - Luke Tiller
4/ Do you band/ring raptors too?
We do in Eilat in the spring. There is a small scale project to band Steppe Buzzards and Levant Sparrowhwks down there. Eilat is the most important place for banding Levants in the world. 

5/ Do you just count raptors or are you counting other bird species as well?
Just raptors for now, we have separate surveys for passerine flights. 

6/ What are the goals of your count (outreach, conservation issues, population monitoring all of the above)?
One of the main, and unique, goals of the count is to ensure air travel safety. The huge numbers of migrants soaring birds crossing Israel can prove to be an issue for both civil and military aircraft and the survey is held in collaboration with the IAF. This means survey leaders are in constant contact with air traffic control to update them about movements of birds. Our team identifies and counts everything that passes and the data is collected. We also use the main survey posts as an educational and outreach tool and we hold open weekends for the public. 
These weekends often attract large numbers of visitors. As part of this we have interpretative naturalists and educators to help explain this incredible migration spectacle to visitors. The central post is highly accessible being just outside the capital and near the crossings of both both main North/South and East/West Routes through the country.
Marsh Harrier - Luke Tiller
7/ What is the best time to visit your watch ?
There is always something to look at in a hawkwatch post in Israel. In the fall I suggest the last week of September to mid October when the larger birds pass in impressive streams, Pelicans, Lesser Spotted Eagles and other aquila species like Greater Spotted, Imperial, Steppe etc can be seen. The relatively uniform weather here means that flights are fairly predictable and regular with late morning when the passage usually kicks off.

8/ Can your data be viewed online, if so where?
Data and daily updates can be found on the Israel Birds Portal

9/ If visitors from the US wanted to visit your site where should they go to find out more?
Same thing, the portal, they can contact us through there!

Great White Pelicans - Luke Tiller
Thanks to Jonathan Meyrav from the Israeli Ornithological Center for asnwering our questions. To read more about hawkwatching in Israel you can read HMANA board member Luke Tiller's blog posts about his time out there counting in fall (on his blog). You can get an idea of spring migration by reading Doug Gochfeld's experiences out there this spring on The Leica Birding Blog (here). 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hawkwatching Across The Globe - Belize Raptor Research Institute

Though our focus at HMANA is mainly on North America, there are hawkwatches happening across the globe. Between September 19-27 we will be celebrating hawk migration both in our region and beyond with our second annual International Hawk Migration Week (info here). During this period we will be sharing information about hawkwatches from around the world both here and on our Facebook page (link here). Time to get your bucket list out, you may want to start adding to it! 

First up let's hear from Belize Raptor Research Institute, and their relatively recently formed watch in, you've guessed it, Belize. For those that don't know Belize is often a big draw for British and American birders, not just for their incredible birds, but also because it's the only country in Central America that has English as its official language.
The Count Team - Belize Raptor Research Institute
1/ Tell us a little about the Belize Raptor Research Institute Watch!
Imagine being on the Caribbean Sea coastline with the humid ocean breeze on your face as you stand vigilantly under a coconut palm gazing into the hot sky at one of nature’s greatest spectacles, raptor migration. This may feel like a vacation, but this is our (Belize Raptor Research Institute) hawk watch site located in the southern extent of Belize in the Toledo District at a place called Cattle Landing, just north of Punta Gorda Town. This site is truly a special place for migration, as birds, specifically here raptors, get funneled by the geography as they make their migration south to their wintering grounds using the coastline as their leading line via island hopping from Cuba through the Yucat√°n, passing through Veracruz before making their way through Belize, or through a feat that was thought not to occur in raptors many years ago: crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Our count-site is directly on the coastline on the Cattle Landing community soccer field. This gives us a full 360 degree vantage to view raptors as they pass over the site. It is also located on the main road into Punta Gorda, so all passersby are exposed to the count and it raises attention to the public and Belize about raptors.
Dark Hook-billed Kite - BRRI
This site was first discovered as a key migration site by Dr. Lee Jones, Author of ‘Birds of Belize,’ when he witnessed kettles of Hook-billed Kites migrating south, a species that was thought to be sedentary. To better understand migrating raptors in Belize and to fill that information gap in Central America we started the first fall Hawk Watch Program in Belize in 2013 and will start our third consecutive year on October 15. In 2013 our count was from September 15 to December 7 and 2014 was from October 1 to December 15. This year we will be counting from October 15 through December 15. We are counting raptors at the site seven days a week from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Our watch team consists of a variety of people from all walks of life. We have two paid positions, Project Coordinator and Count Leader. To build capacity for raptor research, conservation, and education in Belize we only hire Belizeans for these two positions. The Project Coordinator is a Toledo District native and bird expert, Victor Bonilla. He has been the Coordinator for the first two years and will continue this year. Our current Count Leader is Isael Mai from San Antonio Village in the Cayo District who works on various bird-related projects and was a volunteer in 2013 on the entire count and last year moved up to Count Leader. The remaining team members are volunteer count technicians who are from all over the world, including Belize, but are primarily recent graduates from the United States gaining experience in research and conservation before pursuing a career in a wildlife related field or entering into graduate school. We have a diverse team that all bring various attributes to the count.
Counters - BRRI
2/ What is the most numerous raptor species seen at your count?
Our first two year results were much different from one another. In 2013, we counted 8,457 raptors, of which 2,858 (33.8%) were migrants. In 2014, we counted 21,077, of which 8,770 (41.6%) were migrants. Based on Dr. Jones’ observations we believe that 2013 was an anomaly year and 2014 is more of the norm. However, this year’s count will tell us a lot. The five most common migrant species at this site are Hook-billed Kites (744 in 2013 and 5,086 in 2014), Mississippi Kites (817 in 2013 and 1,705 in 2014), Broad-winged Hawks (348 in 2013 and 1081 in 2014), Peregrine Falcons (434 in 2013 and 418 in 2014), and Osprey (376 in 2013 and 269 in 2014). We have recorded 32 species of raptor at the site in the 2 years, including rare resident species such as Orange-breasted Falcon, Crested Caracara, and Aplomado Falcon. The most common non-migrants at the site (in order of most common) are Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Short-tailed Hawk, and Common Black-Hawk. 

3/ What are the most sought after?
By far, the focus of this count has been the Hook-billed Kite migration since this is a recently discovered phenomenon and other than Veracruz, Mexico (on average 120 HBKI per year, respectively) is the only known location with a migration of this species. Where these birds are migrating to and coming from is still a mystery. Last year we documented a good size movement of Double-toothed Kites, which are considered resident only, so we are interested in this movement, which has not yet been documented anywhere else. Also, this is a great site for Peregrine Falcons, which our one day high count was 85 individuals. If we counted in August this site has potential to produce one of the highest counts of Swallow-tailed Kites.  
Hook-billed Kite Kettle - BRRI
4/ Do you band/ring raptors too?
We currently do not band raptors, but we are collaborating with folks from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory to possibly start a banding station in Belize. The goal is to have a banding station by 2017. 

5/ Do you just count raptors or are you counting other bird species as well?
We only formally and systematically count raptors, but we do document non-raptor species. This site is good for passerines as well, but if we counted them it would take away our focus on raptors and would bias our data.
Raptor School - BRRI
6/ What are the goals of your count (outreach, conservation issues, population monitoring all of the above)?
This project is multifaceted to better understand raptors migrating through Belize and fill that gap in Mesoamerica, while informing the public about the importance of raptors and showing them first-hand how amazing nature is. The target species is the enigmatic Hook-billed Kite, a potentially key indicator species of climate change. The data obtained from this site will assist in the conservation of raptors from the Neotropical and temperate zones by informing the scientific community and management agencies of changes in raptor populations. Our specific objectives are as follows:
  • Better understand and quantify the raptor migration through Belize.
  • Learn if species that were thought to be sedentary are truly migratory (e.g. Hook-billed Kite) and quantify their migration.
  • Understand the seasonality of little known migratory species.
  • Fill a void of knowledge in raptor migration in Mesoamerica.
  • Establish a long-term Raptor Watch.
  • Participate in multinational conservation by monitoring migratory raptors that pass through multiple countries and two continents.
  • Raise research and conservation awareness of raptors and migratory birds to the region to ultimately help protect both migratory and resident raptor populations.
  • Build local capacity in conservation through this community based project.
  • Train future biologists and conservationists in research and conservation.
  • Build a community bird observation platform to benefit ecotourism and education of biodiversity in the region.
7/ What is the best time to visit your watch?
Belize is a very unique place for raptor migration and probably one of the longest migration seasons. Swallow-tailed Kite southbound migration peaks in mid-August in Belize while Hook-billed Kite migration continues through early December. The best time to visit all depends on what species is your target. If you want to see Plumbeous Kites and Swallow-tailed Kites August is the best time. If you would like to see Mississippi Kites then September is the best time. However, we count from October to December as our target species is Hook-billed Kites. If you would like to see temperate species, such as Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, and Broad-winged Hawks then October is ideal. The great Peregrine migration through Belize peaks October 9-18. Most likely the target is to witness migrating Hook-billed Kites, in which case, any time from the October 22 through mid-December, but it appears that there are multiple peaks around October 26, November 9, and December 1. However, more count years are needed to determine if these peaks are consistent from year to year. We rarely get rained out, but on average get 4 days with no count due to rain. So take your pick of what species you would like to see and come down to count with our team.   
Mississippi Kite Kettle - BRRI
8/ Can your data be viewed online, if so where?
Yes, the first 2 years we posted our daily findings on our website at:

This year (2015), we will continue to post on our website with photos, as well as uploading our data to the HMANA Hawkcount database. We will also upload our first 2 years to Hawkcount. We are currently working on a manuscript to publish our first 3 years of results and establish this site as a critical raptor migration location.

9/ If visitors from the US wanted to visit your site where should they go to find out more?
You can get more information about our count at or email myself, Project Director, at Visitors from outside of Belize visiting the site will need to fly into Belize City (BZE) and then to get to the count-site you have a few different options: take another 1 hour flight to Punta Gorda via Maya Island Air or TropicAir; take a 6 hour bus ride from Belize City to Punta Gorda; or rent a vehicle and drive down to Punta Gorda. Once in the Punta Gorda area the nearest accommodation is Beya Suites, which is within walking distance to the site. 
Victor with the kids - BRRI
Thanks to Ryan Phillips, Project Director at Belize Raptor Research for supplying answer to our questions! We are looking forward to following their season on HMANA's Hawkcount! You can also keep up with goings on through their Facebook page (here).

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Vultures - talking the stork!

Turkey Vulture - Luke Tiller

During the summer I was lucky enough to go spend a few hours at an incredible bird and raptor spot just a stone’s throw across the Kern County line from Los Angeles, CA. Here a number of California Condors spend their summer months loafing around a piece of private property that is almost the size of the five boroughs of New York! It’s amazing to see these birds back from the brink, and worth remembering that without the work of many different organizations they wouldn’t be.

It’s not like the California Condors are the only attraction here, we also ran into a Peregrine Falcon that was out hunting the fields (hopefully not for the cute Burrowing Owls we saw along the fence line), soaring adult Golden Eagles with a recently fledged juvenile, a myriad of dark and light calarus Red-tailed Hawks and light Swanson’s Hawk (a localized breeder in the region). Even with the other raptor goodies, I have to say that getting incredible perched and flight views of these magnificent vultures is pretty much enough in and of itself.

Anyway the reason I bring my weekend up, apart from birding bragging, is that I again found myself hearing that old chestnut that New World Vultures are less closely related to hawks and eagles, than they are to storks. It’s one of those stories that has an appeal as it allows the teller to discuss things like convergent evolution and, thanks to their obvious physical differences, to also get an amazed response from the person you’ve told it to. Unfortunately it’s also essentially a story that hasn’t been believed by most ornithologists for at least five years now.

If you’ve spent time though at a hawkwatch I’m betting it’s a story you have both heard and perhaps even told yourself. Essentially historically there have been three trains of thought with New World Vultures (Cathartidae): that they should be included in the order Ciconiiformes along with storks, that they should be included in the Accipitriformes with hawks and eagles or that they should be in an order all of their own.

Basically what happened is that an early DNA study (unfortunately based on erroneous data) seemed to suggest that vultures were more closely linked to storks than hawks and eagles. This was also backed up by some behavioral, morphological and karyotype similarities. Recent multi-locus DNA studies, however, now seem to suggest that the vultures are more closely related to hawks and eagles. As of current writing if you check the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds you will find them sat among the Accipitriformes which includes kites, harriers, eagles and hawks among others. This decision to put them in this new order was made in the 51st supplement which is based on committee deliberations between January 2009 and March 2010 and published in the summer of 2010.

Interestingly the same supplement announced another big change for raptor aficionados by the AOU. I had been hearing rumors from scientists I knew, for a few years, that there was little to suggest that hawks and falcons were closely related and it was in this supplement that the AOU decided that DNA comparisons showed that these birds (which had previously been lumped in the Order Falconiformes) are not closely related. The hawks, eagles etc were split out into the new order Accipitriformes (which also included the New World Vultures ), while the Falconiformes held on to just falcons, forest falcons and caracaras. These birds were agreed to be much more closely related to parrots and passerines than they were to hawks.

Though the relationship between vultures and hawks is still somewhat in flux highlighted by the South American Classification Committee decision to place the birds into their own order: Cathartiformes, rather than putting them back into an order with hawks, eagles, kites, harriers etc, there is no longer much evidence to suggest that they are that closely related to storks or that they are more related to storks than they are to hawks.

So latest studies seem to suggest that we don’t need to worry about the validity of counting vultures at our hawkwatches, but what to do about those pesky falcons?!?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fall Hawkwatching Basics: Where and When

Hawkwatching - Braddock Bay, NY
As a seasoned hawkwatcher this is a conversation that I have had sadly all too often: on a deathly slow day someone shows up at the watch and asks ‘how is it going’. After you’ve relayed the bad news about winds from the wrong direction and a band of blocking rain to the north they say something like “but it looked like you had a great day yesterday”.

A quote I once read started ‘yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a dream…’ and that’s the truth about hawkwatching. To get the most out of the hawkwatching experience you need to become something of an amateur meteorologist, or at least look at the weather forecast once in a while. Like much birding during migration, weather is going to play a key part in your success. Though I have been relayed charming stories about the early years of hawkwatching, that were spent looking for birds on previously set dates each fall regardless of the fact that it was perhaps pouring with rain that day, we now understand that there is a slightly more scientific approach to actually seeing some birds at a hawkwatch.
Hawkwatching - Texas
The rest of the quote I referenced above runs ‘…today is a gift.’, so even if you find yourself at the watch on one of those slow days don’t despair. You might still make the best of it by learning some stuff from the hawkwatcher or others there at the watch. It’s generally much easier to glean some information from hawkwatchers on slow days, when they will be thankful for some company, than on madcap days when they are trying to keep up with a huge flight. On those days it might be best advised to not talk to them at all ;) Also even on the slower days, you never know what might show up. I always say it only takes one bird to dramatically change the complexion of how a day’s birding went.

To cover the basics of Fall migration, though each watch will have its own ideal wind and weather conditions, to generalize you are looking to head out on days with northerly winds (blowing from the north – sometimes that isn’t clear to people) to bring birds southwards and hopefully past your watch. Sometimes a watch might do better on northwest winds sometimes northeast depending on the location. In fact, once you become more expert in meteorological matters and your local watches, sometimes the direction and strength winds are blowing might sway which local watch you decide to visit on a certain day. You may also want to check whether rain might dampen the flight. That said, rain is not always a reason not to head out, I have sometimes had some good days watching between light showers and often huge flights can be formed ahead of a storm system.  
Hawkwatching - Quaker Ridge, CT
Weather discussions perhaps assumes that you even know where to go looking for a regularly staffed hawkwatch site? To find a local watch site you can check out the hawkcount website map and click the individual states to find out where your local counts are (link here). Some counts happen in spring, some counts are in fall and some are both. You can click on the individual site link to find out general information about each site. If you click the “migration timing” tab you can get a feel for the usual peaks and troughs of the sites season and by clicking “latest count data” you can usually gauge how regularly the watch is covered.

If you want to find out what the forecast for the hawk flight is like for the next day you can sometimes read this on the individual daily reports from reporting sites (example here). These individual reports are viewable on the front page on Hawkcount (link here). As I write this post it’s currently pretty early on in the season so only a handful of sites are regularly reporting right now. Having had to write those forecasts myself and knowing how unlikely they are to be 100% accurate I understand why counters sometimes feel reluctant to complete that section, but they are more likely to when it at least looks promising the following day.
Hawkwatching - Israel
Keep an eye on the HMANA blog through the fall season, as we will be posting more articles aimed at cluing in beginner and intermediate level hawkwatchers on how to get the most out of the hawkwatching experience over the next few weeks.

A version of this piece was originally posted on Luke Tiller's blog Underclearskies (link here).