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).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Photos or it didn't happen....

Gear - Luke Tiller
One of the biggest recent developments in birding must be the invention of digital photography! In a galaxy far, far away the acceptance of records of rare birds was often based on years of developing your reputation with the local birding community and more importantly perhaps the bird police (records committees). Now all one need do is snap off a couple of shots of the rare bird you’ve witnessed and Bob’s your uncle, rarity committee (and eBird reviewer) easily satisfied. Many citizen science projects rely on a review process to validate rare or uncommon records and this is something I believe HMANA are considering for Hawkcount in the near future.

In some ways it’s a double edged sword, now you can get rare records accepted of birds without having to build the years of trust, but it sometimes feels like we might have become almost completely reliant on getting pics to both confirm a rarity and even to conclusively get an ID. Last Fall, for example, I was chasing Spizella sparrows through a field for a while before my friend decided rather than chase the bird down further he’d just zoom in his camera and check the shot of the bird in question for the median crown stripe and other features that would ID our bird as a brighter Brewer’s or dull Clay-colored Sparrow.

Obviously we are doing our best to collect accurate data at a hawkwatch, but let's face it, people make mistakes. When I say people I mean everyone. Hawkwatching is tough and I’ve seen great hawk watchers make bad calls – so imagine what us mere mortals are up to. A quick identifying snap, often no matter how bad, can produce something that is identifiable to support one's claims – check out the distant dark Red-tail that we had on the HMANA Raptor ID tour in 2014 (report here)!

Dark Red-tailed Hawk at Braddock Bay - Catherine Hamilton
Of course getting those identifying shots is much easier with perched birds than it is with ones in flight. The arts of digibinning and digiscoping aren’t really aimed at capturing soaring birds, though the adapters at least make it almost possible. In fact I have managed to get handheld record shots of birds in flight through the scope - like the following Golden Eagle. That said if you thought digiscoping in general was frustrating, and I know I do, getting flying birds is pretty near impossible in many situations.

Hawkwatchers have plenty of things to do when they are juggling a busy count day and it may be that one of the last things they want to do is think about recording birds. That said, as well as for the nasty things in life (like humoring eBird reviewers), cameras are there for the good things too. Everyone knows the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Raptors are beautiful and hawk migration can be visually stunning. Having a ready supply of great images that you can use for publicity, outreach or that you can loan to local papers for articles are all invaluable. You can also use them just to create a buzz on social media with birders and members of the local community alike.

The great thing is that you now no longer need to break the bank to help record what is happening at your hawkwatch. DSLR setups don’t have to cost a fortune (though they can of course) and super zoom and bridge cameras can often be really reasonably priced. Even better, most have decent video technology too. It certainly makes for more fun reading when you can share images with your daily hawkwatching updates. I loved looking at the Borrego Springs Hawkwatch blog to see how they were faring (link here) this past Spring and keeping up with goings on at Derby Hill was made infinitely more fun by seeing the photos Dave Wheeler would share on his hawkcount checklist (link to his flickr account here) and the video in the following link certainly makes migration more vivid (link here

Digiscoped Golden Eagle at Braddock Bay - Luke Tiller
One other great thing I was reminded of about digital photography the other week, whilst out looking at California Condors, is that it can often give you the ability to accurately pick up stuff like wing tags on a moving bird. They can often be almost impossible to read through bins or scope, but with a nice photograph it is often simple.

So, to conclude, photographs create memories, help keep our ID’s honest, create great promotional and outreach opportunities and can even aid in the processes of citizen science. If you haven't already, it's a great time to invest in a camera. Over the season HMANA will share what we hope will be some useful photography tips here on the blog. We hope they inspire!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Looking for a few good board members

Serving as a director on HMANAs board of directors is fun, rewarding and an important way to help assure raptors and migration study continues into the future.  Now is the time for HMANA members and prospective members to get involved in board activities for 2016.     

HMANAs board is comprised of nine elected and up to eight appointed directors.  Elected directors serve three-year terms; board-appointed directors serve one-, two- or three-year terms.  Board members are expected to participate in a majority of the boards monthly meetings as a minimum commitment.  Most board members also serve actively on one or more of HMANAs 14 committees, whose work includes overseeing HMANA award programs, directing HMANAs communications, managing its endowment fund, creating and implementing development opportunities, creating raptor adventure tours, supporting and improving HawkCount and the use and archiving of data contributed by hawk watch sites, monitoring and working on conservation issues and assuring appropriate governance practices. 

HMANA currently is preparing the 2015 election ballot of HMANA members to serve on the board of directors.  The election occurs in September, when the board expects to fill at least three positions by election or appointment.  Any HMANA member interested in serving on the board should contact Gil Randell, whose duties as secretary include coordinating the election and appointment process (  HMANA members are also encouraged to suggest candidates to Gil.

This is an exciting time for HMANA with the hiring of its first full-time executive director anticipated within the next two years along with the opening of our new office.  Work as a director on the HMANA board has always been fun and rewarding, and is becoming even richer and more interesting as the organization embarks on this new stage of its development.   

If you are not quite ready for a board term, stay tuned for a chance to serve on one of HMANAs committees.  Look for information about how to become active on a committee in October.
Get involved!  

Friday, July 31, 2015

And they are off!

Clickers - Catherine Hamilton

It's started! Southbound migration. Here in Los Angeles those tiny terrors: Rufous Hummingbirds are back and bullying all and sundry at the feeders as they make their way south for the winter. Down along the LA River and out in the desert beyond the San Gabriel Mountains, shorebirds, terns and swallows are starting to pile up at the usual watery oases. Though just a trickle of landbirds so far, we aren't so far removed from the migrant flood.

Though most 'Fall' watches won't start up for a couple of weeks yet it was exciting to see the first flight of raptors reported on Hawkcount from Congaree Bluffs, SC (report here). It always seems weird to me to talk about Fall migration when most of my non-birding friends are still in the middle of their beach season. Of course in reality some birds are on the move most of the year and it always amuses me to think that while many hawkwatch sites are tallying southbound migration, up at the Braddock Bay Hawkwatch in NY (home of the HMANA Raptor ID Workshop) they are counting the northbound push of post breeding dispersal along the Great Lakes (read about the phenomenon here).

Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Reading that report from South Carolina I find myself imagining the excitement of seeing those initial couple of migrant raptors breaking over the horizon, as well as enjoying the other soaring birds like Wood Storks and Anhingas as they float by. I wonder if I am the only one out there that gets a vicarious thrill from looking at the day's reports in Hawkcount and reading through the highs and lows of other peoples days out hawkwatching? Being in the Los Angeles Basin means that there is little in the way of any visual migration of raptors, or anything else for that matter, so being able to scan through the reports in the evening is about as close as I get.

I start with sites that I know well: either ones I have counted at or that I have visited. That way you know what you've missed by being miles away, or maybe just stuck in the office all day. As well as keeping up with known sites I also just enjoy looking through and reading the reports, appreciating the descriptions of the flights, the humor of the counters or even just sympathizing with the frustrations of a seasons developments. The real highlight for me though is to look at those sites with mind-boggling flights in Texas, Mexico and Panama and try to imagine the panic, joy and insanity a day with two million raptors might cause (Hawkcount report for Cerro Ancon, Panama here).

Braddock Bay Hawkwatchers - Luke Tiller

Am I alone in this? Or are there other online hawkwatchers enjoying the seasons flight from the comfort of their own office? Of course I have to say that being there for the flights would be better, but when you can't, at least for me, there is always Hawkcount! Maybe I should start a hawkwatchers anonymous for those of us deprived of the real thing by location, work or whatever else in life is getting in the way?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Report from Kittatinny Roundtable

Laurie Goodrich hosting the Kittatinny Roundtable at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
The annual Kittatinny Roundtable for hawkwatch coordinators is always great fun, and this year was no exception. Hosted by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for nearly 40 years now, the summertime event is a chance for hawk site coordinators in southern Pennsylvania, upper Maryland and New Jersey to get together in the off season to discuss raptor migrations from the previous year.

The event includes a roundup of the previous year’s migration results and timing, as well as several presentations from researchers about their current work.  This year we heard from Jean-Francois (J.F.) Therrien about Project Snowstorm and some of the conditions that led to the big irruption of snowy owls last winter.  Nick Bolgiano reported on his study of the geographic changes in the distribution of the American Kestrel. The kestrel is declining in much of the northeast, but is stable in the Midwest and, at least for the moment, in Pennsylvania. He also found a direct correlation between cold and snowy winters and lower kestrel populations the following year.  Holly Merker described the advantages of using a group or hawkwatch site account to enter sightings through HawkCount and eBird.  Jack’s Mountain reported on a record-breaking Golden Eagle flight in three hours on October 31. They tallied the first eagle at 12:55, saw several kettles of 5-7 eagles during the afternoon and ended the day with 56 Golden Eagles, which smashed the old record of 31.

The meeting’s organizer Laurie Goodrich reported on Hawk Mountain’s Broad-winged Hawk migration tracking. The Broad-winged Hawk tracking project just completed its first year but already has produced some new information.  Four broadwings were fitted with radio transmitters, an adult female and three fledglings.  The fledglings made it down into Mexico and central America but apparently did not survive to travel further.  The female bird, dubbed Abbo, made it into Brazil for the winter, where she was already starting to float around in a constantly northerly direction by mid-January.  Her flight paths to the south and returning to Pennsylvania this spring were nearly identical. This year four more female birds are or will be trapped to see where they go and when.  Female birds are used as they are larger, and the tracking devices are still too large for the smaller male birds.

Most of the sites attending this session had poor Broad-winged Hawk flights in 2014, though Scott’s Mountain in New Jersey could boast 11,208 for the season.  Kestrel flights were both up and down but probably averaged out to be about the same overall. Golden Eagle flights were strong, with Waggoner’s Gap the leader at 241.  Overall, that flight had two big days at most sites on October 26 and November 2.

Laurie believes the Kittatinny Roundtable is the only regional get-together of its kind.  It would be nice to see similar events in other regions, especially around the Great Lakes and the far northeast.

Monday, July 13, 2015

2015 AOU Check-list Supplement

Roadside Hawk - Catherine Hamilton
The American Ornithological Union recently released its 2015 Check-list Supplement (available here). There are a few changes that will be of interest to raptor aficionados and hawkwatchers in this year’s supplement. Coincidentally most of them seem to affect raptors that we hope to see on our Raptors of the Rio Grande Valley Tour in November (link here). 

One change is a new genus and sequence for both White-tailed and Roadside Hawk. White-tailed Hawk makes a change from Buteo albicaudatus to Geranoaetus albicaudatus based on genetic data. This means that White-tailed Hawk moves into a genus with Variable Hawk and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle and becomes the only North American Geranoaetus. White-tailed Hawk is mainly restricted to coastal southern Texas in the USA and can be found southwards all the way to Argentina.

White-tailed Hawk - Catherine Hamilton
Roadside Hawk also comes out of Buteo into its own genus Rupornis. This species has a number of subspecies, some of which may well deserve species status, and can be found from Mexico south to tropical South America. Though considered a mainly resident species there are eight winter records of the species from the Rio Grande Valley, TX (so we will keep our fingers crossed).

New Buteonine Hawk Sequence: Roadside Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Hawaiian Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk 

One of the other species we will see in Texas is involved in a small change as Crested Caracara comes out of its subfamily Caracarinae and moves into the family of true falcons: Falconinae.

Northern Harrier -  Rick Bacher
One of the proposed changes that was not accepted but might be of interest to raptor fans, hawkwatchers and maybe more specifically raptor banders was the proposal to split Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) from Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus). There is currently one accepted record of the European subspecies from a wing found on the Aleutians in 1999, though Howell in his comments in Rare Birds of North America (Princeton University Press 2014) suggests that there are other promising reports out there including one from New Jersey in 2010. The book also has a good overview on separating the two subspecies: relatively easy with adult male Hen Harriers which are much cleaner grey and white and with six black primaries, much less so with females and juveniles. Juvenile Hen Harrier averages streakier than Northern and much less cinnamon/orange overall. You can read a good perspective on the ID challenge from Julian Hough on Birding Frontiers (details here) and read an account of the Cape May bird (link here). Getting extensive photos of interesting birds would be highly recommended!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Progress on HMANA's new home

by Will Weber

HMANA will find a permanent home in the Visitor Center of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge in southeast Michigan. Now under construction, the visitor center is expected to be completed in the spring of 2017.

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge includes 48 miles of shoreline along the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie. Nearly seven million people live within a 45-minute drive. The watershed supports a great diversity of wildlife and habitats which provide many world-class outdoor recreational opportunities. The count site of the Detroit River Hawk Watch is included in the refuge area and Holiday Beach Migration Observatory is within sight of the refuge.

For 44 years, beginning in 1946, automobile component manufacturing occurred on the gateway to North America’s only international wildlife refuge, a 44-acre tract of waterfront property in Trenton, Michigan. By 1990, automotive facilities were closed and the land had been remediated to industry standards, leaving an industrial brownfield behind to sit vacant for the next 12 years. In 2002, Wayne County purchased the land to become the gateway to the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The property is now known as the Refuge Gateway. A master plan for the site, including a large visitor center, was then developed by Wayne County, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many partners to serve as a blueprint for the cleanup and restoration work at the Refuge Gateway necessary to establish the site as an ecological buffer for Humbug Marsh, Michigan’s only “Wetland of International Importance.”

Since the adoption of the Refuge Gateway Master Plan in 2006, much work has been accomplished, including: capping of brownfield lands, daylighting Monguagon Creek and constructing a retention pond and emergent wetland to treat storm water prior to discharge to the Detroit River, a shoreline and riparian restoration, completion of all public access roads, and construction of two wildlife observation decks and an education shelter in Humbug Marsh. In 2011, the Refuge Gateway received $1.39 million in funding to complete all cleanup and restoration work in 2012. This “Extreme Makeover” of the Refuge Gateway landscape will restore over 41 acres of land for wildlife habitat and outdoor education and recreational experiences. At this time, HMANA is the only non-profit environmental organization invited to find a home in the visitor center. In part, this is a recognition of the importance of the annual raptor  passage over the refuge as an opportunity for public environmental education.