Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where were you...?

Where were you on September 11? For most of us hawkfolk, the answer is "on my watchsite." For those whose vistas include the Manhattan skyline, the day etched a terrible memory. For others of us, the horrifying news arrived with some of our volunteers. Then came the oh-so-surreal disconnect: the beautiful late-summer sky, the eternal mountains, the southbound hawks passing overhead, the "how can this be?" feeling.
At Little RoundTop in New Hampshire we have almost constant airtraffic, large and small, military and civilian. The cessation of flights hit us slowly, but how strange yet eerily peaceful the skies became that day and those that followed. Six of us stood in the outdoor chapel atop the hill that morning joining hands in prayer for our country, for the victims of those heinous acts, for peace.

We now observe the anniversary of that day with a moment of silence and remembrance. September 11 was particulary poignant this year. Following a morning gathering at their firehouse, two local firemen visited our site. While they were there a Bald Eagle drifted past.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Part Two: Where are all the hawkwatchers? Expand your inner circle…

Are you having trouble finding volunteers? Let them know you’re out there! Here are a few tips that might help sites make connections with the public and increase participation.

Partnering with local research and non-profit organizations:
It’s worth asking around at your local conservation or education-based non-profits if there is any interest in partnering at your site. Many organizations are looking for engaging citizen science projects or community-based initiatives – as educators or researchers. Besides, they often have the experience and expertise necessary to help your site.

Tapping into existing networks like local communities, outdoor/birding clubs or scout troops: There is a huge resource of clubs and outdoor groups that are interested in helping out with a good cause. At the Pack Monadnock hawkwatch, we’ve connected with local Boy Scout troops who remove trees each year - maintaining our view and helping with trail maintenance. Scouts may also be interested in earning merit badges, such as Bird Study, or participating in other required ecological studies. All they need may be a little guidance.

Sites can also work towards bringing more raptor education into classrooms. Some middle schools have an entire “raptor segment” or run annual hawkwatches from school grounds in which kids learn how to collect data and make field observations. Contact your local middle school to inquire about these programs.

Contacting local universities and colleges:
Often just making a connection with local colleges and talking to professors about the importance of raptor monitoring goes a long way. I have found that many institutions are searching for projects in which to involve their students and are often unaware of migration monitoring efforts.
Each year at our watchsite, New Hampshire Audubon offers fall practicums, or apprenticeships, to area graduate students. Students assist the main counter with counting and interpretation responsibilities in exchange for school credits. Two previous practicum students are still involved in the hawkwatch as main counters – proof that this program works!

Offering presentations and field trips to local sites:
At the start of each fall season, I organize a few raptor ID presentations at local venues and publicize them widely. This is always a great opportunity to enroll new volunteers in the count.
Another idea is to offer free trips to hawkwatch sites early in the season, which works to engage people and keeps them coming back. Partnering with local outdoor groups such as NH Audubon chapters, I lead some peak-season trips – usually winners for wooing the crowd. Encourage young birders, especially, to get involved and ask for their help counting – most of the time, that’ll be enough to bring them back.

Create a welcoming atmosphere at hawkwatch sites: a place where people feel comfortable visiting and asking questions. Creating incentives to get people involved makes a big difference. Offer t-shirts, volunteer hats or free silhouette guides to those willing to volunteer.

These are just a few ideas that may be helpful to increase involvement or membership at your hawkwatch. If you are struggling to find volunteers and would like some help reaching out, please contact me, Julie Tilden - Monitoring Site Coordinator at Your data is valuable! We at HMANA are striving to help sites as best we can and to ensure long-term raptor migration monitoring.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where are all the hawkwatchers?

As HMANA’s Monitoring Site Coordinator, I reach out to a lot of hawkwatch sites across North America. One of the things I enjoy most is checking in with sites and talking to folks about how their seasons went, hearing stories and highlights, as well as changes they’ve seen in raptor populations or movements over the years. One thing is for sure – each site is unique, with its own system of operation, its own methodology, its own nicknames for landmarks, and of course, its own quirky crew of dedicated counters.
Some sites have paid staff counting fixed hours while others may only have coverage on weekends, big days, or during broad-winged hawk season. There are sites run by universities, middle schools, non-profit organizations, bird clubs and state parks, to name just a few.
Overall, the majority of sites are run by volunteers – dedicated people who just love to be outside each fall - watching migrants overhead, and perhaps passing on an appreciation of raptors to others.

These volunteers are what make HMANA and the HawkCount Network strong. However, HMAMA is concerned as more and more sites with long term data sets slip off the map due to the lack of staffing and volunteer presence at sites. Watchsite coordinators throughout the country have been reporting that they “just don’t have enough volunteers”. People are busy and many just don’t have the time to donate to hawkwatching. In some cases we are seeing the older generation, who may have initiated sites in the 1970’s and 1980’s, unable to continue counting and having difficulty finding people to pass the torch on to.

Where are all the new and upcoming hawkwatchers? It’s difficult for young budding biologists to accept counting positions with little or no compensation – and even if they do, what’s the incentive to keep them coming back year after year? Even though many sites are making huge strides in outreach and education, I feel we can do even more to engage the next generation of counters and make known the importance of raptor monitoring. It is clear that we need a resurgence of new blood in the hawkwatching community. This means reaching out to young people and getting them involved. Below are a few ways I feel we can do this:
· Partnering with local research and non-profit organizations
· Tapping into existing networks like local communities, outdoor/birding clubs or scout troops
· Contacting local universities and colleges
· Offering field trips to local sites
· Creating a welcoming atmosphere at hawkwatches

In my next post, I’ll go into detail regarding these efforts and how we can go about making connections to improve hawkwatch participation.

Please add your thoughts and ideas.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Following Raptors South - A Glimpse of Migration in Costa Rica

Many of us are deeply absorbed in the passing of migrants each fall. Here in New England, we treasure those crisp days bright with red-shouldered hawks and changing foliage. A kettle of 50 broadwings overhead may be all you need to get you through the week. But when they leave us in chilly New England, do you give thought to where they are heading? As I watch an osprey soar overhead in New Hampshire, I can’t help but envision its route…island hopping from Florida through the Caribbean until it reaches South America and shooting straight through Brazil. Or a merlin, forever in a hurry, tearing down the Atlantic coast and hugging the gulf until it settles somewhere in central Mexico.
HMANA’s website is a phenomenal resource for pulling together all the pieces of this puzzle. It is one of the best tools we have for understanding the big picture: what species are moving, how many, where they are going, and when they are moving. How great to be able to learn of raptor movements all over the continent with a few clicks of the mouse.

When we think about migration on a different scale, massive movements of raptors passing in the tens of thousands a day, we often think of Gulf coast sites or Veracruz, Mexico, well known for tallying an astounding 5 million raptors each fall! Well, I wanted to briefly highlight a migration monitoring site that doesn’t get much attention but has a lot to offer and is located in one of the most biologically and culturally rich sites in the world - the Kekoldi Hawkwatch in Talamanca, Costa Rica.
Here, tucked into the rainforests of the Caribbean lowlands inside an indigenous reserve, stands a canopy tower perfectly situated for monitoring migrants. All southbound birds are funneled through a narrow 5 km stretch between the Talamancan Mountains and the Atlantic coastline. In addition to millions of raptors, swallows and dragonflies cover the skies, warblers pour through in waves, intermingling with resident forest birds and common nighthawk counts have reached 20,000 in one day.

Since 2000, Kekoldi has been a volunteer-run site active during most fall and spring seasons. However, it struggles at times to find enough counters. This is unfortunate, given its biological significance and history of counting 2- 3 million raptors of 15+ species. I was lucky enough to spend two seasons at Kekoldi, assisting in the count and collecting data on Peregrine Falcon migration. The potential for research at this site is outstanding and it is critical to pursue for our understanding of raptor populations and movements in the tropics. Currently, HMANA is striving to assist the Kekoldi hawkwatch in adding data to the HawkCount database and by establishing continuous counts and so it can become a contributer of long term data.
To put this all into perspective, when we are swimming in broad-winged hawks up here in the northeast, the Kekoldi watchsite has already counted 200,000 Mississippi kites. As we welcome late season redtails and goshawks in mid-October, the skies above Kekoldi are covered in one million broad-winged hawks. By October 25th, a half a million Swainson’s hawks will be passing overhead. By the time November rolls around in New England, we are packing it in, or maybe withstanding the last few cold days, hoping for a golden eagle or two. But in Kekoldi, turkey vultures are just getting started and will total over one million by mid-December.

I think it’s important to keep these migration schedules in mind. It gives me a new perspective on migration and reminds me of the bigger picture. It also makes me value the count data I collect daily, and the feeling that I’m contributing to something larger.

Interested in visiting this secluded raptor hotspot? A HMANA tour to the Kekoldi Hawkwatch may be in the making for fall 2010. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Where I hawkwatch when time is short

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say, "I don’t have time to drive to (fill in the name of a hawkwatch here) to go hawkwatching."

I dearly love hawkwatching but as editor of Hawk Migration Studies and also with a day job, I have far less time for it than I’d like. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is about 90 minutes away, and even nearby Waggoner’s Gap, north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is a 45-minute drive.

I can very much relate to the complaint about not having enough time for hawkwatching. Sometimes, a couple of hours is all I can scrape together, and I don’t want to spend most of that driving. So what’s a girl to do?

Well, I often hawkwatch in what is roughly my backyard. I’ve created my own personal hawkwatch. I go to a parking lot of a nearby ski resort that sits at about 1000 ft. elevation and provides a nice open view. There’s no leading mountain edge to funnel the raptors so the number of raptors isn’t always great. But, occasionally the numbers are fine, and even when they’re not, I always see at least a few things.

So far, I’ve never seen a Golden Eagle, Northern Goshawk or a Peregrine Falcon from my parking lot hawkwatch, but I always have hope. For all the other species found in the eastern U.S., I’ve had at least one sighting. Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, along with a variety of American Kestrels and the occasional nice flight of Broad-winged Hawks are the mainstays. Harriers, Osprey and Bald Eagles make regular appearances. I’ve seen a Merlin here exactly once, ditto the Rough-legged Hawk, and Red-shouldered Hawks are seen less often than I would have expected.

But, when I only have a few free hours for hawkwatching, coming to this spot is a lot better than spending most of that time in the car on my way to or from one of the big hawkwatches. I’ve had a Cooper’s Hawk land on a nearby light pole and proceed to eat something. I’ve seen a big kettle of Broad-wings suddenly fall out of a cloud and almost drop on my head. I’ve seen Ravens and Common Loons and flocks of songbirds heading north or south. I take my dog, a comfy lawn chair and my binoculars and it’s a wonderful way to spend a few hours. And it’s much, much better than using most of my free time in the car.

So do any of you have your own strategy for how to get out hawkwatching more often?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fall Hawk Migration Studies is out!

This is Carolyn blogging again here this morning. As editor of HMANA’s Hawk Migration Studies, I am happy to report to HMANA members that the fall edition of our journal is now mailed and should be in your hands. If you haven’t gotten your issue yet, please contact membership secretary John Weeks to report a delivery problem.

The new issue of HMA has flyway reports from fall 2008 all across the continent, plus an interview with Kate Davis about her lovely new falcon book and the work she does with Raptors of the Rockies in Montana. Former HMANA chair Will Weber has an extensive article about all kinds of raptor mortality, covering the topic in more detail than I’ve ever seen before. We also have some spectacular raptor photos from Vic Berardi, among others, and lots of other good information ranging from the increased sightings of Mississippi Kites from our own Paul Roberts to the finding of a 2500 year old gyrfalcon nest.

If you’re not a member of HMANA yet, now is a good time to join (here) and have John W. send you the latest issue.

Today’s photos were all taken by David McNicholas, a HMANA board member who’s also a wonderful photographer. A migrating Merlin decided to "eat on the run," so to speak, and David captured the event for all of us to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Loads of Odes

It was a very cool and wet spring and early summer in the northeast, apparently ideal conditions for producing loads of odes – dragonflies and damselflies. My wife Julie and I noticed many more odes than usual while hiking in the Maine mountains in August.

This September we enjoyed an above average flight of American Kestrels at Wachusett Mountain for the past decade, one of the leading hawk watch sites in Massachusetts. Not only were the numbers up, but we noticed that many of the kestrels were “insecting” out in front of the mountain, often kiting and hovering in pursuit of insect prey. We frequently saw the kestrels continue overhead with dragonflies visible in their talons, dissecting their ode prey in flight. Also had one adult Merlin come in right on the summit and dive down after an insect, to the point that we first thought it was a nighthawk until we got a full look at it! (At the same time, we saw far fewer Monarch butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrating past Wachusett than usual.)

Doing Lighthouse Point in New Haven, Connecticut, last week, we had some great kestrel days (over 200), and saw many with dragonflies in their talons. I don’t know my odes, but one female had a gigantic dragonfly in her talons and was carrying it like the jumbo Air Force jet carrying the Space Shuttle beneath it. Also saw several Merlins going after insects high overhead. I was surprised, however, to see a Sharp-shinned Hawk with a dragonfly hanging from her landing gear, munching in flight. I’ve seen kestrels, Merlins and Peregrines, not to mention Short-eared Owls, eating in flight, but I’ve never seen an accipiter doing so.

I know that kestrels migrating over Hawk Ridge in Duluth do so at the same time as odes migrating around the western point of Lake Superior, feeding on their fellow travelers as they fly? Has anyone else seen a notable increase in odes at their hawk watches this year?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pepperspecks and the Visibility of Hawks

It was a mezzo mezzo Broad-winged Hawk migration at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Massachusetts, this fall. The numbers were less than half our long-term average and about three quarters of the average for the past ten years.

Compounding the disappointment, many of the broadwings were pepperspecks, so high in the sky that some people thought we were counting floaters in our eyes. How high were these pepperspecks? In Flight Strategies of Migrating Hawks (1989) Paul Kerlinger says that at Cape May, NJ, broadwings were difficult to see with the naked eye when 625 meters, or roughly 2000 feet, directly overhead against a cloudless sky. Broadwings were generally seen with the naked eye below 550 m (1800 ft) but somewhat difficult to see beyond that. When using 7X binoculars, single broadwings directly overhead were difficult to detect at 1,100 m (3600 ft). Kerlinger notes that in Texas flocks of hundreds of broadwings observed on radar could be missed by observers with binoculars when the hawks were flying less than 1600 ft above ground level about a mile from the observers.

Today I was hawk watching at Lighthouse Point in New Haven, Connecticut, one of my favorite sites for looking at accipiters and falcons. It is a great site to see and compare Sharp-shinned Hawks with Cooper’s Hawks, and today I was trying to photograph them, with limited success. I was in a parking lot between two small woodlots, somewhat sheltered from a 10-13 mph northwest wind gusting to 22 mph. Early on, the birds were low, often just above treetop levels, but they gradually worked their way up in late morning to the limits of unaided vision.

Occasionally, they would stack up, soaring and hanging into the wind. One time, I had 8 Sharp-shinned Hawks stacked up in a single column from the treetops to the limits of unaided vision. It looked like the skies over Kennedy airport early on a Monday morning, but these air travelers weren’t looking to land. They were trying to decide if they wanted to fly 5-7 miles over the bay in that wind, or circumnavigate the bay. Kerlinger says that sharpies become difficult to see against cloudless skies between 400-500 meters (1300-1600 ft.) overhead and disappeared above 700 m. (2300 ft).

Later in the day when I had given up all hope of photography because of the birds’ altitude, one of the excellent observers at Lighthouse would find a sharpshin or kestrel flying at the limits of naked vision. When one bird was found, we would often find another half dozen birds in the immediate area, once our eyes could focus on something. On one occasion I found a Peregrine rowing across the sky almost directly overhead, beyond unaided vision and approaching the limits of binocular vision. While directing other observers to the Peregrine, I discovered two more following in an almost direct line at the same altitude, which suggests these broadwing-sized birds were probably around 3600 ft. high.

A number of factors that I have not addressed affect the visibility of hawks. Several books and articles published in the '80s addressed the issue to an extent, but I’ve not seen much done “recently.” Is anyone aware of “visibility studies” done at a hawk watch near them?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Is your watchsite one of those fortunate enough to always have multiple observers? Do you also have a designated "education" person? And maybe you have a weather station and one of more kiosks or signs with information about hawk migration, identification. Do you know how lucky you are? Did you realize you are envied?

Here at the 40-year-old New Hampshire site, little Roundtop, we have one person who wears many hats, only occasional helpers, no weather station and no signs. However, we DO have "tree-osks!"

A tree-osk is Little Roundtop’s substitute for a kiosk. Three trees at the site serve this purpose. Bungee cords wrapped around the trunks hold weather instruments (thermometer and wind meter) and a current conditions weather radar map, details of the previous day’s and current season’s sightings, a brochure holder with HMANA membership flyers, and another with "Hawk Watching FAQ’s" that answers the questions we always get from visitors. We also have mini-posters with the previous year’s sightings and the 25-year averages, high and low counts and a daily sighting board.

The system works pretty well, however, everything must be carried up the trail, deployed each morning and then taken down each afternoon. Visitors love our "tree-osks," but those of you that have more formal arrangements, be assured that you are indeed envied.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hawks per Hour and Broadwings per Hour

HPH = Hawks per Hour, BwPH = Broad-wings per Hour

The BwPH at Little Roundtop (New Hampshire) was way down this year. No, that doesn't mean there were fewer hawks. We don't assess population trends by HPH--that is what the Raptor Population Index is all about.

What HPH does tell us is how many hawks were concentrated during migration over a given observation spot. A site can have a very high HPH one year and a very low number the next year. If the numbers of observation hours at a given site are low, but the observers were lucky enough to record lots of hawks, then the site will achieve a high HPH. If, however, observers put in many hours of observation but the migration "tracks" that year didn't take big kettles over the site, the HPH, in this case, BwPH, will obviously be lower.

That's exactly what happened at a number of New England sites this September. Many hours were invested on these sites, thanks to excellent weather conditions. Days were neither too cold nor too hot, and sites did not need to shut down for rain. Translation: happy hawks. Great flying conditions allowed for really high Broad-wing "elevators" with no significant meteorological events that temporarily blocked the birds or steered and concentrated them near lookouts.

Just for fun I calculated the BwPH for three sites up here near the northeastern "Broadie" headwaters, looking at the years 2006 through this season. Because of the interplay of weather with the landscape, these three sites probably do not count the same hawks. For the three years before 2009, Pack Monadnock (New Hampshire) averaged 33.6 BwPH, Little Round Top averaged 18.8, and Putney Mtn. (Vermont) had an average of 15.2. Both Little Round Top and Pack saw a drop this season, but Putney saw a slight increase. The combined overall average BwPH for the three sites dropped 24% from 24.4 to 18.6, although the total number of Broad-winged Hawks counted was only 12% lower than the four year average.

What's in store for next year? Aha! That's the question that keeps bringing us back to our lookouts.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Reflections 'Neath a Big Sky

I’m Susan Fogleman, a former HMANA board member and site leader for Little Roundtop Migration Observatory in New Hampshire. When I first came on the scene much was unknown about migration patterns of raptors in northern New England. Birds of prey had only recently come under federal protection. Many folks still held to the 19th century view that hawks were “bad,” and “good” birds were robins, chickadees and other songbirds.

Would-be hawkwatchers were encouraged to visit the same sites that gunners used. They not only counted hawks but educated the public about the importance of raptor conservation. Those efforts, which today seem almost primitive, have evolved into the far more sophisticated protocols most sites now follow.

September 23 was my last day as site leader for Little Round Top Migration Observatory. I spent 6+ hours under overcast skies, with little to no breeze--all for a single Osprey. I have grown up and grown old on this lookout. I have met hundreds of great people and seen thousands of migrating hawks. My eyes aren’t what they were when I began hawkwatching some 30 years ago, nor is my stamina for standing in the sun and wind for hours. I have spent many long lonely hours with lots of hawks and with no hawks, and I have had days where the hilltop was wall-to-wall with people, sometimes hawk seekers, sometimes elementary school or university students, sometimes groups from bird clubs and Audubon chapters. I pray that in all this time I may have said some one thing sometime that has led someone to an active life in conservation and nature appreciation.

Will I be able to stay away? Probably not. However, in this part of New Hampshire not many are willing or able to dedicate the time to cover the site properly. Ideally, a site needs enough observers to spell others from eye strain; a leader who makes the final call on identifications, and an educational or outreach person. Should someone take over leadership of LRT, I would help with mentoring and education.

Today, I’ve pretty much given up hope for an apprentice or successor. So the work that began 40 years ago on this site comes to an end. Forty years of data need to be studied and summarized-- but that’s my next chapter.