Sunday, November 8, 2009

A site for watching coastal falcons

Data from the Kiptopeke raptor watch on HawkCount made it easy to determine the best dates for seeing falcons along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The best window for peregrines was clearly late September and early October. We wanted to watch the falcons from Ocracoke Island, which is just south of Hatteras Island.

Ocracoke Island lies in a northeast to southwest orientation, is about 15 miles long and ranges in width from around one-quarter-of-a-mile to two or three miles. We had observed peregrines and merlins flying low and fast over the sound-side marsh, the surf line on the ocean, the beach and the dunes. Our observation site ideally would provide a good view of all these features of the island.

A parking area at one of the narrowest parts of the island provided access to some tall dunes that overlooked marsh, dunes and beach and was relatively clear of vegetation that might block our view. The site should offer good views for a number of years to come, but we’re not sure that we can make the commitment required to establish a formal raptor watch that would require hundreds of hours each spring. Well, we can dream!

Modest numbers of ospreys, harriers, cooper’s hawks and sharpies provided a nice contrast to the few kestrels, merlins and many peregrines migrating past the site. Migrating monarch butterflies, swallows and cormorants fleshed out the resident non-raptor activity, which included least, royal, caspian, common, sandwich and gull-billed terns; great black-backed, laughing, ring-billed and herring gulls; seaside sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers; sanderlings, red knots, ruddy turnstones, willets, black-bellied plovers, and one marbled godwit (that showed up every day for two weeks). If the avian activity slowed, small pods of dolphins showed up on a couple of days to keep us entertained.

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