Friday, October 29, 2010

Hawkwatching at its Best

What could be more fun than floating on your back in warm waters of the Caribbean and watching thousands of raptors swirl overhead above you? This was just one of the many highlights from HMANA’s recent birding and hawkwatching tour to Costa Rica last week.

Where to even begin?! We journeyed through the country exploring the Central foothills and highlands, Caribbean lowlands and the Pacific slope. Overall our group saw or heard an amazing 393 species of birds. Among those were 31 species of raptors, 26 hummingbirds, 21 antbirds, 35 flycatchers, 29 warblers and 30 tanager species. It was 10 glorious days of colorful birds, beautiful rainforest and coastal landscapes, good coffee and lots of fruit.

But the grand focus of this tour was spending 2 days at the Kèköldi Hawkwatch inside the Kèköldi Indigenous Reserve on the Caribbean slope. This has always been a very special place to me. From my first season spent counting there in 2001, and then again when I returned to do peregrine falcon research in 2005, I have been itching to get back. And as always, it was just as magical as ever and did not let us down.

The hike up to the watchsite involved a lot of mud, sweat and thorns. What would be the fun of seeing all those migrants if you didn’t have to work for it, right? We wove our way up the mountain through an abandoned cacao plantation, stopping of course to sample the sweet and tangy fruit along the way. Black and green poison dart frogs hopped across the trail and laughing falcons called from the canopy. I could spend all day on this 2km long trail, studying leaf cutter ants, the towering strangler fig trees and the huge diversity of understory species like antbirds, tinamous and hermits (hummingbirds). Looking up at any one time, we saw glimpses of swirling kettles through the canopy, reminding us of what was in store and to pick up the pace.

As soon as we reached the top of the hawkwatch tower and were catching our breath, the counters handed me a clicker and said, “You’re in charge of peregrines!” Just like old times. For the next few hours, I counted over 100 peregrines passing overhead. Some scattered over the ocean, others kettling up over the mountains in groups of 5-10.
Turkey vultures were the dominant migrant during our visit but mixed in were thousands of broad-wings and Swainsons hawks with the occasional Mississippi Kite, osprey or merlin. At times, the skies would be full of solely broad-wings or Swainson’s as if they were very courteously taking turns using the sky.

The phrase, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” was a common one, as tour participants shifted from kettle to kettle, trying to take in the sheer magnitude of the movement. Aside from raptors, chimney swifts and various swallow species swept past in the millions. By the end of the day, 70,000 raptors had been tallied.

To anyone who visits, it’s easy to see that Kèköldi is a truly remarkable place. As with many hawkwatch sites, Kèköldi is struggling to stay afloat and is in need of more financial and volunteer support. The two to three volunteer counters this season are overworked and overwhelmed by the volume of birds coming through. This site requires a team of at least 4-6 counters to effectively cover the skies.

Several brainstorming sessions took place amongst tour participants and Daniel, the project coordinator (& our local guide) on how to help this project succeed long-term. It was great to see people eager to share their thoughts and ideas on how to build upon this important project with outreach and fundraising strategies. HMANA is currently working with Kèköldi to find ways to offer support. Hopefully one way we can continue to offer support is through more tours like this one!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Observing Non-Raptor Migration at Hawk Watches (Part 2)

One of the differences between general birding and birding at a hawk watch is that at a hawk watch the salient feature of the birds we see is their flight. More often than not in general birding we look at birds sitting on the water or wading in it, perching on twigs, or walking on the ground, or jumping from one thing to another. At hawk watches we look at flight.

The focus on flight at a hawk watch encourages us to pay attention to a dimension of birding, and birds, that, strangely enough, often gets short shrift. Years ago, I thought I was pretty good at identifying ducks in the harbor until I met an old retired duck hunter who could actually tell what birds he was seeing in flight! Birding at a hawk watch encourages us to increase our skills in that direction and also our appreciation of the birds we observe.

I’ve heard American Bitterns, seen them frozen in marsh grasses, and sometimes seen them taking brief and quick flights from one patch of marsh to another. But my most memorable sighting of an American Bittern was at the hawk watch when I had a chance to watch one fly for over a mile in migration with its distinctively patterned two-toned wings and ponderous flight. Somehow, seeing that very secretive bird so exposed and taking part in such a dangerous activity as migration was very moving.

In my last blog I talked about finding loons when scanning for soaring raptors. This is another exciting feature about hawk watches. Scanning for raptors we find things we never would have seen otherwise. After birding for decades I’d never seen a Sandhill Crane in New York State. Now, at our hawk watch in western New York, I see Sandhill Cranes on at least five or six different days during the spring migration.

Paying attention to the non-raptor migration at hawk watches expands the profound experience presented by observing the raptor migration. Seeing something otherwise secret and yet something that provides such a sense of connectedness with deep, universal forces will bring me back to the hawk watch year after year, as long as I’m able.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Observing Non-Raptor Migration at Hawk Watches (Part I)

After nearly 50 years of general birding in western New York State, I began seeing Common Loons regularly only after I began spending time at our local hawk watch. Not only did I begin seeing loons regularly, but I began seeing them in pretty much a new way.

Loons for me had been early- and late-winter harbor birds, infrequently seen, usually apart from the rafts of relatively diminutive ducks, looking big and solitary. Seeing a loon always made a special birding day for me.

Attendance at our hawk watch introduced me to a new dimension of loons and the likelihood of seeing them often. Previously I saw loons usually swimming and diving, only now and then flying; when I see them at the hawk watch they are always flying. And what flight! Powerful, high, fast, straight-line, totally lacking in hesitation, directly out and over Lake Erie toward Canada.

At the hawk watch we pick up loons while scanning with binoculars for soaring raptors. On April 19th this year we saw 12 loons, most of them singles, presenting their unique flight signature as they powered toward their northern nesting territory. We saw loons on at least three other days in the spring of 2010. If we hadn’t been scanning for raptors, the loons without doubt would have passed entirely unnoticed. They could have been flying, unobserved, for hundreds of miles before we picked them up.

Hawk watches provide unique opportunities for observing non-raptor migration, loon-sightings being only one example. 500 or more Blue Jays in one day, tens of thousands of blackbirds in mixed flocks in one day, ducks, hundreds of Tundra Swans and more, all almost routinely seen and with a new perspective.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Time to step up to the bat!

My public radio station is having its fund drive this week. Perhaps yours is, too. If you are a public radio listener, or a public television viewer, then you are aware that those services are available to us only because of the financial support of some of those who listen and watch. It’s sort of like HMANA!

Think of all the services HMANA is providing ---- FREE! You can go to our website and download all kinds of great information, for FREE! You can enter watch data into HawkCount, you can read reports from sites north to south, east and west every day, for FREE! You can download those wonderful silhouette guides and other ID materials for, you guessed it, f-r-e-e. HMANA is a volunteer organization, but we do have costs, and, would you believe it? Of the thousands of hits our on-line services get, only a small percentage of those folks are members of HMANA! That’s right, paying members of HMANA number fewer than 500. There are many more folks out there (you?) who use HawkCount, who are site leaders, who watch hawks and support the very same goals who haven’t joined HMANA.

Membership is only $25! For that amount of money (way less than you spend on your boutique coffee in a week) you not only will get our excellent publication, Hawk Migration Studies, discounts on various offers such as the trip currently underway to Costa Rica, but you will be supporting HMANA’s ongoing efforts to conserve raptors and their environment. And even better, you will get rid of any guilt feelings you may have been having about not supporting those efforts! Don’t procrastinate any longer! Please help pay for HawkCount, RPI, the statistical analyses of the data you collect and submit, for our website. Please join and help our membership numbers double. Those numbers mean a lot to grant-providers. Your support is very important. Click on where you can use a major credit card or send a check made out to "HMANA" for $25 (U.S. currency) to John Weeks, HMANA Membership, 51 Pheasant Run, North Granby, CT 06060-1016 (U.S.A.). Or do we need to get Ira Glass to call you?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Migration in the Americas: the ties that bind

A few years ago I made my first October “pilgrimage” to Veracruz. No hawkwatcher needs an explanation of what that means. Although my goal was to experience the Rio de Rapaces, I knew that raptors weren’t the only migrants sweeping through that sky funnel in eastern Mexico. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to see masses of Anhingas and Wood Storks, squadrons of White Pelicans. Nor was I surprised to see scrims of dragonflies and the pink semaphores of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers’ axillars as dozens and dozens of those beauties passed the rooftop watch in Cardel. Enchanted, yes. Exhilarated, definitely! But not surprised.

What did surprise me, however, were the butterflies. No, not monarchs. We all know that monarch butterflies winter in Mexico, but their route takes them west of the coastal region toward the mountain forests of Michoacán. No, the butterflies that so amazed me were yellow. They were sulphurs of several species, large and small, and they were migrating! The air was filled with them, hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of southbound fragile beings stirring the air as their forebears have been doing for millennia. From just above the ground to at least 10 meters up, and nearly wingtip to wingtip as far as the eye could see in every direction, they went. Such a density is, of course, vulnerable to incursion, and so it was on the highways as the intrepid voyagers fell victim to trucks and buses and cars. Resembling flower petals liberally strewn on the highway, drifts of body-less wings swirled in yellow clouds among the passing vehicles.

Later, standing on the remains of a pyramid in the Toltec ruins of Cempoala, I pondered those streams of birds overhead. Stretching from horizon to horizon hawks and vultures, pelicans and storks became threads tying together the continents north and south. And in a nearly tactile way so did the gentle yellow ephemera filling the surroundings with soft flutterings. A visible physical connection, yes, and how very evident it was. But there was a temporal component as well, for as I stood there on those ancient stones I experienced a powerful connection to those people who had built this temple. I realized that these very same astonishing sights had moved them, too.