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.

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