Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Birthday for the Birds

Looking for some inspiration to get you excited about HMANA’s Spring Raptorthon Challenge? Below is a summary from HMANA board member, Daena Ford describing her Raptorthon experience this past fall.

September 20 is my birthday. I typically do not go around announcing that to people. It’s not that I don’t like getting older, or hate having people ask my age. I simply don’t like to draw much attention to myself. So, I usually just sit back and let it arrive, and enjoy the greetings I get and the celebrations with those closest to me.
This year I decided to give myself a birthday gift, by spending part of the day doing something I enjoy which actually had the potential to help out the two organizations I volunteer for – Braddock Bay Raptor Research (BBRR) and the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). That gift was to participate in a Raptorthon. Basically it was an excuse to go out and do some birding, search for the magnificent raptors that inspire me, and spend some quality time with my daughter outside in nature. Not a bad gift if I do say so myself.
Raptorthon is a fundraising effort, organized by HMANA to raise funds for itself and hawk watch sites all across the continent, as well as serving as an outlet to raise awareness of raptors and their importance in our natural world. Anyone can participate in Raptorthon, either in the fall or spring (when raptors and other birds are migrating in great numbers), and choose which hawk watch or other conservation-based organization to support. Pledges and donations are collected based on how many species of raptors (and other birds if chosen) are counted.

My decision to do a Raptorthon in the fall might seem odd to anyone who knows that Braddock Bay is a spring hawk migration spot. I knew I certainly was not going to see the thousands of broad-winged hawks in September that we would typically see here in April. But, Braddock Bay is a great place to bird year-round and though raptors take a different route around the Lake Ontario in the fall, we still see many species of songbirds, waterfowl and other birds in great numbers. Besides being a great birding spot, it’s a great place to get outdoors and enjoy nature no matter what time of year. And that is precisely what happened on this birthday outing.
I started out with no real goal in mind, other than to see as many bird species as I could see. I knew that I probably would not see everything that was around, mainly since I was bringing my 3 year old daughter Emily with me. Don’t get me wrong…one of the best things about the day was that she was with me, and she is definitely a lover of the outdoors. She often finds things on our outings that others would just pass right by and not even notice (like the thumbnail sized tree frog she found on a cattail when she was barely 2). However, she is still 3 and is a very strong-willed, boisterous girl at times. Not to mention much of the time we refer to her as our little “bull in a China shop.” But she certainly does exhibit an excitement about some of the smallest things in nature, like a lily pad on a pond or caterpillar crossing our path, and I wish I could bottle that up and share it with everyone in this world.
I began the Raptorthon with the morning’s feeder birds, starting at 6:40 am (daylight savings time), as I was preparing breakfast and lunches for school and work in the kitchen. The first bird of the day was a female Northern Cardinal, who was later joined by a juvenile begging for its own breakfast. Other species that stopped by the Ford’s breakfast cafĂ© were a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, a male House Finch, and several House Sparrows. Unfortunately I was out of niger seed, and none of my regular American Goldfinches made an appearance that morning.
After getting my son off to the bus (wishing he was also joining us on our adventure), and completing morning chores, Emily and I set off in the car at 9:40 and traveled the 25 minute drive up to Braddock Bay. The drive is mostly expressway for us (I-390 and the Lake Ontario State Parkway) and that usually means we have a good chance of seeing the common roadside raptors – Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels. True to form we counted 2 Red-tails and 1 Kestrel on 390, and another Kestrel on the parkway. Other species picked up on the drive were American Crow, European Starling, Ring-billed Gull, Blue Jay, Mourning Dove and Rock Pigeon. No surprises there. Now we were up to 12 species.
Arriving at Braddock Bay I decided to make our first stop the passerine banding station at Braddock Bay Bird Observatory. What a good choice that was! North winds off the lake that would normally persuade me to just skip the hawkwatch at Braddock Bay all together in the spring were a blessing this day as they brought migrants right to us. The banding station was buzzing with activity. Emily and I enjoyed meeting several colorful species up close and personal, and also got to take a walk to accompany a few of the banding assistants on a net check. Emily was super careful while walking by the mist nets. “Mommy, look how careful I’m being,” she was quick to point out. (I admit I was very proud of her.) Below is a list of the birds we were fortunate to see, in the order we saw them:
· White-throated Sparrow
· Common Yellowthroat
· Lincoln’s Sparrow
· Red-eyed Vireo
· Tennessee Warbler
· Brown Creeper
· Black-throated Blue Warbler
· Gray-cheeked Thrush
· Golden-crowned Kinglet

We could only stay an hour at the banding station (had a lunch date with my husband), and bird bags were full when we left the station so we surely missed some other species. Never the less, I was super happy with what I saw, and equally as excited for Emily. The best bird for me was the Black-throated Blue Warbler, because it was one of the few warblers that Emily and I looked at in the field guide before we left that morning.
Up to 21 species now, we headed out to lunch by the way of Edgemere Drive which runs along a few of the ponds that are part of the Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area. There was not too much activity, but we did pick up a Turkey Vulture soaring, a couple of Great Blue Herons fishing, and Mallards and Mute Swans swimming.
After lunch we had just enough time to explore Burger Park on Hogan Point Road near Braddock Bay for about an hour. I had heard through the local birding listserv that there was an American Bittern spotted there the day before. We did not have luck finding the Bittern, but were able to pick up a Belted Kingfisher along Salmon Creek, a Downy Woodpecker and a few Red-winged Black-birds. The highlights of Burger Park this day though were not avian. The field of golden rod and asters was alive with Monarch butterflies, and it was simply mesmerizing to watch them. There also were, to Emily’s delight, several orange, fuzzy caterpillars (like a wooly bear with no black) crossing the gravel path as we walked, as well as grasshoppers which she tried in vain to catch. We also spotted a small, slender garter snake along the pond’s edge.
Unfortunately we had to leave around 1:30 in order to be home in time to meet Emily’s brother as he arrived home from school. So, our Raptorthon was done with 28 species of birds under our belt for the day. For most die-hard birders, that would be a disappointing tally. Though part of me wished for more, I was extremely satisfied with the day we had, knowing that if I had not decided to participate in this fundraiser for BBRR and HMANA, I probably would not have gotten as many “birthday presents” as I did that day – the birds, the butterflies, the beautiful weather, the chance to share it all with my daughter, and some support for BBRR and HMANA. I want to thank my sister and my parents who gave me pledges as birthday gifts to show their support for the organizations that are so important to me, and to the raptors.
Daena Ford

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