Friday, April 29, 2011

Spring Kettles? Yes!

photo by S.Fogleman

From whence came the notion that Broad-wings don’t travel in kettles in spring migration? I’ve been puzzled by this belief which I’ve encountered several times over the last few days.

Here’s what has been happening in the northeast – specifically New England, upstate New York and southeastern Canada. Weather patterns were such that soaring, thermal-dependent migrants like Broad-winged Hawks were temporarily held up in their northward journey. On April 26, conditions began to improve, with big flights being recorded at places like Ripley (in NY). Perhaps Gil Randell will write about this in a future blog – he was a bit tied up counting and compiling so had to skip his turn in the current blog cycle! Check out for the April 26 counts at Ripley and other NY and Canadian sites.

As weather improvements moved eastward, New England birding listservs began lighting up with reports of Broad-wings on the move “as soon as the sky began to clear” on the 27th. That day had started out with mizzle and fog early on, grey skies, no breeze. That’s when the comments regarding kettles started to hit me. I’d heard this “myth” before. And now reports from numerous birders included such remarks as “never have seen so many Broad-wings in spring migration,” “there were even kettles!” “these hawks [Broadies] don’t form kettles in the spring like they do in fall, so this was amazing!” “I couldn’t believe that I was actually seeing kettles!”

Broad-wings do indeed form kettles during spring migration given good lift conditions. When there’s an elevator going up and you want to go up, you hop on, right? The thing about spring here in this part of the continent is that those birds which managed to survive the perils of the preceding 6 or 7 months comprise only a fraction of what we may have witnessed leaving in September, ergo fewer to speckle the sky in April, ergo smaller kettles by the time they get up here. This is the destination region – many birds are now at or nearly at their breeding territories. Weather patterns here in the spring time tend to produce more turbulence, hence unreliable “elevators.” However, given the right conditions – you bet! Kettles! And Wednesday, the 27th, was just what the hawks needed. Not only Broad-wings, by the way, but numerous birds of other species were on the move. Unfortunately there are no longer any official spring watch sites in NH, but accounts from various locations were posted on NH.Birds, and can probably be found there. Numbers from major counts in NY and Ontario posted to HawkCount were impressive: Braddock Bay 42235, Derby Hill 6319, Grimsby (Beamer) 5291. Were the Broad-wings in kettles? Oh, yes!

As the sky began to clear at my home in central NH (elevation 1200’) 228 hawks of 10 species were counted passing over our little piece of sky for the period of watching 1120 to 1430. Almost all the Broadies were in kettles, or at least saucepans!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The NorthEast Hawkwatch Community

Look at this map of hawkwatch sites across North America and it appears that the Northeast is the hawkwatching center of the universe. Sites contributing data to are scattered from California to New Brunswick and from Alberta to Veracruz but the bulk of the watchsites fall in Massachusetts, Connecticut, southern New York and northern New Jersey. Why is that?

Studying the map of Northeast hawkwatches, you’d be inclined to think that these sites highlight the major migration corridors in the region – the Northeast coast and the Appalachian Mountains. That’s true, Northeast hawkwatches are situated in some of the best spots for observing and counting concentrations of raptors on migration but there’s another reason why there are so many hawkwatches in the Northeast. Quite simply, it’s where all the hawkwatchers and birders live! In a recent survey HMANA conducted amongst successful hawkwatches, we found that most sites are within 40 miles or less of a major city (population >100,000).

Well as much as I could write about the need to fill in the gaps with more consistent hawkwatch coverage across the continent, like in the central and southern US, I’m not going to. Instead, I was inspired to write about the very tight knit northeast hawkwatching community after attending a recent conference. The NorthEast Hawk Watch (NEHW) Conference in Holyoke, MA took place earlier this month and the theme was “Hawk Watching in a Changing Landscape”. NEHW is a non-profit organization (a chapter of HMANA) and is run by volunteers. Its goals are similar to HMANA’s in that they aim to increase awareness, appreciation and protection of migratory birds of prey through collecting, organizing, publishing, and distributing hawk count data.
The conference offered an interesting mix of presentations on recent research efforts like Saw-whet Owl banding, breeding bird survey results and stopover ecology of accipiters. But there was also a less scientific emphasis, highlighting stories from long-running sites like Mount Peter, NY and Little Round Top, NH. I liked this mix of science and stories. It reminded me that hawkwatching is not all about the data, it’s first and foremost about the people. It’s about appreciating raptors and sharing that joy with others and this conference captured that perfectly.
It also made me think about the value and importance of a local hawkwatching chapter. Looking around the room, I saw ~80 people who had some connection with raptor migration; biologists, conservationists, educators, long-time hawkwatchers, new hawkwatchers or just people eager to learn a bit more about raptors and their migration through the region. I counted at least 20 site coordinators from various hawkwatches around the Northeast, many of which have been counting for 30+ years. I think that’s really special to have that many long-time hawkwatchers still enthusiastic about counting and still supporting local gatherings like this. NEHW played a big role in creating this tight-knit community.

At HMANA we are always searching for new ways to reach out to the hawkwatching community and to find better ways to support our members and the monitoring network. I think NEHW is a great model for developing other regional support groups across the continent. Having a local chapter or even a regional discussion board can offer many benefits. Just as HMANA works to provide support to the overall network, a local chapter can be a terrific resource for a regional network (finding places to hawkwatch, finding local volunteers, sharing stories about recent raptor numbers or weather patterns). Local conferences may also address specific regional issues that may not be covered in a broader, continental HMANA conference.

I think a great first step in forming some regional groups is the formation of HMANA’s new Hawkwatcher’s Exchange Forum. This page is just getting started this spring and is still a work in progress. I hope it will help connect raptor enthusiasts and get some good regional discussions going. Help us get the ball rolling! (see regional watchsite discussion board)

And for more information about NEHW or to become a member, visit While you’re there, check out “A Brief History” by Neil Currie to learn more about the early hawkwatching days in the Northeast and how NEHW and HMANA were formed.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ghosts of a Chance

I do much of my spring hawk watching on Plum Island, at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, where the stars are potentially hundreds of kestrels and maybe a dozen or more Merlins on a great flight day. Under optimal conditions, the birds are low, moving up the barrier beach, and providing spectacular views. Despite standing merely two or three feet above sea level, you are able to look down on dozens, occasionally hundreds, of falcons slicing into the wind (not all at once)!

However, most of the time, you are looking for a handful of individuals per day. Winds from the north or east are essentially the kiss of death. On sunny days with warm southwest winds, individual hawks may be soaring high into a clear blue sky and even pass unnoticed. If they are discovered, they are often classified in the same category as “noseeums.” Not rewarding to say the least. If the southwest winds aren’t very strong, a bone-chilling sea breeze kicks in, so you in your winter coat and gloves are looking at nothing while five miles inland people are working in their yards or gardens in t-shirts and shorts. The past two days with warm but weak southwest winds, counters had a total of 4 birds in about 8 hours. Even though we can’t see the water on the other side of the dunes, at least we did have several adult gannets right on the beach.

At Plum, we pray for strong, gusty winds somewhere out of the west, preferably west or northwest. It pushes birds towards the coast and keeps them low on the barrier beach. A good day has dozens of kestrels and handfuls of Merlins, while a great day can produce hundreds of kestrels and dozens of Merlins. Wednesday, April 8 proved to be one of the best hawk days I’ve ever had on the island. Over 390 hawks, including at least 306 kestrels, 10 Merlins, 2 Peregrines, a Bald Eagle, and 56 Northern Harriers.

I love harriers, one of my favorite hawks, but this flight was incredible. We had at least 28 adult males and 21 adult females, with 7 immature or unaged birds, and we had a feeling we were missing some birds going over the marsh low in the distance. Almost all these birds were on the deck, only several feet off the ground, and usually passing within 30-50 yards. I’ve never seen so many adult males in one day, or adult females, and so well. Normally, you don’t see the fine vermiculation on the adult males, but this day it was evident on almost every one, and the subtle shades of gray defy description. The females stood out for their mature, grayish brown backs and the notable streaking on their upper breasts. Several were the most grizzly grayish females I've ever seen. I saw more varied adult plumages, and more clearly, than I ever have seen before. (This likely is a state record count of Northern Harriers from my initial search, but a little more digging must be done to be sure.)

The kestrels alone would have made for a spectacular day, but the Gray Ghosts were just incredible. It is a bit sobering to have been hawk watching for almost forty years and realize that you have never seen anything close to this for one of your favorite species, and you are unlikely to ever do so again. I have just a ghost of a chance....

Photo courtesy of Joseph Kennedy. Used with permission.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's just not very funny

Old man winter is playing an April Fool’s Day joke on hawkwatchers today.

I awake to snow everywhere, and I sort of suspect today won’t be the best spring migration day of the season.

I don’t think I’ll bother trying to go to Allegheny Front or Tussey Mtn.

So what’s happening up at Derby Hill and Braddock Bay? It’s a long drive but the weekend is ahead. Maybe it’s worth an emergency drive north. My goodness, they are getting rain. Nope, no hawkwatching there, either.

Well, is a cheap flight to Duluth available? Oops. It doesn’t matter if there is. It’s snowing there, too.

Let’s just hope this April Fool’s joke is Old Man Winter’s last hurrah for this year, so that we can all get back to more important things—like counting hawks!