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.

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