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.

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