Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spring Hawk Migration Studies is out!

The spring issue of Hawk Migration Studies is mailed and should have reached all members by now. If you are a member and haven’t yet received your copy, please contact Daena Ford at redtail@rochester.rr.com so we can investigate.

The spring issue has many great articles this time around, including one from Arthur Green about fall hawk counting in the Republic of Georgia, the disappointing 2010 fall season at Illinois Beach State Park by Janice Sweet, an analysis of 10 years of winter raptor surveys by Greg Grove, a summary of the latest trend information from the HawkCount data and the Raptor Population Index and, of course, all the flyway reports.

Don’t forget about the other ways you can find out about HMANA and hawk news either. Our website is http://www.hmana.org/. There, you can check out the discussions on the hawkwatchers’ forums. You can also find us on Facebook. Members (and HMANA friends) may also be interested in our email newsletter that’s sent every other month. If you don’t receive the newsletter, please contact Daena Ford to be added to the list. And there’s also BirdHawk where you can receive the daily HawkCount entries in a digest format. Visit the link for information about how to sign up.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What School Won't Prepare You For

"Training is useful, but there is no substitute for experience!"
It isn't just a memorable statement by the evil Colonel from one of the few decent Bond films made (From Russia, with Love), it's the most fundamental element to good hawkwatching. With spring raptor migration now in full swing at my watchsite, I'm routinely asked by inquisitive and frustrated visitors alike how they can get better at IDing hawks. They seek information about the “diagnostic” fieldmarks for particular species. They ask for book recommendations. They even ask about the optics I use, as if oversized milspec binoculars and a fancy spotting scope were indeed the secret ingredient in my hawkwatching recipe. (Answer: Good optics minimize visual handicaps, but they won't identify birds for you!) I am always grateful for people's interest in hawkwatching (and raptors, generally), so I make a point to try to helpfully answer any and all questions I receive. Subconsciously, I think I try hard to recreate some of the conditions that enabled me to start watching hawks seriously at my old hawkwatch. It was there a particular counter patiently answered endless questions and made an unflagging effort to drill my fledging skills over the course of my season with him. It's not often nascent enthusiasm is met almost immediately with personal tutelage by a skilled hand, and so I owe him a great debt. He unknowingly started me down an avenue in my life I never anticipated!

But back to the topic at hand, what's most striking about the questions I receive has nothing to with the actual questions. (Because there are no “stupid questions”!) It's that I generally receive them from enthusiastic visitors who'll spend, at most, 40 minutes or an hour on the hill with me maybe twice or thrice a season. I'll take a leap of faith here and assume that I'm not functioning as the main impediment to their learning process or enjoyment on the hill. And, I do understand that Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of even the best intentions of making recreation for oneself. But within most of the questions I receive, I can almost hear the underlying assumption that one can learn to ID hawks proficiently by simply reading a book (or two) or by getting pointers from a “pro” in the field. There are indeed some excellent books about the field identification of raptors available, and some of them are quite accessible. And, undoubtedly, guidance in the field by a skilled observer is a sure-fire way of improving your skills relatively quickly. But the most neglected component is time: the only way you become naturally good at identifying hawks is by spending an unnatural amount of time in the field watching them! And I think that while most of my visitors understand this cerebrally, it's a different story viscerally when it comes time to pony up and put in your hours on the hill that day scanning for hawks instead of engaging in another more familiar activity.

I offer my views here not to be harsh to my kind visitors, but to be realistic about the effort that will be involved in learning to hawkwatch “like the pros” do. In no way do I wish to deter anyone interested in watching hawks from doing so at their own pace! Frankly, I feel that the only people who really oughta know what they're seeing are the people whose observations become part of the data submitted to HawkCount. For most everyone else, it probably does not matter if they cannot separate a Red-tailed Hawk from a Sharp-shinned Hawk in the field. If this applies to you, I hope you will learn, however, only because I feel it will greatly increase your appreciation of these birds to have seen and identified them for yourself. But upon reflection, if you feel the effort to learn to ID raptors and "become part of the count" requires more effort than you're willing to invest, that's perfectly okay, and I hope you won't let birders pressure you into thinking otherwise. And I hope you won't be dissuaded from coming to your hawkwatch just because you don't feel you know enough! I think this happens more often than anyone cares to admit, and I think this is the biggest travesty of all. Ultimately, hawkwatching needs you, whether you're expert or neophyte. And the majesty of the migration spectacle is there to be enjoyed and protected by all; and this is probably the best “pro” tip you'll ever receive!

Good Hawkwatching,

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Grey Hawk and the Garrobo

“Wow!” exclaimed my husband, one afternoon as we sat quietly reading on our terrazzo. We lived in a small town on the Pacific coast of Mexico this past winter, where we were treated to the daily sights of raptors not seen in our New England area. Zone-tailed Hawks, Short-tailed Hawks and Grey Hawks were among those that frequently passed over our house, giving us views and photo-ops of those species which, while quite common there, are still novel enough to us that we stop what we’re doing to admire and study them.

This “wow” moment was triggered by the arrival of a Grey Hawk onto a branch of a tall palm at the edge of our garden. We watched as she (we guessed the bird was possibly a female due to her large-ish size) quickly side-stepped along the main stem of the big frond, and disappeared into the central cluster of branches at the top of the tree. We wondered if perhaps there was a nest, or a nest-to-be. The next afternoon she was back, sitting for a while out in the open before once again retreating into the cluster.

When we saw her arrive a third time she remained perched on the central stem of one of the stouter fronds, and seemed to be staring down at us, or at something fairly nearby.

I had seen the occasional small lizard darting about in the garden, but nothing that I guessed would tempt a predator of the size of our grey visitor. No ground squirrels were in our neighborhood, and the only nest I could see was that of a Cinnamon Hummingbird above our patio steps. And then we realized that we hadn’t been seeing “Garrobo.” Garrobo is the colloquial name of the black spiny-tailed iguana, which can grow to over a meter in length. Nose to tail tip our particular garrobo was maybe 30 inches. He daily basked on the terracotta tiles roofing a small outbuilding at the edge of the garden, and we had been watching him each day as he adjusted his position according to the sun angle. This shed was below a certain tall palm tree. The day we realized we hadn’t seen him was the day after our last visit from the Grey Hawk.

Could a Grey Hawk take a garrobo? Was this a coincidence? A few days later a garrobo was again basking on the roof of the shed. We’ll never know for sure that it was the same garrobo which had maybe hidden away during the visits of the hawk, patiently waiting until she found a meal elsewhere. Whatever the case, we never saw the hawk return to our yard.
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Photos by W. Fogleman