Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fall hawk migration - late August

About the middle of August as I was looking at the early season hawkwatch results, many of the sites were posting decent numbers for early August. I remember thinking that if the results continued at the same rate, most of the eastern hawkwatches were just about one good day away from posting nice August results. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Now it’s the end of the month, and while Hawk Ridge MN has some nice numbers, the eastern hawkwatches have pretty ugly August results.

First, let’s look at the good news. As of August 28, Hawk Ridge had posted its third best August ever for Broad-winged Hawks with the highest total of the little buteo since 1998, which had 719. They may have a shot at that second best August Broadwing total over these last few days of the month but likely aren’t going to reach 1977’s 1031. Hawk Ridge also counted the season’s first Northern Goshawk on August 20 and currently have a total of 4. That result isn’t an August record, but it’s close. The rest of the species have not fared nearly so well.

When I say the eastern hawkwatches aren’t having a good August, what I mean is that many are posting results that are half of their best results. American Kestrel seem particularly low pretty much everywhere, but everything from eagles to ospreys to Sharp-shinned Hawks were also counted in very low numbers.

Weather is to blame, of course. In the east this August has been untypically rainy and foggy after a blistering hot and dry July. Nice cold fronts have been in short supply. August hawkwatching is always a bit chancy, so let’s look at the bright side and hope that a poor August means a super September is only a few days away.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Conference 2012 - Quaker Ridge Lowdown

Quaker Ridge Hawkwatch - Jeff Cordulack
I was excited to learn that the HMANA Conference will be coming to my home town hawkwatch this season at Quaker Ridge in Greenwich CT. The facilities down at Audubon Greenwich are fantastic, and the watch itself is pretty nice as wellBest of all it's very accessible. As much as I know some of you love hiking two miles up hill to get to a watch, this one requires little more than rolling out of your car.

It'll also be exciting to introduce people to some of the other local birding hotspots including a field trip to the excellent Lighthouse Point Hawkwatch in East Haven and Chestnut Ridge, which is just a stone's throw across the border in New York state. If people are thinking of making a long weekend of it, I'm more than happy to share thoughts and advice on where to bird, eat and visit in the local area, so do feel free to drop me a line at  You can also get information on my blog about hawkwatching basics in Connecticut ( and in the links section also find a map to some of the birding hotspots in the local area, which might help you plan your visit. It's also worth checking out the Connecticut Ornithological Association's website, which has lots about state birding and a helpful seasonal guide  

Quaker Merlin - Luke Tiller
If you are counting down the days to the festival, you might also want to add this date to your diary--September 30. On that date Julie Brown (Monitoring Site Coordinator at HMANA) will be appearing on BirdCallsRadio. One of North America's only dedicated birding radio shows is based right across town from here in Greenwich CT but covers the world of birds and birding across North America (and the globe). Previous guests have included luminaries from the world of birding as well as yours truly talking about hawkwatching You can visit their blog and listen to other archived interviews at

Quaker Sandhill Cranes - Ken Mirman
I'm looking forward to seeing you there!

Luke Tiller, Official Hawkwatcher, Audubon Greenwich

Another Classification of Birdwatcher

Photo Courtesy of Bert Willaert

In the introductory pages to his Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Ken Kaufman draws a distinction between birdwatchers and birders, offering some of the defining characteristics that make birders different than "garden variety" birdwatchers.  I've never been particularly fond of this distinction, largely because I feel it is prone to misinterpretation.  Promoting the birder as a kind of "elite" birdwatcher unnecessarily fractures a community with a common interest (i.e., birds and their conservation), and I do not feel this was Kaufman's intention at all.  But having spent much time afield with birders of all stripes at raptor migration sites both in North America and abroad, I'm inclined to suggest that there might exist another distinction that separates birders and migration counters.  Admittedly, the distinction is rarely clean: while there are birders who do not consider themselves migration counters and migration counters who rarely watch birds at all when not at their favorite migration site, most individuals blur the line and retain a more balanced interest.  But when working with groups of observers at migration sites, I feel the difference in focus between birders and migration counters often comes to the fore, and the distinction may be worth keeping in mind.

Birders who are not migration counters are the easiest to identify.  They are the ones who have a tendency to "filter out" common countable species when plumbing the skies for "special" birds.  For them, the common species are not so important.  While this is understandable given their peculiar focus, this can be frustrating for true migration counters whose defining responsibility is to offer a balanced coverage effort for all countable species, not just ones that should happen to strike the fancy of the legion of birders lining the platform.  More times than I can count, I've watched birders "helping" with the count effort turn their back on large areas of sky for extended periods of time to focus their scopes on a single distant harrier or falcon as one "not-so-special" raptor after another passed by in areas they left without coverage.  This can be frustrating for a true migration counter, who often finds his or her count effort directed by where the 10-15 scopes on the platform are not directed.  At its worst, a migration counter can feel screwed out of some satisfactory views of "good" birds as the birders' attention flit from one small spot in the sky to another without a second thought about what might be transpiring elsewhere.  So despite plentiful talent on the platform, the migration counter can find his or her count effort surprisingly lonely.

I choose this example not to berate birders so much as to help outline what I believe are fundamental "cultural" differences between birders and migration counters, because it is often assumed that everyone volunteering at a hawkwatch has the same objectives in mind.  And it is similarly assumed that good birders are, by implication, good migration counters, and I feel this is not always the case.  If you are a birder helping with a count effort, make a point to give the entire sky balanced coverage, or at least let the counter know before you ignore a large section of sky.  If you are a watchsite coordinator, identifying counters and volunteers who are partial to the objective of balanced count coverage will pay off with higher quality data in the long haul.

Good Hawkwatching,

Monday, August 20, 2012

First hawkwatches open!

It’s fall! Or at least the first of the fall hawkwatches are open for business. Waggoner’s Gap near Carlisle PA, was the first to open, starting their season on August 1. Nearby Second Mountain wasn’t far behind, first counting on August 3. More hawkwatches, including Hawk Mountain PA, Corpus Christi TX and Hawk Ridge MN, opened on August 15. At last count so far 14 North American hawkwatches have put in at least one count day at their sites.

And the results? It’s mostly been slow, of course, though numbers are ever-building. Hawk Ridge’s 167 raptors on August 18 can boast the largest daily total. Corpus Christi tallied 160 on the same day. No other sites have yet reported triple digit counts, but most have now posted double-digit days. The other high counts were Waggoner’s Gap with 87 on August 18; Hawk Mountain with 74 on August 16; and Bake Oven Knob, PA, and Rockfish Gap, VA, with high totals of 62 and 61.

Corpus Christi’s total was boosted by 130 Mississippi Kites on August 18, the first day with more than 4 of those. Hawk Ridge’s total includes 139 Broad-winged Hawks seen on August 18. They also had 10 Bald Eagles that day.

It’s the third week of August, and hawkwatches from Maine to south Texas are now open. Whatever the weather, that can only mean one thing—it’s fall!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

HawkCount Now and Forever.

It’s that time of year again. It’s time to dust off your binoculars and head out to your favorite watchsite.  Raptors are on the move! In fact, this week is the start of many hawk watches across North America. Happy fall migration!

While it’s the season for counting raptors, likewise it’s also HawkCount season! HMANA’s HawkCount database sees its heaviest traffic during the fall season as hawk watchers check out what’s being seen across the map. Aside from the up to date hourly and daily summaries, they are checking site profile details, species stats and viewing the new trend graphs as part of the 2011 RPI analysis. is a service to the hawk-watching community and is open to everyone free of charge and free of advertising. We intend to keep it that way. Much of its development has been accomplished by volunteers and the content is contributed voluntarily by hawkwatchers. Anyone can use this information, restricted only according to the wishes of the contributors who own the data.

This past fall, we asked friends and users of HawkCount to help provide support for by making a donation or by sponsoring the web pages of their favorite hawk watch sites.  With your help, we’ve raised over $5000 so far, all of which goes towards the general maintenance and improvement of the web site and data archive.

Become a Site Sponsor at a Special Discounted Rate!  Until October 31, new or renewed Accipiter level sponsorships will be available for a minimum donation of $50, instead of the regular $75.
Sponsorships are open to individuals and organizations. Your name (or the organization’s name) will be displayed on that site’s pages and the funds go towards sustaining all the great services that offers. If you belong to an organization that supports a hawk watch, ask your organization to sponsor the hawk watch’s pages; or suggest a joint site sponsorship to your site coordinator.  Sponsorships received this fall will be effective to 31 December, 2013.  

Already a Site Sponsor? Renew your sponsorship!
If you made your donation last fall, your sponsorship will run out December 31, 2012. Take advantage of the special Accipiter level discount until Oct 31 and renew online or by mail by downloading the Watch Site Page Sponsorship Form.

For more information, please visit and click on the Learn More or Donate Now in the box at the bottom of the page: or, in October, click on the banner at the top of the page.

For more information about Raptor Population Index (RPI) and the recent 2011 analysis, please visit

And thanks for your support!

Photo: hawkwatchers scan the skies at Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory, NH

Friday, August 10, 2012

California (raptor) dreamin'....

     In February the Bear Valley, like many other parts of California, is green with spring.  Farms, orchards, and vineyards carpet the valley floor.  Bordered on the west by the Gavilan Mountains and on the east by the southern Diablo Range, the valley is a visible manifestation of the San Andreas fault.  A quiet two-lane highway runs the western length of this striking landscape, a road enough off the beaten path that one can pull off to the side without fear of causing a traffic catastrophe.  And that's a boon to birders, especially hawk gawkers.

     It was one gorgeous late February day that we ventured southward from Hollister along the verdant fields and hillsides. The valley must be home to uncountable small furry critters and lizards and other tasty fare because we saw raptors almost everywhere.  A wide range of behaviors were exhibited: many were hunting, some of the birds were in dramatic courtship displays, some were engaged in what appeared to be territorial disputes, some were migrating, and some were possibly hangers-on from winter, not quite ready to head north.  
photo by S. Fogleman

     Red-tailed Hawks predominated, providing great opportunities to study a wide range of color variation.  I believe I have come to love the dark Western morph the most.  American Kestrels seemed to be everywhere, and I think I can truthfully state that I have never seen so many in one day anywhere other than a coastal migration watchsite.  They hover-hunted over fields, they were perched on utility lines, on fence posts, on small saplings.  They pestered Red-tails, they pulled the wings off large insects, they preened, they mated, and made us wonder if this was the Kestrel Shangri-la.

     Northern Harriers were probably the next most numerous, with silvery adult males as well as "brown" birds drifting back and forth above the grasses and marshy areas, and sometimes sitting on a fence. Red-shouldered Hawks were often perched on utility poles along the road.  We spotted the occasional Merlin zipping along parallel to the road, or perched on a snag on the steep slopes on our west side.  Here and there a delicate-looking White-tailed Kite captured our attention. Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks were frequently spotted.  A side trip up into Pinnacles National Monument rewarded us with awesome albeit too-fast-to-get-the-camera views as a Prairie Falcon whipped over us at about 30 feet.

     When the frequency of Golden Eagle sightings equals what you might have of Red-tails in the East, you know you're in great raptor country.  Two Goldens acting a bit "courtship-ish" caught our attention as we scanned a horse pasture below us.  At another stop one appeared to be mantling over prey .  Sometimes, while watching a pair of Red-tails in the sky, a Golden would drift into view.  Then there'd be one that was perched on a rocky outcropping, or the archway of a ranch entrance.  At overlook pull-offs where we would be looking down on these birds, their golden nuchal feathering gleamed in the afternoon sunshine.

     Best of all to this Easterner, were the Ferruginous Hawks.  I spotted the first one when we were still about 400 meters north of it as it perched on a fence post.  It was definitely a "wow" moment for me, but the next three or four sightings of that species were just as "wow," as each of those long-winged buteos made certain we appreciated their majesty.
Ferruginous Hawk - photo by W. Fogleman

     Had we visited a week later would we have seen as many raptors?  Would we have seen as much diversity(12 species, including the abundant Turkey Vultures)?  What might it have been like a month earlier in that valley?  Perhaps some light could be shed on the situation by systematic monitoring such as the Winter Raptor Survey.  I'd volunteer, except that I live 3000 miles away!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Kittatinny Roundtable

John Reed from Picatinny Peak NJ holds aloft the "coveted" blinking eagle award as Gene Wagner from Waggoner's Gap PA looks on
For some years now, Hawk Mountain Sanctuaryhas hosted an annual Kittatinny Roundtable, which gathers watchsite compilers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to discuss the previous year’s raptor migration results. The day-long event is a good way for hawk people to get together and talk about hawks in the off-season. A good-natured rivalry about who had the “big day” this past year is always part of the mix, too.

And it’s not just talk about the numbers, either, as attendees always get to hear a presentation about some interesting point of research. This year, Nick Bolgiano presented about changes in Red-tailed Hawk migration and the declines in migration results for the species at many hawkwatches. He used data from HawkCount, Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys and banding results to show how all the data sources confirm Redtails are staying further to the north than previously and are often wintering over. He was able to track this northward wintering through many years of data and show how it has progressed ever northward decade by decade.

Hawk Mountain will be recording migrants with and without crops this fall and asked that other sites along ridge consider doing the same. Counters will decide “crop” or “no crop” for every bird that passes close enough to see a crop. The plan is to use evidence of raptor feeding as an index to the health of the habitat along the ridge that might be impacting birds’ feeding. Contact Laurie Goodrich at goodrich at Hawkmtn dot org if you’d like more details for your own site.

In looking at the spring 2012 results from the ten sites that attended, some interesting details emerged. Allegheny Front PA recorded its highest Northern Goshawk count in 12 years of counting this past spring. Tussey Mountain recorded 212 Golden Eagles, its second highest total.

The totals from fall 2011 also contained some nuggets. For the second year, Waggoner’s Gap PA tallied the most eagles seen in the region, a total of 700, 230 of them were Golden Eagles and 470 were Bald Eagles. Allegheny Front recorded the highest total of Golden Eagles with 279. Picatinny Peak NJ had the biggest Broad-winged Hawk day with 6201 on September 17, but Scott’s Mountain, NJ, had the most for the season, with 14,227.

November 2011 turned out to have disappointing results for nearly all the sites, primarily because the day after the big eastern snowstorm in October produced record migration days on October 30 and 31. The group felt that big weather system pulled birds into October that normally would migrate in early November.

Predictions for this fall? Speculation is that it might be a good year for Ospreys, based on the number of young seen at nesting sites. Also, the country-wide, ongoing drought might push birds to head south earlier than is typical. Whatever the results, you can be sure these counters won’t miss any of the action!