Monday, September 30, 2013

The Eagle has landed: 'southern' Bald Eagle dispersal in spring

Juvenile Bald Eagle - Joseph Stevenson
'Southern' Bald Eagle migration. It’s a phenomenon that spring hawkwatches, especially along the great lakes, look forward to for late season excitement. I distinctly remember my first major flight at Braddock on May 29th 2011 when an incredible 94 individual Bald Eagles soared past me on the day – including kettles of eagles up to nine strong and an hour where 63 birds were tallied.

Though even relatively recently I have had experienced hawkwatchers question me about the veracity of the phenomenon, it was back in the mid eighties that experienced hawkwatchers like Frank Nicoletti started to note the occurrence of these flights. As the story was related to me, during his first seasons tenure at Braddock Bay Frank noticed that a lot of the late season birds they were seeing looked like small (see Bergmann's rule), crisp and extensively dark hatch year birds – unlike the bleached and worn juveniles one would expect to see if they had hatched the previous year. Apparently he stated immediately that he believed these were hatch year birds from Florida and other Southern States.

Juvenile Bald Eagle - Joseph Stevenson
During an average season one can view this kind of flight reflected on the HMANA Hawkcount website in May at Braddock Bay (for example). In fact these flights can often be seen moving over watches into June after the official end to the season at places like Braddock and Derby Hill and those eagles can often make up a significant percentage of those days flights (example here). 

Personally, whilst counting at Braddock, I had noted up that some of the birds arriving with the Broad-wings in mid-April also appeared to have this smaller, darker, crisp appearance. It seemed to me impossible that these could be southern birds though just due to the early timing, but they sure looked right for them. That, however, would mean birds, just a couple of months out of the nest, had made it the 1000-1500 miles all the way from Southern Florida up to Rochester; it just seemed too incredible to imagine.

Juvenile Bald Eagle - Joseph Stevenson
A little research though seemed to back up the possibility, as according to the USFWS Bald Eagle egg-laying can begin during October. Given a four and a half month cycle until fledging and then a few extra weeks spent around the nest that would seem to point to the potential dispersal of these young eagles during late March. To witness this early breeding in action you can follow the nestcam of a Bald Eagle in Southwestern Florida (here), you can also see updates on their exceptionally popular facebook page (here). The feed starts in just a day or two on October 1st.

These theories at Braddock got the support of some hard evidence this year for the first time. On April 13th one of BBRR’s stalwart banders, Dan Niven, captured a Bald Eagle at the Braddock Bay Raptor Research main blind that was already sporting a band. This was exciting enough in and of itself, but when the report was received from the bird banding lab we discovered something incredible and important, that the bird had been banded as a hatch year bird on February 5th down in Florida (coincidentally enough by ex-BBRR bander John Newhouse). Here was definitive proof that birds that hatched that same year in Florida could make it up to Braddock Bay by mid-April as part of their dispersal.

'Southern' Bald Eagles had initially been believed to be a sedentary subspecies until banders in Florida started to actively band them. Returns of these bands showed that these birds were heading north for the summer. Check out this awesome article (here) from 1947 that Rick Wright brought to my attention after reading this post. Note firstly how far north these banded birds were recovered: PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and secondly, sadly, the number recovered dead after being shot (even though the Bald Eagle Protection Act had been passed in 1940).

Juvenile Bald Eagle - Joseph Stevenson
This northbound dispersal, to me, underlines the incredible feats these birds perform and just another reason to be in awe of them. If you want to come see some of these 'southern' Bald Eagles fly, come join The Hawk Migration Association of North America and Frank Nicoletti for their Raptor ID Workshop up at Braddock Bay in early April 2014 (link here) or for HMANA's 40th Anniversary Conference in the same location later in the month (link here).

Thanks to Joseph Stevenson for the photographs of the event.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Raptor Bytes - hawkwatching morsels from around the web

PBS Earthflight
I hope that many of you have been able to catch the stunning Earthflight series on PBS. The next episode is airing tomorrow, September the 25th and is set in South America. You can see previews, bonus footage and the three already aired episodes on the PBS website here (link). To get some idea of the incredible footage that the series includes watch the video above of Long-legged Buzzard hunting Rock Pigeons in JodhpurIndia. For Sci-Fi fans and anglophiles you might want to watch the BBC version on YouTube which is narrated by ex-Doctor Who actor David Tennant. 

Male Northern Harrier - Vic Berardi

Easy Harriers?
The Grey Ghost is a much sought after and venerated raptor at any hawk watch. It certainly seems to be high on most people’s favorites list when you discuss raptors with aficionados. That said it always seems to raise the question: ‘why do you see so few male harriers?’ Well, back in April the American Birding Association published a fascinating article in their magazine: Birding (available to members) by Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan suggesting one potential reason. It is known that many 2nd cycle males hold a brownish plumage, but the article notes that many male harriers continue to be brownish birds well past their second year. You can read the article for yourselves as the ABA have kindly posted a PDF of the article online here (link). Bird banding expert Peter Pyle wrote a rebuttal of the argument in the letters page of the July/August issue of Birding which also had a response to that rebuttal from Liguori and Sullivan. Fascinating stuff.

Liguori Blog
Incidentally the latest posting on Jerry’s excellent blog (here) is all about aging ‘brown’ juvenile/female type harriers and the need to be careful when doing so. If you haven’t already checked out Jerry’s blog,  make sure you add it to your reading list as it is absolutely packed with fun, fascinating and useful blog posts about raptor identification and more.

Hawkwatchers - Luke Tiller

Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival
How I wish I were heading for the Florida Keys Hawkwatch this week! Today sees the start of the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival, which runs through until Sunday. You can check out the events on the festival website (here).  The hawkwatch runs through until early November and boasts massive flights of Peregrine Falcons, southern raptor specialties, Florida bird specialties and being perhaps the only hawkwatch in the US where you have any chance of having a Short-tailed Hawk catching some thermals with a Magnificent Frigatebird! You can check out the hawkwatch website here (link). It’s also the destination for HMANA’s much anticipated tour in 2014, more detail on our website (here).

American Kestrel - Luke Tiller

Crossley added to Hawk Mountain Board
Richard Crossley of bird identification fieldguide fame (including the excellent Crossley ID Guide: Raptors) and one of the driving forces behind the Pledge to Fledge: an organization focused on promoting birding across the globe (website here) has recently been added to the board at Hawk Mountain. It’s good to see such a tireless advocate for birds and birding added to their board.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

'Tails' from a Braddock Bay banding station....

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research
Although Braddock Bay, the destination for the forthcoming HMANA Raptor ID Workshop (link here), is best known for spring migration and raptor banding it also annually tracks the movement of dispersing hawks in the late summer, when the Braddock Bay Raptor Research (website here) open their nets again to band mainly young Red-tailed Hawks. As a hawkwatcher, it has always amused me that whilst watching many birds heading south in fall Braddock Bay is still catching the northbound movements of these young birds.

Recently an incredible story of one of these juvenile Red-tailed Hawks reached us at Braddock Bay via Jeff Bouton. Back then he was a bander extraordinaire with Braddock Bay Raptor Research and Braddock Bay Bird Observatory though now he is probably best known to most of you as the birding expert at Leica Sport Optics. Anyway, all the way back on the 3rd of September 1991 Jeff banded a Red-tailed Hawk at Braddock Bay, as part of the annual late summer juvenile Red-tailed Hawk movement. Recently, 22 years later, Jeff received word that the band from that bird was recovered in Pennsylvania after the bird had been found dead. Though somewhat sad, for a hawk that is a pretty good run and in fact this makes it one of the 10 oldest wild Red-tailed Hawks on record. 
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk - Jeff Bouton
Jeff noted in his message that the day they banded the bird was not a particularly exceptional day for raptors at Braddock as they had captured and banded a mere 10 Red-tailed Hawks. To me that seems pretty good, but then we are comparing it to the kind of days where well over 100 birds have been banded at the Braddock Bay stations. As Jeff noted in his message to BBRR though:  

"...One of those 10 birds however would turn out to be exceptional. One of the largest birds of the day, which took the largest band size acceptable for the species (7D), was just reported found dead near Marion Center, PA. This means the bird lived over 22 years in the wild and makes it the 10th oldest wild Red-tailed Hawk on record!"

Though the above photo of Jeff was taken at the time, it probably isn't of the bird in question as Jeff reckons it to be a little too small. To me it's incredible to imagine this tenacious bird staking out its territory and surviving quite so long in the wild. Out of interest Marion Center, PA is about 250 miles south from Braddock Bay so the bird obviously did a little more wandering before settling down. Data like this shows the continued value of raptor banding. The USGS page on Longevity Records for North American Birds provides a useful educational tool when people ask those inevitable 'how long do they live' type questions about raptors, or any other birds for that matter (visit their page here).

"Mr Grumpy Pants" - Luke Tiller
Coincidentally one of the oldest Red-tailed Hawks in captivity is held by Anne and Paul Schnell. Anne is co-director and heads up the banding efforts at Braddock Bay Raptor Research. Anne and her husband Paul have educational birds and Pauls birds are a major part of the BBRR's educational and outreach events. Their 35 year old Red-tailed Hawk, affectionately called 'Mr Grumpy Pants' still gets called in for publicity duty and my first season at Braddock Bay I ended up posing in the snow alongside Mr Grumpy Pants for the cover of the local newspaper. Grumpy was born in 1978 and is an imprint, as a result of being fed by hand once removed from his nest. As far as I can ascertain, the oldest recorded captive bird died at 36 and a 1/2 years

Saturday, September 14, 2013

HMANA Opposes Extended Lifetimes for Eagle Take Permits
Recently, the American Bird Conservancy hosted a webinar to discuss the possibility that the USFWS may be about to issue the first incidental eagle take permit for an industrial wind power project under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.  The webinar featured a wind power project of concern to Oklahoma’s Osage Nation for which the issuance of a take permit may be imminent.  Although the permit for the Osage project may be the first to be issued, there are others in process that could develop close on its heels.  
The ABC webinar also discussed the expansion of permit lifetimes to 30 years, which the ABC has been opposing.  On the basis of its newly revised wind power siting and development policy, HMANA’s conservation committee has sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior supporting ABC’s position. 
HMANA’s conservation committee will be monitoring the eagle take permitting process and the proposed USFWS permits being considered, including the take permit for the Osage turbine development project.  The committee also will actively engage in the public review of those projects.   

Friday, September 13, 2013

Problems with the USFWS Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines

Problems with the USFWS Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines
Yesterday, we discussed the change in HMANA’s support for the new Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines (LBWEG).  One of the problems with the LBWEG for siting wind turbines is that compliance with them, including detailed consultation with the USFWS, is voluntary. The eagle take-permitting process can be seen as a strategy to address this deficiency, an enticement to developers to work with the USFWS in siting and developing energy projects. 
The USFWS grants incidental take permits based on a developer’s commitment to incorporate specific features and standards in their projects and perhaps engage in certain activities that mitigate any harm to eagles as a result of any specific project. In theory, the developer is protected from prosecution for any incidental killing, injuring or interfering with Bald or Golden Eagles caused by the project.  In exchange for this benefit, the USFWS is able to influence the siting, development and implementation of projects.  
Currently, incidental take permits must be renewed every five years, but the service is proposing to extend the life of a take permit to 30 years.  While  this extension may further encourage developers to engage with the USFWS through the permitting process, HMANA feels this extension:  
  • neutralizes the effectiveness of post-construction mortality monitoring 
  • protects the developer from submitting to public review of a project’s actual harm to eagles
  • protects the developer from a review of the project’s compliance with the conditions of the take permit.  
As a result of these concerns, HMANA opposes any extension of the time period for take permits that removes the opportunity and necessity for periodic public review.  Further, HMANA finds the current five-year life span of take permits to be appropriate.
Next:  American Bird Conservancy’s actions on take permits

Thursday, September 12, 2013

HMANA's New Wind Turbine Siting Policy

HMANA's New Wind Turbine Siting Policy

At its monthly board meeting June 17, 2013, the HMANA Board of Directors approved an update to its 2008 policy on industrial wind turbine siting and monitoring. It can be seen in its entirety on the HMANA website:  The update reflects changes between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2003 interim guidelines and its current Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines (LBWEG). This update also reflects HMANA’s concerns about the USFWS commitment to extending the life of incidental eagle-take permits from five to 30 years.  

HMANA strongly supported the USFWS 2003 interim guidelines, especially the stipulations that developers of industrial wind energy projects avoid known bird migration pathways and daily movement flyways, avoid features of the landscape known to attract raptors (such as ridge lines and coastlines), avoid areas formally designated as Important Bird Areas and avoid documented locations of any species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The current LBWEG constitute a significant departure from the 2003 guidelines, scrapping these important stipulations and failing to establish permanent and binding regulations or guidelines that provide clear, unambiguous federal guidance to the state and local entities that must make decisions about the proper siting of proposed projects.  The 2013 LBWEG are available for review at

Next:  We’ll discuss why the new USFWS guidelines are problematic

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

HawkCount Now and Forever

It’s September! Horray! If you're a hawk watcher, this means it's time to head out to your favorite site and enjoy migration. You may also find yourself spending time on 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 profiles for things like species stats, trend graphs and site histories. is a free service.  Nevertheless HawkCount does cost money to run, so if you are not currently a watch site page sponsor, please consider joining the elite ranks of those who have already sponsored one or more sites.  And, to those who contributed previously, we invite you to renew your sponsorship and remain as an essential partner in maintaining and improving HawkCount.

September is Fund-raising Month on, which means that we want all visitors and friends of HawkCount to be aware of the need for funding and how they can help.   To find out how you can support this valuable hawk watch resource go to and click on one of the links in the box at the top of any page.

You can help support HawkCount “Now and Forever” either with a donation of any amount or by sponsoring the pages of a hawk watch site.  Sponsorships are available at several levels from Accipter at $75-$199 to Eagle at $1,000 and up.  Your name or the name of a sponsoring organization will be displayed on every page of the hawk watch site you choose.

New This Year!  In addition to the regular site sponsorships, we’re now offering sponsorships of non-site pages.  See for details.

Thank you for helping us keep this valuable information system up and running!