Thursday, July 31, 2014

And they are off...

Northern Harrier - Kimberly Kaufman
As July turns into August and southbound migration begins to gather apace, hawkwatches across the country start to get into gear for the oncoming raptors. I am sure that many readers here are already starting to eagerly anticipate both the arrival of hawks at their local watches and the chance to get together with friends that they may not have seen much of for the last nine months. A few watches will be starting their counts today and as we roll further into the month of August we will see more and more watches come online. You can, of course, keep up with all the daily developments across the continent on (link here).

Northern Harrier - Ashli Maruster Gorbet
Everyone loves a 'Gray Ghost', but recently it seems like there just haven't been enough of them around. Participants at the Kittatinny Roundtable gathering (see previous post) observed a notable decline in Northern Harrier numbers at New Jersey and Pennsylvania count sites last Fall, with Hawk Mountain tallying their lowest total since 1942. Northern Harrier is a species of special concern in a number of the states our watches are conducted in, and that I have counted at, but with highly variable returns watch numbers currently show little in the way of any concrete overall picture of how they are fairing. It does however feel like numbers have been trending down for a few Falls now. In the Northeast the figures seem to back this up with five out of the last six seasons being poor ones that are down below average. It'll be interesting to see if this continues and whether a trend is developing.

When I was counting in Connecticut my friend Tom just insisted we weren't staying late enough in the day to catch them all and I think he was only kind of joking. Anyway something to note and perhaps a species to maybe focus a little effort on collecting solid data on. As well as being fun, hawkwatching, and the data collected, can play an important part in the puzzle that helps us work out what is happening with individual raptor species.

Northern Harrier - Alex Lamoreaux
Of course many watches like to go above and beyond merely identifying passing individuals to species to aging and sexing birds and this of course can add value to collected data. Harriers ostensibly are one of the easiest raptors to do this with as juveniles, adult females and adult males are all theoretically pretty readily identifiable in the field. That said as with all birding activities that require parsing of information with birds that are in view for a short period of time, in bad light, or at distance (and often all three) care should be taken. If you haven't read Liguori and Sullivan's American Birding Association article about adult harriers that retain brown plumage and the intricacies of their molt then you should, it's quite an eye opener. (PDF online here). Jerry also posted a brief but excellent post a while back on his blog about being careful with using coloration when it comes to separating brown female and juvenile birds at a distance. (Blog post here).

Northen Harrier - Rick Bacher
Personally I have found Northern Harriers, though in many ways highly distinctive, one of those birds that seems to be surprisingly difficult for even intermediate level birders to initially identify at the watch. The obvious reason for this is the disparity in flight style between the way we generally see them coursing low over fields and marshes to the way they look flapping in direct flight or soaring within a kettle of migrant raptors. If you are interested in seriously improving your skills picking out those migrant harriers, or want to get better at aging or sexing them then come join HMANA for it's week long Raptor ID Workshop in 2015. To find out more about that event and to read the report from the incredible 2014 Workshop visit our website (link here).

So keep 'em peeled for Northern Harriers, it will be interesting to see what this season brings.

Northern Harrier - Sue Barth
Talking of keeping your eyes peeled, if you live in the Northeast perhaps this Fall is the Fall to bring yourself hero status at your local hawkwatch: by spotting a migrant Zone-tailed Hawk. After an exciting initial sighting this spring of a extremely out of range Zone-tailed Hawk out on Martha's Vinyard, MA (here), there were further sightings in both Nova Scotia on June 1st (photos here) and in Halifax, Massachusetts in July (photos here). They have to go somewhere right? If you don't fancy your chances and want better odds of seeing Zone-tailed Hawks in North America you might want to keep an eye on HMANA's soon-to-be-announced tour offerings to Texas and Arizona (here).

Northern Harrier - © Dominic Mitchell (
On behalf of HMANA I hope all our supporters, members and readers have an enjoyable and productive Fall season. Thanks to all of my friends who generously donated their photographs for this blog post. The harriers pictured come from Cape May, New Jersey to Vancouver, British Columbia and most points between. It's these birds that unite us - let's get together and enjoy them for the next few months!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hawk Fun in the Summer

HMANA’s vice-chair and Hawk Mountain’s senior monitoring biologist Laurie Goodrich hosts an annual event, the Kittatinny Roundtable, each July. For the day-long event, hawk counters and site leaders from along the Kittattiny Ridge in Pennsylvania and New Jersey come together to hear about ongoing raptor research and share results from the prior migration season. It’s a rare opportunity for hawk people from different sites to get together for some fellowship and information.

Last weekend’s event was no exception. We heard Nick Bolgiano discuss his research studying distribution changes for the American Kestrel in eastern North America. Nick looked at Christmas Bird Counts, banding data, breeding bird surveys as well as migration information from HawkCount from the 1970’s to the present to see how kestrel reports shifted over time. He’s discovered that kestrel breeding seems to occur in more southerly locations now than earlier. Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and similar states report increased breeding. Migration data shows kestrel numbers are down, except at Hawk Ridge in Minnesota where results are up, which makes sense if the breeding population is also shifting. Banding recoveries are found now more to the southwest than along the coast. He speculates that smaller and fewer farms as well as more fragmented farmlands are a factor in the decline in the east. The increase in Cooper’s Hawk predation may also be a factor.

Jeanne Ortiz from Pennsylvania Audubon talked about conserving the Kittatinny Ridge by identifying the most important parcels along the ridge with a goal of creating a connected corridor of protected lands. She is also working to raise awareness and show the economic value of conservation, which was estimated at $1.2 billion annually in Cumberland County PA alone.

Laurie gave us an update on her own Broad-winged Hawk tracking project where several fledglings and an adult female are equipped with radios so they can be tracked. She is hoping to discover where these Pennsylvania birds winter and monitor their trip south. Click here to learn more about the research.
Jacks Mountain Pennsylvania gave an update on the wind power companies that are seeking to build wind farms both in front of and behind their watchsite. While the ultimate outcome is still unknown, the Save Our Jacks Mtn. group now has 240 members and was instrumental in getting four nearby townships to pass wind ordinances. While such ordinances can’t keep the wind farms out, the ordinances do regulate their operation and construction. The group is also working with two other townships. They are selling patches to raise money. Visit to keep up with their work.

Long-time Picatinny Peak New Jersey counter John Reed reported his count there may soon end its full-time coverage. As the site is on a military reservation, it is difficult for the public to reach it, and he has been unable to get someone to replace him. He did say he will likely move into the Hudson Valley and hopes to prospect for a new site in that area.

Then it was time to explore the migration data from the 11 attending fall migration sites. One thing was discovered pretty quickly. Northern Harrier counts were all very low or even at the lowest totals ever for several sites. One year’s result is not enough to sound the alarm but it is certainly enough to make other sites aware of this possible trend and to keep a close eye on what happens next year. Also discovered was that the other accipters, namely Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawks, were also counted in below average numbers at the attending sites, though none of these declines were as dramatic as that of the harrier.

Finally, what has now become an annual "award" went to Waggoner’s Gap, Pennsylvania, for yet again posting the area’s highest count of eagles. They counted 499 Bald Eagles and 245 Golden Eagles during fall 2013. The award is a plastic eagle with red, white and blue blinking lights. Counter Dave Grove has been hoping some other site will win and take the traveling trophy off his hands and his mantelpiece for a while.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tour Report: HMANA Raptor ID Workshop 2014

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Catherine Hamilton
 Seven days on the Great Lakes plus a great week of weather divided by two expert hawkwatchers equals 10,928 diurnal raptors of fifteen different species! This is the story of HMANA’s 2014 Raptor ID Workshop.

Held between April 6 and April 12, the workshop assembled participants from the far flung corners of the United States in order to witness the diversity of raptor migration around the Great Lakes and to hone their proficiency as hawkwatchers. A major draw was the rare opportunity to spend a week learning from perhaps one of the most accomplished raptor experts in the country: Frank Nicoletti. Across the board, by the end of an unbelievable week of hawkwatching, everyone’s skills had been sharpened, friendships had been made an incredible number of raptors had been tallied.

Tired but happy hawkwatchers - Catherine Hamilton
In all, over the week, we totaled 135 species of birds. Highlights included: two stunning adult dark Swainson’s Hawks that graced Braddock Bay on back to back days, a Black Vulture - in a down season for them, good numbers and great views of Golden Eagles -especially at Derby Hill. We were also treated to a variety of flavors of Red-tailed Hawks: Dark/rufous morph adults, a Krider’s-like adult (are there many really pure ones left?) and plenty that fitted the seemingly refashionable albieticola subspecies. Rough-legged Hawks of all ages and sexes also put on a great show too, which is always a treat.

Among the non-raptors bugling Sandhill Cranes passed over the watch, we enjoyed the haunting calls of Common Loons from the lake, a collection of rare King Eiders on the bay, Red-headed Woodpeckers foraging at our feet, Purple Martins, Snowy Owls, Lapland Longspurs, Saw-whet Owls, Snow Buntings, Long and Short-eared Owls, Northern Shrike: the list goes on and on and on.

You can see details for the 2015 Workshop on the HMANA Website (here). We hope to see you there.

2014 participants - Catherine Hamilton

Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical Harlan's: Second US East Coast Record?

Harlan's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research
So about a year I stuck up a blog (here) with photographs of some dark buteos either seen (but mainly banded) at Braddock Bay in Western New York State, which is incidentally the base camp for the 2015 HMANA Raptor ID Workshop (details here). The attached photographs were taken at BBRR's main banding station on May 1st 2003 and through the magic of the internet the pictures from this blog ended up with Jerry Liguori. After carefully studying the pictures he confirmed that the bird pictured here is in fact an image of an incredibly regionally rare Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk. To give you an idea of how rare, there is one accepted US Harlan's record east of central Kentucky in eBird and this is the first with photographic documentation. There is at least one accepted record for Ontario but none for New York State

Harlan's Hawk breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada, but spends winters as far east as the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It's plumage was distinct enough for it to have initially been considered a separate species by Audubon, when he sent the type specimen to the British Museum in 1831. In 1891 it was relegated to a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, though it was elevated to species level again for thirty years in 1944. Though currently lumped with Red-tailed Hawk there are at least a couple of raptor experts who lobby for it to be reinstated as a species. 
Dark/Rufous Red-tailed Hawk and friend - Catherine Hamilton
The 1995 Virginia record is probably pretty reliable given that it was seen from Kiptopeke Hawkwatch by Brian Sullivan one of the authors of this excellent ABA article that discusses successfully identifying the subspecies (here). Dark Red-tailed Hawks of any kind do not breed in the east and sightings of dark birds are rare in and of themselves. Frank Nicoletti actually helped the group tally a stunning adult dark/rufous morph at the 2014 Raptor ID Workshop among the other 10,928 passing raptors, but as you can see from the picture above, assigning some of these to subspecies can be pretty tough given that sightings at hawkwatches can often be frustratingly distant and/or views tantalizingly brief.

The roundabout way this record came to be uncovered probably highlights two of the most important recent developments in birding and hawkwatching: the import of the digital camera and the value of the internet. As my friend Pete said, quoting the old Joni Mitchell lyric: "Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone" Thanks to Jerry Liguori for bringing this record to light and to Daena Ford at BBRR for loaning me the photographs for the original article.

Harlan's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research
EDIT: Since writing this piece I have uncovered at least one more accepted Eastern record from North Carolina coincidentally also from 2003 (more here).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Who's Watching Your Eyes? Sunglasses for hawkwatching

Happy Hawkwatchers
Have you ever stepped off of a hawkwatch platform or out of a trapping blind and felt like your eyes were bleeding? You are not alone. Ultraviolet (UV) rays can really take a toll on your eyes after staring into the sky for upwards of eight hours a day. Many hawkwatchers and bird banders experience the same exact issues, and after years of doing either activity, UV rays can severely damage your eyes. Since vision is one of a hawkwatcher’s most valuable assets, let’s talk about how to save it. We don’t want you missing a single bird out there.
I’ve been in the sunglasses industry for nearly five years. My company sells multiple brands, and I have no specific brand bias aside from my own preferences. What I do have is a working knowledge of many of the best brands available, and field experience wearing sunglasses both in the blind, and at the hawkwatch platform. This entire piece is written as my opinion, and without any endorsed bias. With all that out of the way, let’s get down to business.
The most basic question revolves around a price point. “How much do I need to shell out for good sunglasses?” Most respectable sunglasses range in price from $60-$320. I like to tell birders that they have to think about sunglasses the same way they think about binoculars. Both optical technologies cost money to make, and even more money to make well. Optical clarity is important to most birders. How much did your binoculars cost? Birders are the one group of people who can really appreciate the quality of good optics. Now you don’t actually have to spend $320, but just like with binoculars, you get what you pay for. You’ll probably spend around $200 for a nice polarized pair of sunglasses with a high clarity index and superior color portrayal, but you could get by with a $60 pair just as well.

Future's so bright....
The next standard question is: “What is polarization, and do I need it?” Polarization, specifically, has to do with sun glare. Almost every pair of sunglasses you buy at a reputable brick and mortar dealer will already be 100 percent UV-A and UV-B protectant. That means all those UV rays you have been soaking in for years will be blocked. But without polarization you will see a lot more sun glare, and be prone to squinting. At its most simplistic explanation, polarization is a sort of filter system within the lens that blocks out sun glare wavelengths. Polarization is going to increase the price of your glasses anywhere from $20 to $100, but I had already figured that into the price points when I quoted them above. I shy most casual sunglass customers away from polarization as they don’t really need it, but I always encourage anglers, golfers, serious drivers, birders, and those with more than casual visual needs to spend the extra money. It makes all the difference in the world if you’re staring into the sky for long hours at a time.
A large consideration to take into account when buying sunglasses for hawkwatching is the lens color. Brown lenses will give you a higher contrast on edges, and superficially “highlight” objects (especially hawks in the sky). The downside to brown lenses is that they will distort colors a bit. For instance, a distant juvenile Bald Eagle whose heavy mottling tends to come off as brown might appear a different shade with a brown lens. Black or neutral-gray lenses will stay much more true to color, but will not give you any advantage as far as contrast or “highlighting.” Finally, black/gray lenses tend to heavily shade the world, whereas brown lenses appear to brighten it up. I suggest trying both colors out in the store and deciding what you like best for your hawkwatching needs.

Blue Skies of Death!
Finally, you might think about lens material. The two main choices are polycarbonate (plastic) and glass. Glass lenses are going to give you a much higher clarity than plastic lenses right away. Another advantage to purchasing glass lenses is that they are much harder to scratch than plastic ones. The main disadvantages to wearing actual glass is that it is noticeably heavier, and there is always the chance that they can shatter if you drop them on a hard surface. The main advantage to purchasing plastic lenses is going to be weight. They also are much harder to shatter, but easier to scratch, and the clarity is never going to be as good as glass.
I am always asked to recommend glasses brands, and what my preferences are, so I will include my personal opinions as closure to this article. I almost always wear Maui Jim sunglasses. I believe they have an unparalleled color spectrum and clarity index. I lean towards their non-glass models for hawkwatching because of the long hours involved. I wear brown lenses for the advantages they provide described above. My second choice is Smith Optics. You get great optics for your dollar with this brand ($120-$200), and they are the only brand that comes with a lifetime warranty that I am familiar with. Another great bang for your buck is Ray-Ban. I would recommend getting a polarized pair with glass lenses from them. They will be about your cheapest option to obtain real polarized glass. If you are on a budget, I would recommend Polaroid (just like the instant cameras) sunglasses. They actually introduced polarized lenses into the civilian market, and the lens quality appears to be much better than similar priced competitors that have come back to my store with layer flaking, pressure cracks, and so on.

You can go cheaper if you want, but think about the decisions you made when purchasing your binoculars, and how a higher-end model price probably seemed insane to you when you first looked. Think about the quality difference between low-end bins in the $100 range, and high-end bins in the $1,000 or more range. Every dollar in optics counts in the end, and luckily sunglasses won’t cost you more than $2,000 like a good pair of bins will.

Author Rick Bacher
Rick Bacher: As well as being an English teacher and full-time student Rick also volunteers as a Junior Audubon leader at Buffalo Audubon, is a leader for the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage, takes public relations photographs at Tifft Nature Preserve and is a hobby wildlife photographer and birder. He spends autumns at Cape May with his mentor where he is learning to identify, process, and band raptors. Rick can also be found watching and counting hawks throughout Western New York during the Spring migration. He's a serious hawk bum. Follow Rick's photography on his birding blog at