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!

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