Friday, October 24, 2014

HMANA Tour: Exploring Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas

By Will Weber, HMANA board member and tour participant
Hawk watching at the Florida Keys Hawk Watch
The HMANA Florida Keys/Dry Tortugas tour, Oct 6-12, 2014, was a great success.  Six participants enjoyed the extraordinary leadership and bird finding ability of leaders Rafael Galvez and Phil Brown.  Our regular program of dawn to dusk birding was punctuated with great meals in carefully chosen restaurants and our accommodations afforded good access to on- or near-site birding.

Yellow-throated Vireo
Banding demo at the Cape Florida Banding Station
I was very impressed with the Florida Keys Hawk Watch site at Curry Hammock State Park on Little Crawl Key.  They have a regular crew of four hawk watchers who diligently track raptors and non-raptors following multiple migration paths.  Our guide, Rafael, is the coordinator at this site. The site was very welcoming of our group and others who were visiting. As remote as the site is from population centers, there seems to be a regular stream of visitors and educational groups. While the site does not include a raptor banding operation, they do regular non-raptor monitoring patrols and keep in close contact with the Florida Keys Bird Banding site at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. I was impressed by the gratitude the watch site personnel expressed for and HMANA’s support.  This site is geographically distant from any other count sites and seems critically important for monitoring raptors departing the continental US.

Some of these migrants continue past Key West and out over the open ocean via Garden Key and Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. Our day visit to Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park was a spectacular raptor watching experience. While most birders plan a Dry Tortugas visit for the Spring migration, our October visit was superb for hawks, particularly all three species of falcons.  The warblers that had made the overnight flight from the Keys faced an incredible gauntlet of falcons and accipiters as they foraged in the meager vegetation of Garden Key. It was hard to know how many Peregrines, Merlins, Kestrels and Coopers Hawks we were observing chasing the passerines because they were possibly only pausing briefly en route to Cuba. Ospreys were abundant. We saw several Broad-wings that had made the crossing.

Scanning at Dry Tortugas National Park
The trip was planned and timed to feature the Peregrine migration in southern Florida. Every day of the trip we saw Peregrines in a variety of habitats.  For us northerners, a Mississippi Kite and numerous Short-tailed Hawks provided special encounters. While raptors were the prime focus, the participants enjoyed seeking and identifying not only all the birds, (140 species counted in total) but butterflies, dragonflies and plants.  Phil impressed me with his keen senses and knowledge of birds and Rafael seemed to have a comprehensive knowledge of Florida ecology, including botany. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

2014 Raptor Research Foundation Conference

The Raptor Research Foundation (RRF) held its 2014 conference in Corpus Christi, Texas, September 24-28, scheduled during peak Broad-winged Hawk migration in Texas in hope that attendees could see a significant flight. An avid hawk watcher who planned to spend three days after the conference on the hawk watch platform at Hazel Bazemore County Park, I was pleased that we had easterly winds and rain throughout the conference, with clearing on the last day.

The superb conference, chaired by Kate Davis, included 13 papers in a Raptors and Energy Development Symposium and 13 in a session on Coastal Raptors. Ten papers were given on Migration and Movements, 8 in an American Kestrel Symposium, 6 on Breeding Ecology, 4 on Techniques, and 3 each on Genetics and Evolution and on Anthropogenic Impacts. The conference also included a special all-day symposium on Avian Power Line Interaction and a Wind Energy and Raptors workshop. Energy development, especially in the western U.S and Canada, is having a dramatic impact on raptors.

The RRF also offered an early career Raptor Researcher workshop on techniques for handling, marking, measuring and sampling birds in the hand, along with Harnessing Raptors with Transmitters, Safely Accessing Raptor Nests, Raptor Necropsy, and Raptor Trapping and Handling Techniques for Scientific Research. Bill Clark also offered a half-day workshop on field and in-hand identification.

The opening keynote by Grainger Hunt on Texas raptors and a closing keynote by Steve Hoffman on western hawk migration were among the highlights of the conference. There were also over 30 poster presentations and two special photography presentations by Nick Dunlop and Rob Palmer.

As a hawk watcher for 40 years, but not a professional raptor or wildlife biologist, I was like a kid in a candy shop. For example, David Brandes gave an excellent overview of the Raptor Population Index, and David Oleyar gave a fascinating paper on Fall Migration and Climate Change. Other papers of special interest to hawk watchers included Jeff Kidd’s paper on Ranges and Migration of Rough-legged Hawks, and two papers on movements of Bald Eagles. Nicholas Smith reported that most of the breeding population and immature birds in Louisiana moved north out of the state for the summer, while an audience member from Arkansas said that was not true for the Arkansas population!  The Coastal Raptors Symposium included several studies of Peregrine Falcon movements.

The conference program, including abstracts of all the presentations, can be downloaded at

The great people of the Corpus Christi Hawk Watch at Hazel Bazemore welcomed all the RRF visitors to the platform daily and held their annual Celebration of Flight that weekend. Following the conference, over the next three days hawk watchers saw roughly 80,000 Broadwings, along with Swainson’s, White-tailed, Zone-tailed and other hawks, and record flights of Wood Stork, Bald Eagle (3) and Sharp-shinned Hawk.

The next RRF conference will be held in Sacramento, California, November 11-15, 2015, hosted by the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. Field trips will be offered to many excellent sites to view raptors, including the spectacular Sacramento Wildlife Refuge complex north of the city.  Anyone seriously interested in hawks should consider attending.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Over One Million Migrating Hawks Counted During International Hawk Migration Week!

HMANA celebrated its first annual International Hawk Migration Week (IHMW) September 20-28 to raise awareness of hawks, hawk migration and the HMANA network of sites that count hawks. Well it was a great success! Over 1.2 million migrating hawks, eagles and vultures were tallied across 100 sites throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Corpus Christi, TX - Celebration of Flight, Sept 26-28
Photo courtesy of Hawk Watch International
One hundred watch sites from 33 states and provinces across the continent counted an astounding 1,203,067 raptors during the week.  Twenty-nine species were tallied, the vast majority being broad-winged hawks (1,125,597) - since IHMW took place during their peak migration. Other high counts included 24,899 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 8,909 Mississippi Kites, 8,724 Turkey Vultures and 7,192 American Kestrels.

Veracruz, Mexico counted more than any other site at 812,949 during IHMW. Corpus Christi, TX on the Gulf coast tallied 226,224 raptors. Other counts across the continent included 15,862 at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, MN; 4,151 Holiday Beach Conservation Area, ON; 4,811 at the Goshute Mountains, NM and 2,777 at the Florida Keys Hawk Watch, FL. 
Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, WV celebrating with a raptor ID workshop on Sept 20.
Photo credit: Brian Hirt
 In addition to submitting daily migration counts to , dozens of sites celebrated with hawk watching festivals, identification workshops, HMANA membership drives and live bird of prey events. 

Thank you to all the sites and hawk watchers for making IHMW a success and helping us promote hawk watching across the map.  We hope you will join us next year!