Monday, April 20, 2015

HMANA Raptor ID Workshop 2015 report

HMANA Workshop at Braddock Bay
HMANA’s raptor ID workshop is held in early April for a few very good reasons: Spring migration is much more compact than Fall which means seeing a good variety of different species over a week is much more likely than in say September. Early April specifically also gives you a great chance of seeing both adult and juvenile birds of many species and the end date of the tour also means that we have a great chance of running into the first Broad-winged Hawks of the season.

With all that taken into consideration the weather in Western New York in early April is, shall we say, temperamental at best. It helps that workshop leaders Frank Nicoletti and I both have a number of seasons experience counting at Braddock and have a pretty good feel for where might be good on what days depending on the forecast. Monday the 6th of April wasn’t promising much at Braddock or Derby Hill but the weather forecast to our west looked enticing enough that even with a late start to the day (to allow for arrivals from Vermont and sleep ins from California) we decided to roll the dice and head the hour and a half west for a ‘lifer’ hawkwatch for all concerned: Hamburg.  

Just south of Buffalo we arrived to find the Hamburg watch tallying a nice little flight of Red-shouldered Hawks, including a good number of adults. We also got treated to a few Ospreys, some Red-tailed Hawks (including a good number of heavily marked birds) and got to compare a few accipiters. The volunteer crew there made us feel very welcome and it was great to run into old friends (Alec Humann and Rick Bacher)  and make some new ones (counter Mike Zebehazy). They ended their day with almost 1500 birds, a nice count by anyone’s standards. We also ran into a couple of nice species for the trip including both Vesper and Field Sparrows and a beautiful wintering Red-headed Woodpecker. The days flight details (here). 

Osprey - Luke Tiller
The next two days (Tuesday 7th and Wednesday 8th) weren’t looking too promising for much in the way of raptor flight, but we kept our spirits up by exploring some of the other birding opportunities the region has to offer. We had soon swept up a nice array of waterfowl including a rare Tufted Duck in Ithaca and explored the myriad of open country habitats that make Montezuma NWR such a jewel of the New York birding scene. Montezuma is also the site where much of the reintroduction of Bald Eagles to the state was done and is still a popular nesting area for these birds. As well as some nice views and photo ops of the Bald Eagles we managed to dig up a few interesting gulls: Glaucous, Lesser Black-backed and Kumlien’s/Iceland and some cool waterfowl like Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese.

The promise of a decent southeast winds and perhaps a flight Thursday saw us up at 5:30am and winging our way two hours east from our base in Rochester to Mexico, New York and the Derby Hill Hawkwatch. As we started to pull up to the site Frank and I already had a good feeling, the winds were right and clouds of blackbirds and American Robins were winging their way over the site. This is what it’s all about as far as I am concerned - the majesty and magic of migration. In the mix were Snow Buntings, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Common Redpolls and Rusty Blackbirds aplenty and after a couple of hours the raptors began to pick up. 

The great thing about good flights at Derby is that when the winds are right the birds are almost directly over your head. This makes for a great learning experience. Derby is also kind enough to provide you with a set of numbered posts to help you describe where on the horizon a bird may be found (something for more watches to consider surely?).

Raptor highlights of the day included killer views of multiple Rough-legged Hawks and one very accommodating Golden Eagle that came right past us. We owed a big thanks to the whole Derby Hill crew for such a warm welcome, they really went all out to accommodate the needs of the group! Details of the days flight (here).

Rough-legged Hawk - Luke Tiller
Friday saw us with something of a conundrum, initially forecasts had shown potential for another good day at Derby and a day at Braddock that could be great or dismal depending on how long the rain held off. A late change to the forecast that showed potential for rain at Derby had us second guessing the two hour drive out there and back and instead focussing our energies back on Braddock Bay. 

We pulled up in the morning at Braddock Bay’s renowned West Spit to be greeted by both a light adult male Rough-legged Hawk and a Alfred Hitchcockesque flight of more blackbirds and robins. We knew we’d made a good call. Again there was a mix of goodies in the passerine flight including an impressive number of Northern Flickers, a Wilson’s Snipe and a few Purple Finches. The excitement was rapidly building but so were the clouds and after an hour or so of mainly passerine flight the skies opened and torrents of rain poured down - the perfect time to go replenish our caffeine at Tim Hortons. As skies lightened again we headed back to West Spit and the flight started up again with a bang as a juvenile Northern Goshawk bustled across the tree line in front of us giving great views.

The winds on the day really started to pick up in the late morning and we found ourselves moving in order to stay in touch with a flight that was pushing inland - not through wind direction but from the birds desire to stay away from the potential danger of the water. From our new sheltered spot we managed to pick up the two incredible highlights of the day: two adult dark Swanson’s Hawks! This was a repeat of last year’s amazing sightings but instead of being spread over two days, this took place on one.

The push of raptors was both exciting and educational - allowing great comparisons between species - even such unexpected ones as Rough-legged and Swainson’s Hawk. The raptors eventually petered out late in the day, but that just gave us the chance to stop in at Owl Woods to find a cute little Northern Saw-whet Owl. An incredible day - even more so given the early week forecast! Flight details (here). 

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Luke Tiller
The next two days saw the group back at Braddock Bay. Saturday carried the responsibility of heading up the Braddock Bay/HMANA Raptorthon event (details here).  Over the day the group and leaders tallied a highly respectable 14 species of raptors (including the tour’s only Peregrine Falcon and the season’s first Broad-winged Hawks) and 75 species of birds in total including both Long-eared Owl and a flyby Glaucous Gull! The final evening together as a group was spent sharing stories of the week and a few good local beers at the Old Toad Pub.

Sunday morning saw us again pick up a small but nicely mixed flight of passerines and raptors before long journeys home dragged participants reluctantly to the airport or to their awaiting cars. After a less than auspicious weather forecast at the beginning of the week it had turned into a great week with incredible and memorable passerine and raptor flights enjoyed, great learning experiences shared, and new friendships made. Over the week the group had tallied flights with almost 10,000 raptors of 16 different species and 124 species of birds overall including the Tufted Duck which was a life or North American bird for almost all concerned. I can’t wait to do it all again next year. Watch the HMANA website for upcoming details (events page here).