Monday, August 24, 2015

Fall Hawkwatching Basics: Where and When

Hawkwatching - Braddock Bay, NY
As a seasoned hawkwatcher this is a conversation that I have had sadly all too often: on a deathly slow day someone shows up at the watch and asks ‘how is it going’. After you’ve relayed the bad news about winds from the wrong direction and a band of blocking rain to the north they say something like “but it looked like you had a great day yesterday”.

A quote I once read started ‘yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a dream…’ and that’s the truth about hawkwatching. To get the most out of the hawkwatching experience you need to become something of an amateur meteorologist, or at least look at the weather forecast once in a while. Like much birding during migration, weather is going to play a key part in your success. Though I have been relayed charming stories about the early years of hawkwatching, that were spent looking for birds on previously set dates each fall regardless of the fact that it was perhaps pouring with rain that day, we now understand that there is a slightly more scientific approach to actually seeing some birds at a hawkwatch.
Hawkwatching - Texas
The rest of the quote I referenced above runs ‘…today is a gift.’, so even if you find yourself at the watch on one of those slow days don’t despair. You might still make the best of it by learning some stuff from the hawkwatcher or others there at the watch. It’s generally much easier to glean some information from hawkwatchers on slow days, when they will be thankful for some company, than on madcap days when they are trying to keep up with a huge flight. On those days it might be best advised to not talk to them at all ;) Also even on the slower days, you never know what might show up. I always say it only takes one bird to dramatically change the complexion of how a day’s birding went.

To cover the basics of Fall migration, though each watch will have its own ideal wind and weather conditions, to generalize you are looking to head out on days with northerly winds (blowing from the north – sometimes that isn’t clear to people) to bring birds southwards and hopefully past your watch. Sometimes a watch might do better on northwest winds sometimes northeast depending on the location. In fact, once you become more expert in meteorological matters and your local watches, sometimes the direction and strength winds are blowing might sway which local watch you decide to visit on a certain day. You may also want to check whether rain might dampen the flight. That said, rain is not always a reason not to head out, I have sometimes had some good days watching between light showers and often huge flights can be formed ahead of a storm system.  
Hawkwatching - Quaker Ridge, CT
Weather discussions perhaps assumes that you even know where to go looking for a regularly staffed hawkwatch site? To find a local watch site you can check out the hawkcount website map and click the individual states to find out where your local counts are (link here). Some counts happen in spring, some counts are in fall and some are both. You can click on the individual site link to find out general information about each site. If you click the “migration timing” tab you can get a feel for the usual peaks and troughs of the sites season and by clicking “latest count data” you can usually gauge how regularly the watch is covered.

If you want to find out what the forecast for the hawk flight is like for the next day you can sometimes read this on the individual daily reports from reporting sites (example here). These individual reports are viewable on the front page on Hawkcount (link here). As I write this post it’s currently pretty early on in the season so only a handful of sites are regularly reporting right now. Having had to write those forecasts myself and knowing how unlikely they are to be 100% accurate I understand why counters sometimes feel reluctant to complete that section, but they are more likely to when it at least looks promising the following day.
Hawkwatching - Israel
Keep an eye on the HMANA blog through the fall season, as we will be posting more articles aimed at cluing in beginner and intermediate level hawkwatchers on how to get the most out of the hawkwatching experience over the next few weeks.

A version of this piece was originally posted on Luke Tiller's blog Underclearskies (link here).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Photos or it didn't happen....

Gear - Luke Tiller
One of the biggest recent developments in birding must be the invention of digital photography! In a galaxy far, far away the acceptance of records of rare birds was often based on years of developing your reputation with the local birding community and more importantly perhaps the bird police (records committees). Now all one need do is snap off a couple of shots of the rare bird you’ve witnessed and Bob’s your uncle, rarity committee (and eBird reviewer) easily satisfied. Many citizen science projects rely on a review process to validate rare or uncommon records and this is something I believe HMANA are considering for Hawkcount in the near future.

In some ways it’s a double edged sword, now you can get rare records accepted of birds without having to build the years of trust, but it sometimes feels like we might have become almost completely reliant on getting pics to both confirm a rarity and even to conclusively get an ID. Last Fall, for example, I was chasing Spizella sparrows through a field for a while before my friend decided rather than chase the bird down further he’d just zoom in his camera and check the shot of the bird in question for the median crown stripe and other features that would ID our bird as a brighter Brewer’s or dull Clay-colored Sparrow.

Obviously we are doing our best to collect accurate data at a hawkwatch, but let's face it, people make mistakes. When I say people I mean everyone. Hawkwatching is tough and I’ve seen great hawk watchers make bad calls – so imagine what us mere mortals are up to. A quick identifying snap, often no matter how bad, can produce something that is identifiable to support one's claims – check out the distant dark Red-tail that we had on the HMANA Raptor ID tour in 2014 (report here)!

Dark Red-tailed Hawk at Braddock Bay - Catherine Hamilton
Of course getting those identifying shots is much easier with perched birds than it is with ones in flight. The arts of digibinning and digiscoping aren’t really aimed at capturing soaring birds, though the adapters at least make it almost possible. In fact I have managed to get handheld record shots of birds in flight through the scope - like the following Golden Eagle. That said if you thought digiscoping in general was frustrating, and I know I do, getting flying birds is pretty near impossible in many situations.

Hawkwatchers have plenty of things to do when they are juggling a busy count day and it may be that one of the last things they want to do is think about recording birds. That said, as well as for the nasty things in life (like humoring eBird reviewers), cameras are there for the good things too. Everyone knows the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Raptors are beautiful and hawk migration can be visually stunning. Having a ready supply of great images that you can use for publicity, outreach or that you can loan to local papers for articles are all invaluable. You can also use them just to create a buzz on social media with birders and members of the local community alike.

The great thing is that you now no longer need to break the bank to help record what is happening at your hawkwatch. DSLR setups don’t have to cost a fortune (though they can of course) and super zoom and bridge cameras can often be really reasonably priced. Even better, most have decent video technology too. It certainly makes for more fun reading when you can share images with your daily hawkwatching updates. I loved looking at the Borrego Springs Hawkwatch blog to see how they were faring (link here) this past Spring and keeping up with goings on at Derby Hill was made infinitely more fun by seeing the photos Dave Wheeler would share on his hawkcount checklist (link to his flickr account here) and the video in the following link certainly makes migration more vivid (link here

Digiscoped Golden Eagle at Braddock Bay - Luke Tiller
One other great thing I was reminded of about digital photography the other week, whilst out looking at California Condors, is that it can often give you the ability to accurately pick up stuff like wing tags on a moving bird. They can often be almost impossible to read through bins or scope, but with a nice photograph it is often simple.

So, to conclude, photographs create memories, help keep our ID’s honest, create great promotional and outreach opportunities and can even aid in the processes of citizen science. If you haven't already, it's a great time to invest in a camera. Over the season HMANA will share what we hope will be some useful photography tips here on the blog. We hope they inspire!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Looking for a few good board members

Serving as a director on HMANAs board of directors is fun, rewarding and an important way to help assure raptors and migration study continues into the future.  Now is the time for HMANA members and prospective members to get involved in board activities for 2016.     

HMANAs board is comprised of nine elected and up to eight appointed directors.  Elected directors serve three-year terms; board-appointed directors serve one-, two- or three-year terms.  Board members are expected to participate in a majority of the boards monthly meetings as a minimum commitment.  Most board members also serve actively on one or more of HMANAs 14 committees, whose work includes overseeing HMANA award programs, directing HMANAs communications, managing its endowment fund, creating and implementing development opportunities, creating raptor adventure tours, supporting and improving HawkCount and the use and archiving of data contributed by hawk watch sites, monitoring and working on conservation issues and assuring appropriate governance practices. 

HMANA currently is preparing the 2015 election ballot of HMANA members to serve on the board of directors.  The election occurs in September, when the board expects to fill at least three positions by election or appointment.  Any HMANA member interested in serving on the board should contact Gil Randell, whose duties as secretary include coordinating the election and appointment process (  HMANA members are also encouraged to suggest candidates to Gil.

This is an exciting time for HMANA with the hiring of its first full-time executive director anticipated within the next two years along with the opening of our new office.  Work as a director on the HMANA board has always been fun and rewarding, and is becoming even richer and more interesting as the organization embarks on this new stage of its development.   

If you are not quite ready for a board term, stay tuned for a chance to serve on one of HMANAs committees.  Look for information about how to become active on a committee in October.
Get involved!