Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hawkwatching Across The Globe - Belize Raptor Research Institute

Though our focus at HMANA is mainly on North America, there are hawkwatches happening across the globe. Between September 19-27 we will be celebrating hawk migration both in our region and beyond with our second annual International Hawk Migration Week (info here). During this period we will be sharing information about hawkwatches from around the world both here and on our Facebook page (link here). Time to get your bucket list out, you may want to start adding to it! 

First up let's hear from Belize Raptor Research Institute, and their relatively recently formed watch in, you've guessed it, Belize. For those that don't know Belize is often a big draw for British and American birders, not just for their incredible birds, but also because it's the only country in Central America that has English as its official language.
The Count Team - Belize Raptor Research Institute
1/ Tell us a little about the Belize Raptor Research Institute Watch!
Imagine being on the Caribbean Sea coastline with the humid ocean breeze on your face as you stand vigilantly under a coconut palm gazing into the hot sky at one of nature’s greatest spectacles, raptor migration. This may feel like a vacation, but this is our (Belize Raptor Research Institute) hawk watch site located in the southern extent of Belize in the Toledo District at a place called Cattle Landing, just north of Punta Gorda Town. This site is truly a special place for migration, as birds, specifically here raptors, get funneled by the geography as they make their migration south to their wintering grounds using the coastline as their leading line via island hopping from Cuba through the Yucat√°n, passing through Veracruz before making their way through Belize, or through a feat that was thought not to occur in raptors many years ago: crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Our count-site is directly on the coastline on the Cattle Landing community soccer field. This gives us a full 360 degree vantage to view raptors as they pass over the site. It is also located on the main road into Punta Gorda, so all passersby are exposed to the count and it raises attention to the public and Belize about raptors.
Dark Hook-billed Kite - BRRI
This site was first discovered as a key migration site by Dr. Lee Jones, Author of ‘Birds of Belize,’ when he witnessed kettles of Hook-billed Kites migrating south, a species that was thought to be sedentary. To better understand migrating raptors in Belize and to fill that information gap in Central America we started the first fall Hawk Watch Program in Belize in 2013 and will start our third consecutive year on October 15. In 2013 our count was from September 15 to December 7 and 2014 was from October 1 to December 15. This year we will be counting from October 15 through December 15. We are counting raptors at the site seven days a week from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Our watch team consists of a variety of people from all walks of life. We have two paid positions, Project Coordinator and Count Leader. To build capacity for raptor research, conservation, and education in Belize we only hire Belizeans for these two positions. The Project Coordinator is a Toledo District native and bird expert, Victor Bonilla. He has been the Coordinator for the first two years and will continue this year. Our current Count Leader is Isael Mai from San Antonio Village in the Cayo District who works on various bird-related projects and was a volunteer in 2013 on the entire count and last year moved up to Count Leader. The remaining team members are volunteer count technicians who are from all over the world, including Belize, but are primarily recent graduates from the United States gaining experience in research and conservation before pursuing a career in a wildlife related field or entering into graduate school. We have a diverse team that all bring various attributes to the count.
Counters - BRRI
2/ What is the most numerous raptor species seen at your count?
Our first two year results were much different from one another. In 2013, we counted 8,457 raptors, of which 2,858 (33.8%) were migrants. In 2014, we counted 21,077, of which 8,770 (41.6%) were migrants. Based on Dr. Jones’ observations we believe that 2013 was an anomaly year and 2014 is more of the norm. However, this year’s count will tell us a lot. The five most common migrant species at this site are Hook-billed Kites (744 in 2013 and 5,086 in 2014), Mississippi Kites (817 in 2013 and 1,705 in 2014), Broad-winged Hawks (348 in 2013 and 1081 in 2014), Peregrine Falcons (434 in 2013 and 418 in 2014), and Osprey (376 in 2013 and 269 in 2014). We have recorded 32 species of raptor at the site in the 2 years, including rare resident species such as Orange-breasted Falcon, Crested Caracara, and Aplomado Falcon. The most common non-migrants at the site (in order of most common) are Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Short-tailed Hawk, and Common Black-Hawk. 

3/ What are the most sought after?
By far, the focus of this count has been the Hook-billed Kite migration since this is a recently discovered phenomenon and other than Veracruz, Mexico (on average 120 HBKI per year, respectively) is the only known location with a migration of this species. Where these birds are migrating to and coming from is still a mystery. Last year we documented a good size movement of Double-toothed Kites, which are considered resident only, so we are interested in this movement, which has not yet been documented anywhere else. Also, this is a great site for Peregrine Falcons, which our one day high count was 85 individuals. If we counted in August this site has potential to produce one of the highest counts of Swallow-tailed Kites.  
Hook-billed Kite Kettle - BRRI
4/ Do you band/ring raptors too?
We currently do not band raptors, but we are collaborating with folks from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory to possibly start a banding station in Belize. The goal is to have a banding station by 2017. 

5/ Do you just count raptors or are you counting other bird species as well?
We only formally and systematically count raptors, but we do document non-raptor species. This site is good for passerines as well, but if we counted them it would take away our focus on raptors and would bias our data.
Raptor School - BRRI
6/ What are the goals of your count (outreach, conservation issues, population monitoring all of the above)?
This project is multifaceted to better understand raptors migrating through Belize and fill that gap in Mesoamerica, while informing the public about the importance of raptors and showing them first-hand how amazing nature is. The target species is the enigmatic Hook-billed Kite, a potentially key indicator species of climate change. The data obtained from this site will assist in the conservation of raptors from the Neotropical and temperate zones by informing the scientific community and management agencies of changes in raptor populations. Our specific objectives are as follows:
  • Better understand and quantify the raptor migration through Belize.
  • Learn if species that were thought to be sedentary are truly migratory (e.g. Hook-billed Kite) and quantify their migration.
  • Understand the seasonality of little known migratory species.
  • Fill a void of knowledge in raptor migration in Mesoamerica.
  • Establish a long-term Raptor Watch.
  • Participate in multinational conservation by monitoring migratory raptors that pass through multiple countries and two continents.
  • Raise research and conservation awareness of raptors and migratory birds to the region to ultimately help protect both migratory and resident raptor populations.
  • Build local capacity in conservation through this community based project.
  • Train future biologists and conservationists in research and conservation.
  • Build a community bird observation platform to benefit ecotourism and education of biodiversity in the region.
7/ What is the best time to visit your watch?
Belize is a very unique place for raptor migration and probably one of the longest migration seasons. Swallow-tailed Kite southbound migration peaks in mid-August in Belize while Hook-billed Kite migration continues through early December. The best time to visit all depends on what species is your target. If you want to see Plumbeous Kites and Swallow-tailed Kites August is the best time. If you would like to see Mississippi Kites then September is the best time. However, we count from October to December as our target species is Hook-billed Kites. If you would like to see temperate species, such as Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, and Broad-winged Hawks then October is ideal. The great Peregrine migration through Belize peaks October 9-18. Most likely the target is to witness migrating Hook-billed Kites, in which case, any time from the October 22 through mid-December, but it appears that there are multiple peaks around October 26, November 9, and December 1. However, more count years are needed to determine if these peaks are consistent from year to year. We rarely get rained out, but on average get 4 days with no count due to rain. So take your pick of what species you would like to see and come down to count with our team.   
Mississippi Kite Kettle - BRRI
8/ Can your data be viewed online, if so where?
Yes, the first 2 years we posted our daily findings on our website at: http://www.belizeraptorresearch.com/news-2/2769/

This year (2015), we will continue to post on our website with photos, as well as uploading our data to the HMANA Hawkcount database. We will also upload our first 2 years to Hawkcount. We are currently working on a manuscript to publish our first 3 years of results and establish this site as a critical raptor migration location.

9/ If visitors from the US wanted to visit your site where should they go to find out more?
You can get more information about our count at www.belizeraptorresearch.org or email myself, Project Director, at belizeraptorresearch@gmail.com. Visitors from outside of Belize visiting the site will need to fly into Belize City (BZE) and then to get to the count-site you have a few different options: take another 1 hour flight to Punta Gorda via Maya Island Air or TropicAir; take a 6 hour bus ride from Belize City to Punta Gorda; or rent a vehicle and drive down to Punta Gorda. Once in the Punta Gorda area the nearest accommodation is Beya Suites, which is within walking distance to the site. 
Victor with the kids - BRRI
Thanks to Ryan Phillips, Project Director at Belize Raptor Research for supplying answer to our questions! We are looking forward to following their season on HMANA's Hawkcount! You can also keep up with goings on through their Facebook page (here).

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