Saturday, October 10, 2015

Meet the Hawkwatchers - Erik Bruhnke - Corpus Christi Hawkwatch

All hawkwatches rely on the skill and enthusiasm of their respective counters. Here at HMANA we thought it would be fun to interview a few of the hard working members of the hawkcounting community and ask them everything: from how they found their passion for hawkwatching to what they like to do on their days off. First up in our series Erik Bruhnke who is counting at Corpus Christi Hawkwatch in Texas this season.

If you have a great counter at your site this year who you think deserves a little wider recognition leave a message on the blog post or send us a message and we will send them the interview questions too!

Erik Brunkhe
1 Tell us a little about your history: where did you grow up? What got you in to birding? Did you study ornithology or something similar at college? How long have you been counting hawks? Where have you counted before.

I grew up in a little town of Pewaukee near Milwaukee, WI. I’ve been interested in birds and nature since I learned how to walk. My birding spark moment was when I found a Cape May Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and Bay-breasted Warbler bathing in an artesian creek just down the road from where I was attending college (Northland College in Ashland, WI). All three of these were life birds and being all new to boreal warblers, this experience got me hooked in a special way. Growing up I’d go on nature walks with my mom, dad, brother and sister on the weekends. Always had my binoculars with me.

I studied biology in college, specifically through a natural resources degree. It was great taking all of the “ologies” which helped establish a special sense of place. I aided teaching field ornithology and ornithology for several years while in college, and I continued to teach field ornithology as an adjunct professor for two additional years after graduating.

The first six fall seasons after college I worked at Hawk Ridge (Duluth, MN) as a count interpreter, and would aid the count on my time off throughout the fall. I have counted raptors for the Duluth spring count for several years. Having moved to Texas last year, this is my first fall counting raptors in Texas.
Broad-winged Hawks - Erik Brunkhe
2 Where are you counting this year? 

I am counting at Corpus Christi HawkWatch. There Facebook Page can be found here (link) and their individual page on is here (link). I love the massive flights of raptors at the Corpus Christi HawkWatch. The kettles of Mississippi Kites and Broad-winged Hawks are spectacular. The occasional Zone-tailed Hawks are a thrill and beautiful treat to see. I’m looking forward to the massive push of Turkey Vultures that I’ve heard about… The daily sightings of Green Jays, Inca Doves, and Olive Sparrows are icing on the cake for this wonderful site.

4 What is it that you especially like about raptors. What turned you on to hawkwatching? What was the first site you visited?

I really enjoy the beauty and identification of raptors. They’re large and their colors and markings are gorgeous from so many angles. Red-tailed Hawks are one of my favorite raptors. They are often overlooked, and their complex array of plumages throughout North America is stunning. Having seen nesting Krider’s Red-tailed Hawks in North Dakota and many forms of Red-tailed Hawks coming through Hawk Ridge (and many birding travels elsewhere), it’s hard not to admire this wonderful species.

I’ve been into hawkwatching since my very first visit to Hawk Ridge (Duluth, MN) during my freshman year of college back in 2003. There was something about seeing Broad-winged Hawks kettling overhead, a new phenomenon I had never seen before. I got to witness one of their many Northern Goshawks in-hand from the banding station. There were miles of colorful aspens and maples mingled through spruce tops as far as I could see, with Lake Superior bracing the slope of this site. My whole first experience at Hawk Ridge was breathtaking, and I couldn’t wait to come back and watch hawks again.
Zone-tailed Hawk - Erik Bruhnke
5 What do you like particularly about the world of hawkwatching? The spectacle? The ID challenges? The camaraderie of being at a hawkwatch? The outreach? Something else?

I enjoy the solitude, the beauty witnessed, and pleasant challenge of hawkwatching. Hawkwatching has plenty of fast-paced moments where the birds are streaming and zipping by, and hawkwatching also is filled with many moments of soaring birds in the distance and overhead, allowing for careful study and appreciation of each bird. The spectacle of raptor migration is simply incredible. Raptors do something that other non-raptors don’t. I love all birds, and raptors as a whole are quite unique.

Hawkwatching is like a treasure hunt. As we watch raptors more and more, we learn about subtleties that makes each raptor species that-species. Studying the behavior, structure, and form of each bird that flies by puts a smile on my face, and it’s great to be in the presence of other people who smile and understand the hawkwatching addiction as the migrating raptors fly by. There is something to be said as well, about hawkwatching at hawkwatching sites. Areas like this are great for networking with other people who understand the world or hawkwatching, whether it be a profession or hobby. It’s also a great teaching opportunity to point out birds to friends and others in the area, to share the excitement of the migration.
Corpus Christi Hummingbird Feeders - Erik Bruhnke
6 Unfortunately hawks don’t migrate year round. What do you do for the rest of the year?

I run my own birding tour business, Naturally Avian. I also lead birding tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Throughout the latter half of each year I lead Texas Pelagic trips that depart from South Padre Island, TX. When I’m not leading birding tours I work regularly at Quinta Mazatlan, one of the World Birding Centers in McAllen, TX. I write periodically for birding magazines and enjoy speaking and leading trips at birding festivals. I’m a part-time bird photographer too.

7 If you could go and count hawks anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I have a few answers…

First off, I’d love to visit Gunsight Pass (Alaska) someday. Red-tailed Hawks are one of my favorite birds, and I think it would be thrilling to partake in the cool, refreshing elements up there while seeing Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks among the many northern raptor and non-raptor species. Big raptors are great! Snow is fantastic too.

It would be fun to visit the River of Raptors in Veracruz some day. Having spent this season counting at the Corpus Christi HawkWatch, I have a feel for the massive lines of raptors and what it is like to count them. I think it would be interesting to see the masses of birds moving through in a different setting too. Every hawkwatch has its charm, and Veracruz is on the bucket list.

To a site I’ve worked at before, I have to say it would be great to visit Hawk Ridge (Duluth, MN) again. I love the powerful changing of the seasons, with the sights, sounds, smells and temperatures varying from day to day. The flight of Northern Goshawk, Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles and boreal birds all-round is quite a spectacle.
Harris's Hawk - Erik Bruhnke
8 What do you like to do when you aren’t watching hawks (or birding)?

I enjoy cooking and baking. Camping and long hikes hit the spot too. It’s fun to sketch birds. When the outside conditions are right, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are great. I’m a fan of craft beer as well, and enjoy a good pint while reading bird books.

9 Do you have a personal blog, website, flickr page etc that we can keep up with your adventures?

For Facebook, friend me! I use my personal Facebook page to post pictures and birding-related matters daily. I also have a Naturally Avian Facebook page too. My business website Naturally Avian can be found here (link), and you can find the trips and tours I’m leading for VENT here (link). My personal blog is not up yet, but I'm working on that soon!