Monday, November 2, 2015

Meet the Hawkwatchers - Ryan MacLean - Quaker Ridge

Ryan MacLean and Friend
1/ Tell us a little about your history!
I grew up just about an hour north of NYC in Katonah NY. As a kid I developed a huge love of raptors, taking out pretty much every library book I could that had pictures of them and going to as many raptor centers and falconry shows as I could to watch them up close. Then when I was 10 I went to Mount Peter Hawkwatch in Warwick NY and instantly became hooked on watching them in the wild instead of captivity. I remember it was a late September day (post Broad-Wing season) so it wasn't an epic day numbers wise, but seeing 10+ different species of hawks in their element was enough to blow my young mind. 

A couple years later I discovered that Quaker Ridge Hawk Watch in Greenwich CT was only 15 minutes from where I lived so I started going there pretty much every day after school. Over the next several years I basically received my hawkwatching education by sitting on the lawn there watching and learning. I went to Bard College in Dutchess County NY where I studied music, but I continued to bird very frequently while I was there and always made time to get back down to Quaker Ridge for Broad-winged Hawk season. After I graduated in 2013 Quaker Ridge was seeking a counter (some guy named Luke Tiller had decided to leave and head to California) so I immediately applied and was accepted. 
Ryan MacLean, Ted Gilman, John Hannan, Rosabel Miro at Quaker Ridge
Where are you counting this year?
Three years later I'm now in my third season counting at Quaker Ridge. Each season has had a distinct set of highlights, with my first year having nice Broad-winged Hawk numbers and last year having a record crushing number of Red-Shouldered Hawks (1,046 birds). Our hawkcount page can be found here (link) as well as our Facebook page here (link). Last year I even created an Instagram page for the hawk watch to share some of our great bird photographers' pictures of hawks we see. As of now I think we're only the second hawkwatch to create an Instagram and I hope more do in the years to come. You can view the page here (link).

Tell us what you like most about the watch you are currently at?
The variety and numbers of each species can be incredible at certain times during the season. While some hawkwatches are strictly ridgeline concentrations of birds and others are coastal, Quaker Ridge is really a combo of both since we're at the very bottom of a line of ridges that extends southward through Connecticut and only 6 miles from Long Island Sound. You can get a great push of Broad-Wings and then a late day falcon flight as an added bonus. Over the last few years, we've also experienced an unprecedented increase in Red-Shouldered Hawks. From late October through November we've witnessed almost mini Broad-winged like flights of Shoulders often in kettles of 10 or 20 birds. This makes sitting out in the cold extremely rewarding even late into the season. Since I'm housed on the property during the season I also frequently wake up early to catch early morning warbler flights, which can often be excellent. Even when it's a slow day the hawkwatch lawn is always such a relaxing place to hang out at and the regulars that come out to the watch are a great bunch. We even had a family of bobcats visit us a couple years ago.
Merlin: Quaker Ridge - Luke Tiller
What is it that you especially like about raptors?
To me they're the most free-spirited of all the birds but at the same time the hardest working. Since they're at the top of the food chain they possess this carefree yet determined attitude that always rubs off on me, particularly during migration. They have incredible distances to travel yet thanks to the power of thermals and updrafts they get the joyride of a lifetime from Quebec to Ecuador every year. But at the same time, one misstep along the way could cost them their life. In a way viewing the migration and appreciating it makes you live in the moment and at the same time appreciate that fragility. I was really drawn in to how therapeutic hawkwatching could be but at the same time make you work hard.

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?
Over the past several years of counting I've really come to love the overall process of identification by impression. At Quaker Ridge we get many very high birds due to our low elevation, which has made me learn to appreciate and acquaint myself with the shapes of the birds at that altitude. Above all it makes a Merlin zipping by you point blank even more jaw-dropping. It also makes you sit and think about the magnitude of just how far the birds are going and how we can possibly bridge communities and cultures in order to ensure their protection after they leave the continent. At Audubon Greenwich we've made connections with numerous Audubon organizations in Central/South America and as a result cooperated together in conservation efforts focused on hawks. 
Olive-sided Flycatcher Quaker Ridge - Luke Tiller
I also love how hawkwatching can be such a universal form of birding since its easy to share with people and get them excited about it. I've seen many non-birder friends and many visitors to the Audubon Center become instantly hooked after viewing a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks or a Bald Eagle. If you spend enough time at a hawkwatch you get to know enough people that it becomes a great social gathering and reunion of sorts each season too. You get excited not only to see the hawks but old friends every fall.

Unfortunately hawks don’t migrate year round. What do you do for the rest of the year?
I spend a lot of my non-hawkwatching/birding time focusing on my other love of music. I play guitar, drums, bass, mandolin and keyboards and write/record my own material with my band Meadowhawks and I've played/studied in many other groups ranging from rock bands, jazz groups and orchestras. My ultimate dream is to have enough success as a musician to tour frequently and bird as much as I can along the way, even using my platform as an artist/performer to make the people aware of issues like bird/habitat conservation that aren't really talked about in the music world. This past year I also worked at Audubon Greenwich's summer camp, which is a great program for kids to learn about and observe nature. Some of the kids that came to the camp are now actually coming to Quaker Ridge Hawkwatch and getting really into hawks, so it looks like the future is in good hands.
Saw Whet Owl: Quaker Ridge - Luke Tiller
If you could go and count hawks anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Rosabel Miro, the executive director of Panama Audubon and one of the hawkwatchers at Panama City's Ancon Hill. We were floored to learn that last year they counted two million raptors in one day including a million Turkey Vultures and hundreds of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks and Swainson's. I don't know how I could ever possibly manage to count that many birds but I would absolutely love to go there and witness something like that in person. Cape May, Duluth or Corpus Christi also come to mind since not only are hawks a spectacle at those places but so is the entire bird migration in general. 

What do you like to do when you aren’t watching hawks (or birding)?
If there aren't any hawks to be seen I'm usually out chasing warblers, sparrows, shorebirds, ducks, gulls, butterflies or whatever else is around. I also have a major soft spot for owls and you can easily get me out at 2 AM for a Christmas Bird Count to go owling. When I'm not birding or exploring the natural world I'm usually playing/writing/recording music or going to see concerts with friends. Aside from that I enjoy British comedy, baked goods and hard cider.
Bobcats at Quaker Ridge - Stefan Martin
Do you have a personal blog, website, flickr page etc that we can keep up with your adventures?
You can check out my band Meadowhawks at our website (here) or our bandcamp (website here). I'm always looking to connect with fellow hawkwatchers/birders so feel free to friend me on Facebook as well (personal page here) . I also recently created a facebook group for birders like me in their 20s called '20something Birders' since I feel like birders in our age group haven't really had a place to connect. Its still kind of in the infant stages but hopefully it'll become a fun meeting-place for us college/post-college bird lovers (link here).