Tom McDonald – BBRR Snowy Owl guru

5 04 2014
Tom McDonald - Daena Ford

Tom McDonald – Daena Ford

Being involved at BBRR I am lucky enough to get to hang out with some really cool and fascinating people. One of the coolest is Tom McDonald, BBRR bander, Snowy Owl expert extraordinaire and all around nice guy. I remember being blown away by our first chat about how misunderstood these irruptive owls were by the average birder. This year it’s been amazing to see so many of the things that Tom told me about these amazing owls being borne out by the latest research conducted by Project SNOWstorm (of which he is a part) and others. I was lucky enough to hang out with him the other day and talk a little bit about his interest in birds, involvement in BBRR, Snowy Owls and this years irruption…
Me: What got you interested in birds?
Tom: My interest in birds started with a sleep over with my Grandma “Yanny” when I was about 8 years old. She was the female equivalent of St. Francis of Assisi. The first thing in the morning, I can remember all kinds of birds coming to her outstretched hand full of seeds and other goodies. She also fed deer and other animals by hand in the back yard of her home in Perinton, NY.
Me: How did you get into banding?
Tom: Getting into banding was a spin off from hanging out at the hawk watch and helping BBRR in the early years with clearing trails in the owl woods and helping to build hawk blinds and hawk traps. Dave Tetlow nudged me into the process and Kevin Griffith took me on as a sub-permittee.
'Braddock' from Project SNOWstorm - Daena Ford

‘Braddock’ from Project SNOWstorm – Daena Ford

Me: What was the first bird you banded?
Tom: My first hawk was a road trapped Red Tail. I used a borrowed Bal Chatri trap and a  white footed mouse for a lure.
Me:How did you end up being involved in BBRR?
Tom: I saw an article about Frank Nicoletti in the local newspaper back in the early 1980′s highlighting his hawk counting skills. I went out to the platform the next day and got a royal education in hawk identification. I learned more from Frank in one day than I had in the ten years leading up to our meeting.
Me: When did you decide to focus on Snowy Owls? 
Tom: In the late 80′s, I was reading about how snowy owls would irrupt into our region once every 3 to 5 years and that most of them were destined to starve to death. The more I read, the more that things just didn’t add up. If a snowy owl was in poor shape when it left the tundra, why on earth would it fly 1500 miles to die here? Do you want me to believe that the poor thing couldn’t find a meadow vole or a rabbit somewhere between the arctic circle and New York State? Where did it get the energy to fly this far? My search for a sensible answer to this mystery became an obsession with me and ultimately led to my project SnowyWatch.
Snowy Owl release - Daena Ford

Snowy Owl release – Daena Ford

Me: Is there a difference between banding Snowy Owls and other diurnal raptors?
Tom: Snowy owls hunt during the day only if it’s absolutely necessary or if something detectable makes itself irresistibly and easily catch-able. Most of them make best use of low light conditions. The first few hours of true darkness are the busiest hunting hours, followed by the couple of hours before first light.

Me: How did you get involved with Project SNOWstorm?
Tom: Joining project SNOWstorm was a no-brainer. The concept of following snowy owl movements during the winter was something that I have pursued my entire adult life and was the bread and butter of my studies. Transmitters could bring confirmation and validation to the many theories and questions that I pondered for 25 years.
Me: It’s amazing the kind if things we’ve learned as birders this year about Snowy Owls. Have you been surprised by anything you’ve learned from this big irruption year?
Tom: One of the biggest surprises for me was to see just how high some of these owls were flying on a few of their longer journeys. Some of them were maintaining altitudes of 2000 feet or more for many miles.
Snowy Owl - Catherine Hamilton

Snowy Owl – Catherine Hamilton

Me:I know you have put GPS transmitters on three birds, but how many Snowy Owls have you banded in total this winter?
Tom: I’ve banded 60 owls and also recaptured two of my own birds along with capturing two foreign recoveries from Canada. If I hadn’t spent the entire month of February vacationing in New Zealand, the total would be closer to 80 individuals.
Thanks to Tom for the time and Daena and Catherine for the pictures. Tom will be appearing at the HMANA conference and talking about his Snowy Owl experiences. You find out more about booking for the event here: (link). Link to project SNOWstorm (here).




Hawkwatching basics 2: Comportment

13 03 2014
Josh Lawrey - Doublescoping!

Doublescoping! – Luke Tiller

So, from the previous article (here) you have learned where and when to go hawkwatching. Now you need to know what to do when you get there. As you know, we Brits are very particular about the right way and the wrong way to go about things. So in this hawkwatching basics lesson we focus on how one might conduct oneself at the watch.

Please note that this is a joke…but that many a true word…

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but I bet that’s equally true for any of the female hawkwatchers out there as well. Whilst staying with the BBBO banders one year I got the affectionate (I hope) title ‘The Garbage Disposal Unit’ for my ability to vacuum up dinner leftovers. If you turn up at the platform with a cup of coffee and donuts, they are unlikely to get turned down and following this advice you may find yourself earning a hawkwatching friend for life. Remember your average watcher, if they are getting paid at all, are getting paid about the same as the person who just served you that coffee, so a little gift goes a long way.

So it’s your first time up at the hawkwatch platform. You’ve got your binoculars and perhaps a field guide, where do you go from here? 

Introductions – It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who stroll up to the hawkwatch platform on a quiet day and say nothing to the counter. Might I suggest you say hello, ask innocuously whether there is a guestbook that you can sign (there often is or at least the watcher might want your name for their hawkcount data) or even just inquire how the flight is going . There are a million and one ways to introduce yourself and a million questions to ask the hawkwatcher first. There is one however that you should never ask: ‘how do you know that you haven’t counted the same bird twice?’ This is a question I think I answer an average of 574 times in a season. I have always had a fantasy of rigging up some balloons and party streamers and doing something like this (click link) when what feels like the millionth person asks me this in the season – one day! I also have fantasy answers for that question that include things like telling them that someone in the treeline behind me is shooting all the passing ones with a paintball gun so that we know if we see it again, or that all birds have little patterns on the ends of their wing tips like fingerprints and that all hawkwatchers are required to have photographic memories so that they can remember if they’ve seen them before.

Fantasy Answers! - iamahawkwatcher

Fantasy Answers! – iamahawkwatcher.com

You’ve now presented your offering of warm coffee, negotiated the awkward introduction and asked an innocuous question like ‘seen anything good today?’. Whats next? Knowing when to speak on the hawkwatch platform is a key part of being accepted into the circle.

Stagefright —  As a watcher I’ve discovered many people don’t speak at all. I’ve even had excellent birders stand next to me that were seemingly terrified to call out a bird ID in front of the other people on the platform. Rest easy friends, Pete Dunne always says something about the difference between experienced hawkwatchers and inexperienced ones is that the experienced ones have had time to make many more mistakes, and I think most hawkwatchers would agree with that. Being a keen birder, I know how fraught and tense people get about making dud calls. In the world of hawkwatching it’s almost a given that you are going to make a few doozies, so there is an unwritten rule that if you correct your bad call before anyone else does it doesn’t even count as a bad one (here’s an example of a bad call I made at Braddock – it only made it as far as the listserve before I realized – which was nice!). In all seriousness it’s not like people are expecting you to separate gulls, or sparrows by the way they fly, so the idea that you can jump into hawk ID and be amazing right off of the bat is crazy. As a watcher I could care less if you don’t make a correct call or try to ID a bird to species all day. What I will care about, however (and not in a good way), is when you say something like ‘did you get that bird ten minutes ago, it was flying really fast, shaped like a Peregrine but bigger and pretty much all white. I think you were looking at a passing Red-tail at the time….. ‘ As I say, it’s better to call birds out than not.

Interrupting– The only tempering I would place on making sure the hawkwatcher has seen your bird is that you don’t want to become the person who is all but jumping up and down in front of the watcher to point out the kestrel that you have just seen, when the counter has already logged it ten minutes earlier and is now concentrating on something else. If the counter looks busy and you really think they may not have seen a bird ask them when they next look to not be too busy, unless of course what you are about to say is ‘I have a bird out here, it’s flying really fast, shaped like a Peregrine but bigger and pretty much all white….’  The other big no no on the distraction front is when visitors start to count hawks themselves. If you want to do that, do it in your head and not out loud while the watcher is trying to remember whether it was 850 or 950 in the latest Broadie stream. I may, or may not, have shouted at people who have done that ;)

Mugging for the Cameras! - Luke Tiller

Happy Hawkwatchers – Luke Tiller

The Secret– So this is the real secret to becoming accepted at the watch is this: come on the crappy days. Everyone comes when it looks perfect for a mega flight. Come to those too, but if you turn up the day when the winds are wrong and there is no-one else on the platform you have a better than even odds that the hawkwatcher will actually remember your name as well as your face next time you show up. If you are a beginner watcher you might actually get to learn something. When the hawkwatcher has sat for the last three hours with nothing but their own thoughts for company and no birds, someone arriving at the platform is a godsend.

So there you have it. My personal guide for how to be accepted, should you want such a dubious honor,  as one of the hawkwatching gang. Perhaps before we go, a little tip for the counters out there:

For the watchers– It’s been a long day and eyes are fried, but unless you have a little private throne and a handful of interpretive naturalists to do the dirty work for you, it’s your job to try and inspire those that have visited your platform that day. I know you can spot an potential abieticola Red-tailed Hawk at a thousand paces, but lets face it you aren’t doing your organization, the world of hawkwatching or conservation the world of good if you basically respond to people visiting the platform with little more than a grunt. You don’t have to be Dale Carnegie, just remember that it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile….

Don’t forget the Donuts!!!!!

http://www.iamahawkwatcher.com illustrations Catherine Hamilton





Hawkwatching basics 1: When and Where

9 03 2014
Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

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 south 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.

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 days birding ‘went’.

Merlin - Luke Tiller

Merlin – Luke Tiller

To cover the basics of Spring migration, each watch will have its own ideal wind and weather conditions. To generalize though, you are looking for southerly winds (blowing from the south – sometimes that isn’t clear to people) to bring birds northwards and hopefully past your watch. Sometimes a watch might do better on south west winds sometimes south east depending on the location. In fact, once you become more expert, sometimes the way winds are blowing might sway which local watch you decide to visit on a certain day. It’s certainly something we will take into consideration during the Raptor ID Workshop I am co-leading this Spring at Braddock Bay (details here).  You may also want to check whether rain might dampen the flight. That said, rain is not 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.

Weather discussions perhaps assumes that you even know where to go looking for a regularly staffed hawkwatch site? To find a local spring site you can check out the hawkcount website map and click the individual states (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.

American Kestrel - Luke Tiller

American Kestrel – Luke Tiller

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 usually do when it at least looks promising.

Keep an eye on the blog as I 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. If you want to know when to get up to Braddock Bay, south west winds are the best (though all southerly elements are good) but with a wind speed of at least ten mph. Ideally you want the speed to be a little more than that to keep the breeze kicking in off of the lake and scattering the flight line south of the lake.. 





Pasadena – Swainson’s Hawk

7 02 2014

Pasadena - Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller





Worlds colliding

26 11 2013
Street Art - Stephen Tiller

Street Art – Stephen Tiller

The birding world is a small one in the US. In fact it’s almost impossible to go to an event like the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival without running into multiple people that you know both personally and from their online presence. Coolest of the random run ins over the weekend for me was when I bumped into a regular from some of the local tours that I ran in Connecticut. It was funny because we’d called over one of the official tour groups from the festival to see a couple of Altamira Orioles that we had discovered whilst on an early morning stop at Estero Llano and I recognized her voice as one of my previous participants quicker than she recognized mine. I guess to be fair there does tend to be a few British accents at these birding events.

Street Art - Steve Tiller

Street Art – Steve Tiller

Talking of worlds colliding a couple of months ago my dad sent me some awesome photographs from a mural that had recently been put up to cover some rather boring concrete at a local spot along the River Lee in London where I often go for a walk and look for birds. It’s perhaps not the capitals’ birdiest spot, but it’s close and accessible by bicycle. Of course my dad started my interest in birds and my brother was once a renowned street artist – before he became a photographer and music impresario. I recall my brother once getting paid to teach inner city kids how to become graffiti artists. I’m not sure who decided that was a great idea, but you never know, perhaps he helped spawn the next Banksy or Jean-Michel Basquiat

Street Art - Steve Tiller

Street Art – Steve Tiller

My favorite piece from the event are the Great Crested Grebes created by a Brazilian artist Mateus Bailon (website here). My girlfriend Catherine had just been in Brazil a few months before for the Brazilian Bird Fair (website here). Not only had she fallen in love with the country and its birds, but she had been really impressed by the breadth and depth of an event that included as well as birders and ornithologists, musicians and contemporary artists too amongst others. It’s hard to imagine something quite the same happening in the US or the UK at a birding festival? You can see some of the other murals from the London mural project on the Inspiring City Blog (here). Cool to see the sketches that Mateus worked from and street artists that use nature as a theme of their work. I’m looking forward to getting back to London this Christmas and seeing some of this stuff in person – weird how everything comes together sometimes.





Los Angeles – SMORES beginner birding

31 10 2013
SMORES Program - Helen Wong

SMORES Program – Helen Wong

October the 19th I was lucky enough to be able to get involved as a volunteer with the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation run and Habitat Conservation Fund funded SMORES Program. To quote their own publicity material: ‘Smores is an overnight camping program designed to provide youth of Los Angeles County the opportunity to make personal connections to nature.’ The staff and volunteers at Eaton Canyon Nature Center were heavily involved on the day and Pasadena Audubon Society (the local bird club) helped to provide the birding experts for the event.

Birding was just one of the elements of the two day event which also included Day and Night Hiking, Learning to fish, Entomology, Astronomy, Outdoor Cooking, Kayaking and Overnight Camping so we had some tough competition in the fun stakes! The kids (who were aged between 4 and 18) had come in from across the county from out the other side of the mountains in the Antelope Valley to just up the road in Duarte. Only a few of the kids had ever used a pair of binoculars before and even fewer had ever done any birdwatching.

SMORES Program - Helen Wong

SMORES Program – Helen Wong

First up we needed to get the kids to get to grips with the bins by getting them to focus on something inanimate. Half of the problem with getting beginner birders hooked is trying to actually get them on some birds. Anyway, everyone seemed to get the grasp of it fairly quickly and at least a few birds were cooperative enough that we barely needed to use the bins.

We had quickly added a few lifers to the participants list in the shape of a some White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers before a Northern Mockingbird stole the show – both because it was accommodating and vocal but also because it resonated with many of the older kids who recognized the name from Harper Lee’s book. Of course the real scene stealers arrived in the shape of a perched Red-tailed Hawk, some soaring Ravens and a couple of Ospreys that were working the nearby lake. To my mind (and own biases) it just goes to show the importance of cool birds like raptors in getting kids excited about birds – though I must admit the California Quail were a big hit too.

SMORES Program - Helen Wong

SMORES Program – Helen Wong

Though I have led tours and spoken to adults about birding a number of times, it’s always more frightening to talk to kids about it. It just strikes me that they are less likely to nod politely if they are bored out of their minds ;) Anyway, the kids were great and I really enjoyed taking out the three groups I had scheduled, while they rotated through the activities. The highlight of my day was definitely the little kid who said: ‘I thought birdwatching was going to be boring, but wow that was really fun!’ Job done as far as I’m concerned!!!!!

All in all they were a great groups of kids, and I hope that they enjoyed their weekend activities. Obviously I’m biased and I hope that they all have some interest in the birds around them for the rest of their lives, but if they get hooked on fishing or hiking or just being outside and enjoying nature in some way  that’s good too. To me, making sure that as many people from as many backgrounds get to share the enjoyment that I get from being outdoors is the key.

Next week the Focus on Diversity conference is happening down in McAllen TX (link here). I’m sure it’ll be a great event. It feels like there is still much to do with regard to diversifying the base of North American birding scene. Hopefully both of these events will have a positive effect in that direction.





Red-tailed Hawk – Harlan’s or Dark Western?

23 10 2013
_MG_8270

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

Yesterday (October 22 2013) I spent some time out in the Antelope Valley near Los Angeles doing some birding with friends. Whilst out there we stumbled on this incredibly dark Red-tailed Hawk. So the big question in my mind was is this a Harlan’s or not. I’ve done some background reading on Harlan’s Hawk but it often seems somewhat amorphous as to what you are looking for to clinch the ID. That said tail and barring through the primaries looks promising?

Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

The bird was at least initially pegged as a dark western bird, and at least a couple of observers thought they saw a hint of rufous in the tail – but it is certainly not evident in the pictures. I think we all agreed it was about the darkest individual we had ever seen if it was just a western type bird; being almost completely black. The above photo of the upper tail shows how dark it looked perched.

_MG_8262

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

The above shot gives you a better view of the undertail and underwing markings. Obviously these shots were taken in extremely low light conditions pretty much right at dawn. Not really done much with them in processing – just a little cropping really.

_MG_8271

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

Whatever it is as far as subspecies is concerned I think it’s an incredibly cool looking bird. Just wondering what others thought, so any thoughts certainly appreciated.

Probably the best resources online with regard to this discussion are all published by the American Birding Association: William S. Clark’s article on Harlan’s Tail Variation (here), Liguori and Sullivan’s article on Western and Eastern Red-tailed Hawk vs Harlan’s (here) and the Liguori article from the same publication on Dark Red-tails (here).

EDIT: All of the authors of the above articles have seen pictures of this bird and are happy that it is a Harlan’s Hawk.








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