So I just confirmed that I will be back in Braddock Bay this spring to count ‘raptors’ in migration (take that Ted Floyd!) As with birding in general, one question one constantly gets asked is: why do you do it? Of course getting a rough baseline on how raptor populations are fairing is the main reason for doing any count, but to me there are a lot of other reasons that hawkwaches are important too- and not just that they train you to recognize that a few Canadian film students aren’t as good at CGIing Golden Eagles as they think they are.
For me, one of the most vital things about running a hawkwatch is the educational aspect. Depending where your hawkwatch is located, be it mountain top, local park or nature preserve it affords the opportunity to interact with members of the public that probably rarely think about conservation. What could be a better tool to get people excited about birds and bird conservation than a passing Bald Eagle? Lets face it, as much as I like sparrows (and I like them a lot) your average punter isn’t going to be turned on by a discussion of junco subspecies.
Probably one of the most magical experiences I have had at a hawkwatch was showing a 90 year old World War Two veteran his first Bald Eagle through my scope at Braddock Bay. He was both amazed and moved by the experience and for me that is part of the joy of any kind of birding: the sharing of love and passion for the birds that we so admire.
Another favorite was towards the last couple of days of the season at Braddock last year when we showed a young family a collection of late Broad-winged Hawks as they circled over Braddock Bay with the odd eagle and other late migrant wedged in between. It was a scorcher of a day, so we had retired under the line of trees behind the hawkwatch platform and were joined by a picnicking family. We started by offering them our bins to view the few hundred passing raptors, but fairly soon it was obvious that I was going to have to run to my car for the loaner pairs (thanks Eagle Optics!) Over the next hour the two adults and three kids sat with us absolutely engrossed by the passage of these magnificent birds as we all shared sightings and identification tips. Again some passing eagles really stole the show (when don’t they), but they were simply amazed by the whole experience and if anything were sorry that they didn’t know about the phenomenon before that day. Hopefully we’ll see them back to catch more of the show this year.
Whilst we are talking conservation: most of the time when we are talking about conservation it’s all tales of woe. Frankly it’s pretty depressing. The thing I love about raptors is that you have some positive stories to share with people too. A documentary filmmaker I like did a short piece on what he called ‘oh-dearism’ and sometimes talking about bird conservation feels a bit like that: the idea that it’s kind of sad, but what are you going to do about it? The great thing about raptors is that they often show that where there is a will, there is a way for human beings to do something positive. All that it takes is working out what the problem is and then taking the necessary steps to tackle it (like banning DDT).
Like many pastimes, it seems that birders continually fret about where the next generation of birders will come from. Hawkwatching in my experience is the perfect place to start off kids. First there is the wow factor of the hawks themselves, second is the fact that there is always someone on hand to help out with encouragement, sorting out ID’s and all the kinds of stuff which might not be something a parent or guardian has the experience or even the desire to do. Look at all the young birders who have been influenced by their time hanging out at the Quaker Ridge Hawkwatch: Shaun & Stefan Martin, Ryan MacLean, Ben Van Doren, Eamon Corbett etc etc
It’s not just a great place for neophyte birders either. As a beginner birder at a hawkwatch you have the opportunity to get to hang out and interact with great birders and learn some stuff – for free! Any given day at the hawkwatches in Connecticut you’ll get to rub shoulders with people like Nick Bonomo, Julian Hough, Greg Hanisek, Frank Mantlik and Charlie Barnard amongst others. Just don’t be the ‘twenty questions guy’ and you’ll soon find yourself being accepted into the fold. It’s not just about big names though, in fact there are people that you have never heard of on the local listserve who show up at hawkwatches who know a lot more than you do about raptor ID. In fact often significantly more. Chances are they might know a lot more about other birds: flight calls for example or what the difference is between the look of a distant flock of blackbirds, or ID marks for a solo loon going over.
Whatever your experience level though, there is always something new to learn. There is nothing hawkwatchers, in my experience, love more than sharing a good sighting with someone or equally tips on how to identify birds. As someone who is fairly apathetic about listing, one of the things I really enjoy about twitching birds is that it’s a great way to catch up with birding friends as well as to put faces to names that you’ve probably only heard of via the local listserve. A hawkwatch in full flow becomes a great place to do exactly that, kick back with a load of other birders and get to just hang out and shoot the breeze (especially if you aren’t the one actually counting!)
Even if you are a pretty decent birder, after standing at a hawkwatch for seven seasons now I can tell you one thing: you aren’t as good as you think you are with raptor ID. Identifying hawks in flight is still at the cutting edge of your average birders skill set. I think it was Socrates that once said: “All that I know is that I know nothing”, and every now and then I wake up and look at my first accipiter of the day and feel the exact same thing. I remember my first day at Quaker and being what I considered a decent birder feeling pretty cocky about how easy it was going to be. I mean you’re only dealing with a maximum of about 10 species after all on any given day; what is it they say about ignorance…
It strikes me that beyond the science, hawkwatches and hawkwatchers have a lot to offer the world of birding and conservation. If you’ve never been to one to witness the magnificence of hawk migration in full swing you really don’t know just what you are missing. Get out there and enjoy the spectacle, learn something and bring your kids or your grandkids to enjoy the show!