Connecticut Hawkwatching Basics

13 09 2010

Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

The next two months or so sees me devoting most of my time to running the Quaker Ridge Hawkwatch, so I thought I’d take some time to write a little introduction to the basics of hawkwatching. As a neophyte probably the first thing you might want to try and work out is where and when to go hawkwatching. Here in Connecticut most hawkwatches really only run in fall, this is simply because there just isn’t the kind of concentration of hawks through our state in spring to make a dedicated hawkwatch worthwhile.

As you may probably know there are pretty much two continually manned hawkwatches in the state: Quaker Ridge and Lighthouse Point so I’ll limit my discussion to those two. At Quaker Ridge our season runs Aug 20th to Nov 20th seven  days a week and Lighthouse Point tends to run on pretty much the same schedule with some flexibility either end.

There are probably three specific reasons that birders visit a hawkwatch: the first is to simply enjoy the spectacle of hawk migration, the second is to target specific hard to find birds in the state and the third to hone ones skills at identifying birds in flight. Both hawkwatches have their own particular draw for your prospective hawkwatcher. Having run one and visited another a number of times I’ll try to evaluate the two whilst referencing the reasons to visit a hawkwatch.

The Weather:

First thing to do before you decide to set out to hawkwatch for the day is to check out the weather. If the forecast predicts strong south easterly winds all day look for something else to do. As with most fall migration you essentially want to look for a northerly component to the wind direction for the day. Northwest winds are probably most ideal but any northerly flow is just fine.

You might also want to consider cloud conditions and definitely rain. Whilst heavy low cloud doesn’t mean that no birds will be moving it does make them harder to see and heavy rain can also put a dampener on the days action. That said neither light rain or cloud cover are necessarily a reason to cancel your visit, for example probably one of the most fun days hawkwatching last year was on October 16th a day that had a steel gray sky and intermittent showers – between the raindrops we tallied 3 Golden Eagles, 1 Northern Goshawk and a total flight of about 450 birds.

Conversely spending your first day at the hawkwatch without a cloud in the sky can be painful and not just because of the sunburn 😉  Picking up hawks against the lower contrast bright blue sky can be pretty tough unless they are right overhead even for experienced watchers.

Where:

Broadies:

As spectacle, the mass movement of Broad-winged Hawks is probably the hawk migration spectacle in Connecticut and it is here that Quaker Ridge excels. The average season count of Broad-wings numbers is almost 10,000 birds at Quaker Ridge (compare that to Lighthouse Point where most years they fail to register 1000 birds) and 1000+ Broad-winged Hawk days are relatively common at Quaker in their brief week long window of migration. Who knows you might even be lucky enough to be there the day that Quaker breaks its single day record for Broad-winged Hawks (over 30,000!!!!). Broad-winged Hawks essentially run like clockwork at Quaker. Give them a Northerly wind in the second week of September (usually from the 10th onwards) and they are on their way (tomorrow looks pretty promising as I write this!)

Flappers:

If falcons and accipiters are your thing then Lighthouse is the place to be to see good numbers of these birds and often they can pass just over the treetops as they whizz past the watch and across the harbor. In 2008 Lighthouse had 183 Peregrines. Like the Bald Eagle (see below) the Peregrine is an environmental success story, and these days it would be hard to miss at Lighthouse with this species. Go back 25 years in a time machine and your chances of seeing either species at a Connecticut Hawkwatch site drops significantly.

Specialties:

Targeting birds: Of the species most people hope to encounter at the hawkwatch Bald Eagles (though still much sought after by watchers) hardly need to be covered in detail as they are now almost ubiquitous at hawkwatches. The only surprise for some people is how early they can be found moving. Thus far we have had 29 Bald Eagles at Quaker thus far (Hawk Mountain Tallied an incredible 35 on August 24th this year)! So you don’t need to wait for the depths of fall to see Bald Eagles and most days with northerly wind patterns should find at least one or two at Quaker and probably similar numbers at Lighthouse.

Two birds you will need to wait later into the season for are Golden Eagles and Goshawks. Golden Eagles are probably easier to see at a hawkwatch than they are anywhere else in the state so visiting a hawk watch (or just carrying out your own is probably the best way to see one). Golden Eagles tend to show up at Quaker Ridge around the first week of October (although last year Quaker had a bizarre record from September 13th – which required documenting photos it was so unusual). As with most of the buteos and eagles Quaker tends to get a  few more of these birds but their is not much in it between the two sites.

Goshawks tend to be a little more hit or miss. They are irruptive with some years more productive than others. Lighthouse just sneaks the average sightings per year over Quaker so may be your best bet for this bird. Somewhat in the same time frame as Golden Eagles in their appearance in the state, October is generally the time of year to be looking.

Getting Lucky:

Sandhill Crane: Numbers are booming in the northeast and they are confirmed breeding as close as MA now. Last year Quaker had 9 definite and probably another 2 (long story…). I should imagine that they will become more and more common at hawkwatches across the northeast.

Jaegers: All three species are possible. Quaker Ridge has both Pomarine Jaeger and Long-tailed Jaeger sightings and I know Lighthouse has Parasitic on their books. That said your chances of being there the day one is seen are minimal still worth boning up on your Jaeger ID just in case.

Anhinga: Again a long shot but Quaker does have an accepted record (study those tails). Early September is the time for them but again not something you should expect to come and see.

Ross’s Goose: I know that at least a couple of people claim to have seen probable Ross’s goose from hawkwatches in CT – good luck getting them accepted – it is your list though!

Swainson’s Hawk: Quaker has seven records and Lighthouse’s eleven. (Edit: not sure how I missed this in their data when I checked first up thanks to Steve Mayo and Frank Mantlik for corrections) Still hawkwatches probably give you as good a chance as any to get a Swainson’s for the state. Mid-October seems to be the time to try (our last 3 sightings were Oct 20th Oct 13th and an anomalous Sept 19th in with the peak Broad-winged migration) but you should buy a lottery ticket on the way home if you see one flyover anywhere in the state.

Mississippi Kite: Probably not the best place to get a kite for the state but maybe for your county lists? With the first New England Hawkwatch birds appearing last year at Quaker and booming numbers of breeding birds in the state I wonder how long it might be until they become hawkwatch regulars in the state?

Passerine and other rares: This is where Lighthouse really comes into it’s own, Western Kingbird, Red-headed Woodpecker, Cave Swallow and any number of good state birds are more regular at Lighthouse and a big rarity such as the Calliope Hummingbird from a few years back is much more likely. I also used to believe that Lighthouse was much better for migrant warblers and such but having been getting out earlier this year to bird the property here I think it’s pretty even stevens as far as a decent warbler show is concerned. I think the only species more likely to be found here at Quaker that’s on a few peoples wish list is Olive-sided Flycacther. They seem as regular here as they are anywhere in the state (I think they like chowing down on the honey bees!)

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4 responses

13 09 2010
Frank Mantlik

Hi Luke,
Nice little primer. But I have one correction. Lighthouse Point has had at least one Swainson’s Hawk. I was among a few people (Tom Kilroy, etc.) who saw an intermediate juvenile on 19 October 1997. (Perhaps it never got entered into the Hawkwatch database). And I vaguely recall that maybe there has been another one since then.

13 09 2010
underclearskies

Hi Frank,

Apologies for that – I’ll correct – it’s not included in their Hawk Count data. I wonder why? Fits nicely in to the prospective time frame I gave at least 😉

Luke

17 09 2010
Larry

I’ve visited some hawkwatch sites over the past couple of years. I think I’ll stop by Quaker Ridge in October-never been there before. thanks for the post-enjoyed the overview of information.

17 09 2010
Larry

Drats!-I just checked the weather forecast and all they show is South or Southeast for winds.

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