Anatomy of a Braddock Bay Big Day – April 11th

13 04 2011

Josh Lawrey - Doublescoping!

A big day at Braddock Bay! Not sure if this was typical but this was the way it happened for me. I rolled out of bed with a start as the alarm on my phone screamed ‘get out of bed now!’ at about 6:15am. The night before the clouds had settled in and the atmosphere was thick and heavy and although sunrise was at 6:30 the bruised sky and thick clouds were keeping things looking pretty dingy out there. I stumbled sleepily into the waiting shower, forlornly trying to wash away the tiredness from a decent day the day before.

The warm overnight temperatures told me that the birds were going to be active early that morning and my scan of the weather.gov, weather.com and weather underground (are all hawkwatchers obsessed by weather?) told me that things were starting off warm today. Little did I realize that they were about to jump from warm to hot in such a short period of time. SSW winds forecast with the chance of some thunder showers had thrown the hawk forecast onto red alert for a big movement day.

The shower hadn’t quite cut it, so I decided that perhaps a jolt of caffeine would be the solution to the slightly woozy and sleepy sensation that was still coursing through my veins and the thousand yard stare that was still glazed over my eyes from the day before. It was then that I realized the enormity of the day ahead of me. As I walked into the kitchen and went to grab a mug from the cupboard I glanced out the window and saw a swirling mass of Red-winged Blackbirds lurching somewhat manically across the field outside and off over the bay.

Golden Eagle - Josh Lawrey

Stepping outside into the sticky warm air I was greeted by a sight out of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, a whirling mass of dark birds coursing this way and that across the treetops of the woods outside my house. Not crows though, but the large and bizarrely buoyant forms of hundreds of Turkey Vultures. I have to say my first emotion was something akin to fear! How was I going to count all these birds and what should I do next. The thought that first entered my head was that maybe I stand and count here for a few minutes and then once a break forms in the line I rush down the parkway to my platform for the day (little did I know that a break wasn’t likely to be coming for the next eight or so hours!). I was snapped back into reality as my phone rang and the calm but urgent voice of Dave Tetlow on the other end of the line ‘get to the park now!’

Dave had just arrived at West Spit and was now in a position to cover what raptors were passing over the spit whilst I tore down the parkway to get in a position to start picking them up from the far side. Arriving in the park I was greeted by the incredible sight of a dark whirling mass of Turkey Vultures parked over the West Spit that every now and then sent bursts of adventurous vultures out over the bay. Dave had already been mentally clicking them off as they jumped off over him, and as soon as we found a little break between the bursts of birds I started to take over the count from my wooden aerie.

Before the first 45 minutes were done, Dave and I had combined to tally over 2,500 birds. As the TV’s burst out over the bay, so other individuals back-filled the departing birds. Things were getting just a little crazy, but thankfully the cavalry were on hand in the shape of Josh Lawrey and Dave’s brother Mike. The number of TV’s were incredible but more than manageable as they massed, swirled and took off from their West Spit line. It was everything else that was the problem! Scattered across the sky were any other number of raptors. Unlike the somewhat orderly TV’s the strong gusting winds had broken up the flight into disorganized shards of passing raptors: a Sharpie scooting low out over the lake here, and a soaring Bald Eagle out over the parkway there. Pure craziness!

Rough-legged Hawk - Josh Lawrey

The numbers were mounting and the day was punctuated by the constant click click click of the counters as we tallied the passing birds. Incredible numbers and experiences occurring  throughout the day. It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite moment from such an action packed session, but a two minute period that saw us picking off a Peregrine Falcon, a pair of Golden Eagles and a Northern Goshawk out front of us would take some beating.  As the weather patterns changed (almost imperceptibly to your mere human) so the makeup of the flight of the birds changed too: an hour with 462 Sharp-shinned Hawks – all feisty individuals taking their own course across the bay, later a moment where one panned the sky and over 50 Red-tails were being buffeted by the winds that were knocking down scopes and almost people as we stood at the watch.

By now we had something of a gathering, and the platform was becoming something of a crowded spot. Birders from across the area had been emailed, phoned or texted with news of the gathering storm of birds. All were reveling in the excitement of the day and helping to pick out the odd individuals that were being missed. Every now and then the phone would also go and Dave would call in something particularly interesting that was dashing past him on the spit (more often than not a Northern Goshawk).  By mid afternoon delirium, exhaustion and hysteria were settling in over those who were counting and I was even starting to pray for the rain showers that we had been promised in with the forecast winds. I remember a particularly wasted friend of mine once telling me ‘this is the best night of my life…I wish it would stop!’ and about 3pm on Monday I knew exactly what he meant!

As with all ‘good’ things it had to eventually come to an end and as the surprisingly dry front moved through, so the sightings died behind it.  There were just dribs and drabs of birds that hadn’t pushed through ahead of the front and we finally managed to catch our breath and survey the damage for the day. By the end of it all we had tallied 8870 Raptors: 5230 Turkey Vultures, 1825 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1124 Red-tailed Hawks, 14 Northern Goshawks, 71 Rough-legged Hawks, 17 Bald Eagles and 4 Golden Eagles amongst the real highlights.

Sandhill Cranes - Josh Lawrey

Even with the day winding down to a close we picked up one final surprise as he birds of the day, and even probably the season thus far, appeared in the shape of two American White Pelicans that I picked up cruising over East Spit towards West Spit late afternoon. They eventually put down behind Tackles Bar in Salmon Creek, much to the delight of a few local twitchers. Other highlights included a couple of Sandhill Cranes and a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk which I missed thanks to going to grab my lunch at just at the wrong time.

Amusingly Josh who has been helping out the last few days (and who has counted here for a few seasons in the past) had seen a pair of American White Pelicans whilst doing the watch in a previous year. Being used to counting out west though he didn’t realize the significance of the sighting and didn’t mention it until posting the birds late that evening. He then received irate emails form some of the areas local birders. In fact the first thing one of the regulars at the watch had mentioned to Josh this year were the pelicans, so when I called them out Josh’s initial response was to say that someone had already tried that joke on him this year!

I should really say thanks to everyone who came down and made it such a fun day and helped pick up birds. Special thanks of course to Josh Lawrey and Mike Tetlow for helping out (the day would have been impossible without them), to Dave Tetlow for the early morning West Spit cover and for calling out a few goodies that were whizzing by him at the West Spit and to Daena Ford for getting the word out swiftly to the local birding community.  The day helped erase most of the memories of a poor March and we already broke through 20,000 birds for the season. If you want to see the day in pure numbers you can see the data on hawkcount (here) . You can also see what Dave was picking up from over the West Spit in the way of passerines and raptors that were probably just too far out over the lake for us to see from our perch at the hawkwatch (here). Extra thanks to Josh for providing some shots from the day!

9,000 raptors later!!!!

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11 07 2011
Braddock Bay Hawkwatch – Reflections on a Season – 2011 « Under Clear Skies

[…] when things broke open again somewhat. I have already written extensively about that on my blog (see post here) The count was mainly remarkable in that we broke our TV single day record by about 1500 birds and […]

19 10 2011
HMANA Article « Under Clear Skies

[…] can essentially read the article on my blog (here) but I would also encourage you to join HMANA as well. HMANA, as well as providing you with […]

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