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.

iamahawkwatcher – Catherine Hamilton

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..