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.. 



3 responses

13 03 2014
Hawkwatching basics 2: Comportment | Under Clear Skies

[…] 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 […]

22 03 2014
Jon Ruddy

Hi Luke – I really enjoyed your Hawkwatching Basics 1 & 2: Informative and a good read. Cheers!

24 03 2014

Hi Jon,

Thanks! Enjoyed your article about ‘Northern’ Red-tailed Hawks on eBird Canada. Looking forward to reading what Jerry and Brian have to say too. I am certainly keeping my eye open for interesting Red-tails here at Braddock Bay. There is so much variation in the species though I’m not sure I am certain what we are looking for exactly with these ‘Northern’ birds. What ‘tails’ I have seen at the watch so far have seemed to have all been pale-throated types regardless of bellyband weight etc.

If you make it down for the HMANA conference (or any other time) do be sure to say hello!


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