Frontiers of Hawk Identification – Hawks at a distance

11 05 2011

Mystery Raptor #1

I have been looking at Jerry Liguori’s brilliant new book ‘Hawks at a distance’ recently (check it out here). Along with his previous work ‘Hawks at every angle’ (here), and it’s a must own for anyone who has even a passing interest in hawkwatching in my humble opinion. Jerry is pretty much the word in cutting edge identification of hawks in flight these days, in the same way that ‘Hawks in flight’ (Dunne, Sibley, Sutton)  revolutionized the way we looked at flying raptors in the 1990’s, so this pair of books has highlighted the developed and expanded upon techniques that hawkwatchers use to identify these birds.

It was cool to hang out with Josh Lawrey this season at Braddock Bay and talk to him about working with Jerry in person up at the Goshutes. Josh was telling me how Jerry pretty much completely rejected the need to use a scope to identify even the most distant hawk and encouraged Josh to stick with bins exclusively to identify birds (pretty much in keeping with the world view of his book). I’m sure this wasn’t solely machismo (which can be pretty rampant in the world of hawkwatching) but rather the practical need to stay off the scope as it so badly limits your field of view. Use of a scope narrows the area of sky you are viewing and correspondingly the number of birds you can observe at at any one time. This eschewing of the use of scopes apparently manifested itself in Jerry making monkey noises at Josh every time he reached for his scope up in the Goshutes, which I thought was particularly funny.

Mystery Raptor #2

Mystery Raptor #2

Personally I know my limits, and am happy to ‘go to the scope’ every now and then with birds that need a little more work than my comparatively limited skills can manage. Being at Braddock Bay is quite intimidating when one considers the quality of people who have been involved in the world of hawk banding and watching here over the seasons. This began with the hiring of the insanely talented Frank Nicoletti and ran through such luminaries as Jerry himself, Clay Taylor, Jeff Bouton  and local legends such as Brett Ewald and Dave Tetlow amongst others. These are guys who have probably forgotten as much about identifying, aging and sexing raptors as I now know.

As well as being intimidating, it’s also inspiring to be part of that tradition. Anyway where was I? Jerry’s new book. I have a copy for myself and also purchased copies for a friend or two, I was so impressed with it. It’s always interesting to get another hawkwatchers perspective on birds, as everyone looks at things in a slightly different way I think and spots characteristics that may help you with an ID. Jerry really is out there at the forefront of hawk identification and the book is an incredibly valuable resource with little gems of information scattered amongst the cracking ‘little’ pictures of the birds.

However, I think I have a minor criticism and perhaps a next project for Jerry 😉 His books all contain perfectly beautiful, sharp little images of the birds, as if they were flying over at a thousand feet or more in crisp blue skies. What happens though on days like yesterday when you have a stinking, shimmering heat haze blowing off of the nearby lake? When under a mile or so away birds are sucked into the swampy air and rendered little more than twinkling shapes as they flicker in and out of the murky air. So now I bring you images from my latest project  Luke Tillers very own digiscoped  ‘Hawks at a distance in heat haze’, the next step in hawk identification 😉

Mystery Raptor #3

Seriously though, If you don’t own Jerry’s books and having more than a passing interest in raptors – get copies now! If you want to have a little bit of fun, see if you can work out what the above three raptors are. No prizes – just the usual hawkwatchers smug sense of self satisfaction if you call them first and get them right. I’ll post the correct answers on my facebook page and blog in a few days.

Anatomy of a Broad-winged Hawk Big Day – Braddock Bay – April 27th 2011

5 05 2011

Broad-winged Kettle - Steve Beal

The day had begun almost calmly with just the constant tick, tick, tick of the counter as a regular stream of Sharp-shinned Hawks and the odd Kestrel jumped off of the West Spit and disappeared literally and figuratively into the haze of the lake beyond. This stream is nothing to panic the remotely seasoned watcher by any means, and the flow is light enough to allow a little time to scrutinize and even appreciate the passing flocks of blackbirds. Here and there, groups of Rustys stream by with their Red-winged brethren, belying the rather depressingly diminishing numbers across the continent.

As the gloom and haze lift from the sky, letting in shafts of light and the ensuing heat, the sky becomes at first patchy and then breaks open into a rather beautiful spring day. To the delight of those watching below though the dreaded “Broad-winged Blue” or “Blue sky of death”, that renders hawks almost invisible in its cerulean cloak, never quite materializes. Rather, thankfully, a thin gauze of cirrus stretches across the sky and here and there globules of passing cumulus act as a backdrop to highlight the rivulet of passing birds.

With the rising heat, a corresponding rising of the birds begins to occur, and before long the small and scattered kettles of Broadies become a high and steady torrent of pepper spot birds that surge meaningfully across the sky, driven on by a craven desire to get north to breed. A scan of the sky reveals two thousand in a constant surge here, and three thousand more over there. If you are lucky they stop intermittently to kettle for a while and perhaps drift back over the platform to put on a show for those merely observing below. This drift might also help you catch the tail end of a missed source, but equally may just help to confuse the issue.
“Have you seen these ones?”
“I have them already”
“Are you sure?”
The clipped response a mixture of inquisitiveness and disbelief.

With soaring birds and numbers, the panic is setting in. A counter is quickly proffered to another helping hand (the Sharpies over the bay) and a pen and pad farmed out to another in order to scribe the incidentals: a Red-tailed here, a surge of harriers there and then a stream of Broad-wings that contains eight Bald Eagles, a conservation success story writ large across the cobalt blue April sky. A stream that contains perhaps more eagles than the first counter at this site might dared have dreamed of seeing in a season let alone in this one singular hour. Proof positive that in conservation that sometimes, just sometimes, (yet depressingly all too scarcely) where there is a will there is a way.

Bald Eagle - Steve Beal

The hawkwatcher with his puny vision can only hope to replicate the acuity of the visually enhanced hunters in the sky through the aid of trusted Swarovski, Zeiss or Nikon. Amazing to consider that these birds view of you and your little platform is almost exactly the same as yours is of them, and yet you have clasped to your face a thousand dollars or two of finely crafted and engineered visual aids. Do they see you, and watch you back you wonder? And if so do they care? A hawkwatchers joke that maybe equally they are ticking off hawkwatches on their journey north across the continent! You however are becoming rapidly smaller as they ascend to what must be maximum soaring height.

Behind you comes a call:
“I have 50 more here”
“No numbers please” you urge as you try to keep grasp of the numerals that are now spinning rapidly through your head and off onto the counter affixed to your hand.
Clicking off the Broad-wings in at least 10’s by now. Amusing to reflect on that first singular Broad-winged that rose above the horizon six or seven hours ago, giving prolonged scope views as she lazed listlessly up into the ether above, you little realizing then that she had brought nearly 40,000 of her friends with her.

Before the buteo show had begun, accipiters seared across the bruised sky of the bay. These harbingers of winged death, all glinting eyes and flashing talons that promise a swift death to the swirling mass of thousands of passing passerines: mere “hawk food” to the more dismissive raptor jocks. Many of these accipiters cruise past, crops bulging, the thousands of miles traveled by those five inch long, warbler shaped, miracles of migration ended in a panicked chase across the scattered trees of the West Spit of Braddock Bay.

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Josh Lawrey

Just to keep you on your toes and apropos of nothing, the Broad-wings suddenly splinter across the sky, drifting in across the streets of Hilton Village, an invisible and imperceptible lake breeze effect kicking in. But there is no lake breeze today, so what is causing this frustrating and confusing break up of your line? Something that the birds have perhaps picked up that is impossible for a mere human, or even a mere humans little portable Kestrel weather station, to identify. Then the cause of the birds break up looms across the horizon, a closing line of cloud threatening rain and quite possibly something more destructive – a tornado?

The stream of birds peters out and then dies. The numbers written down just raw figures for now, but already contained on the scrawled data sheets the secret that a record has been broken for Braddock Bay, New York State and perhaps beyond. No time for celebration now though, just the ache of joints inflamed by hours spent on ones feet, the dull throb of reddening skin that carelessly slathered sunscreen had failed to cover and the carpal tunnel pulse of the counters that have been glued to hand for the last ten hours!

As you turn to leave, the sky now foreboding and dark closes in behind you sealing the flight firmly closed for the day. It will be opening again early tomorrow to let those stragglers through. But for now beers and beds are calling!

Thanks to Steve Beal for the kettle and Bald Eagle Shots, you can check out more of his pictures on his photography blog (click here). Thanks also to Josh ‘Livin’ the dream’ Lawry for the accipiter shot. If you want to check out the day in simple numbers you can visit (here). The day surpassed the previous biggest day in Braddock Bay history (27th April 1987) and probably accounts for the biggest flight day recorded in both NY State for both raptors generally (42,235) and Broad-winged Hawks (39,417) in particular. Doing a little rudimentary research it seems like this could be one of the biggest spring flight days recorded in Canada or the USA?

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.



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!)


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.


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!)

Blatant Advertising – but of a good kind!

23 03 2010

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Catherine Hamilton

Not really for me. I just wanted to draw your attention to a few cool things that are coming up or occuring in the world of birds right now.

Raptor Conference – Audubon Greenwich – May 7th and 8th

First off Audubon Greenwich will be holding a Raptor Conservation conference at the Audubon Centre in Greenwich on May 7th and 8th (click here for details). It should be a really cool day with a chance to get to hear about raptor conservation projects both locally and continentally. With Guests from Hawk Mountain and Veracruz it’s a dream line up for anyone interested in hawkwatching, raptors or conservation. I’ll be there manning the hawkwatch and hope to get to meet some of the hawkwatchers from the Tri-state area and beyond. It’ll be a great chance to meet up with like minded people and to share some tips, experiences and gossip with your local hawkwatching fraternity as well as to find out how to get more involved in raptor conservation projects. You can register online for the event at the bottom of the page!

What have Lukes friends been up to?

All About Birds

If you have been hibernating this month you might have missed Catherine Hamilton’s online exhibition on the All About Birds website (click here). Go check it out, the artwork is absolutely stunning and I’m not just saying that because I am heavily biased. Move over David Sibley! A few of the pieces were produced right here in Greenwich including one of my particular favorites the Red-bellied Woodpecker – go check it out.

Benjamin Van Dorens Blog

New York birder, Greenwich Hawk watcher, and blogger extraordinaire Benjamin has recently become president of the New York State Young Birders club as well so congratulations to him. Here is a link to his blog from a day we spent chasing birds up in New York State (click here)

Birds of North America Fashion Line

At a recent Chelsea art gallery opening I ran into a nice artist who was telling me about his passion for birding and about his girlfriends fashion line that takes its collection names from birds (check it out here).

Reflections on The Season – Quaker Ridge 2009

22 11 2009

Bald Eagles - Michael Ferrari

It seems like it was just a short time ago that I was standing out on the lawn at Greenwich Audubon in a t-shirt picking up the first migrating raptor of the season as temperatures soared up into the 90’s. We started our watch on August 20 and three months later we are at the close. What a season it has been though, records have tumbled, rarities have been sighted and most importantly we have gathered another seasons worth of data which will help scientists determine the health of North America’s raptor population.

Highlights of the year have been legion, with a total of nine beautiful Sandhill Cranes on the season, including a remarkable group of five that were tracked by observers all the way from Wareham MA to the Scott’s Mountain Hawkwatch on the border of NJ and PA and perhaps eventually as far as Georgia (see post below). Other interesting sightings have included two Mississippi Kites that appeared together on October 14 (a species that has only recently been found nesting as far north as New England) and 11 Golden Eagles on the year.

We have also been breaking records all around, for example Nov. 18 with just two days to go we finally broke our seasons best record for Bald Eagles (thanks to Stefan Martins eagle eyes – bad pun intended). It has been a great year for these magnificent birds and it’s amazing to witness an environmental success story like this in action and heartening to see that armed with the right information and desire to make a difference we really can make a positive impact on the lives of these creatures.

Merlin numbers (a rather feisty little member of the falcon family) also peaked at an all time high this year (150) reflecting their burgeoning numbers and spreading breeding range. Conversely American Kestrel numbers,although not shockingly low, were not as high as past years and there is still much concern for this birds future, especially in our own state. Early date records were set for Golden Eagle (Sept. 12) and late ones for Osprey (Nov. 18 – by just one day).

Counting all of the 17,000 birds that have passed overhead would of course have been impossible were it not for the dedicated team of volunteers who have helped man the watch, pick out birds that would have otherwisehave been missed and simply helped get me through the birdless days. There are too many to mention by name but they know who they are, and it has been a pleasure to have met and worked with such a nice group of people. If you didn’t manage to get along to the hawkwatch or join us for the amazing Greenwich Audubon Hawkwatch Festival this year, make sure you add it to your diary for 2010.

Tracking Birds part 1 – 5 Sandhill Cranes

3 11 2009
Sandhill Crane - Gary Howard

Sandhill Crane - Gary Howard

It was fascinating to be a small part of what has turned into something of a phenomenon across the Northeast. At about 2:15pm on Thursday October the 29th Stefan Martin picked up a small flock of large birds heading Southwest towards the hawkwatch. To our collective amazement it was a group of 5 Sandhill Cranes – a pretty decent east coast rarity and a group of 5 would be pretty much unprecedented in the state (at least in recent times) I believe.

The fun continued when Don Morgan noted on the CTbirds listserve (link) that these birds had been seen out in Wareham on Cape Cod and had been seen departing earlier in the morning at 9:30am. Later in the Morning they were picked up en route to Quaker Ridge by Paul Champlin who had seen them first in Fall River MA and then followed them down into Rhode Island to Portsmouth. From there the birds next sighting was at our humble little hawkwatch, and it was a watch and life bird for Stefan which was even better. I’d already had two Sandhills pass by me at the watch earlier in the season and had picked up my first state birds at good old Allen’s Meadows last fall. After their brief appearance they were discovered over in New Jersey almost at the PA border as they took off from Merrill Creek Reservoir and flew past the guys at Scott’s Mountain Hawkwatch.

Pretty amazing to have a flight and timeline of these rather distinctive group of birds. I have attached links of photographs taken of the group by Frederick Wasti in Wareham (here) and the one snapped at Scott’s Mountain (here) and I have put together a little map showing roughly the sighting points along the route (here). Anyway interesting (at least to me) to see just where these Quaker Ridge birds come from and where they are going to.

I guess it’s pretty easy when you have a distinctive group of birds like this. It gets harder when it’s just one hawk amongst many, although this year we did manage to spot a Bald Eagle (amongst the 159 so far) that had something very distinctive about it that we are hoping might allow us to find out more about where the birds that pass by Quaker Ridge come from and go to. More about that in the next post….

EDIT: It seems that there is a possibility that the group of five birds was picked up on their way through Georgia, (thanks to Sara Zagorski for passing on the information) however I am not sure that the evidence that it is our particular 5 birds is very strong. Here’s the Massbird posting on the issue out of interest s you can form your own opinion (here).

Greenwich Hawk Watch Festival

20 09 2009

Frankenfalcon - Luke Tiller

Frankenfalcon - Luke Tiller

Too tired to post anything about the event right now but thought I’d stick up this digiscoped picture of some weird Gyr/Saker/whatever cross falcon that was part of the show at the Hawk Watch Festival (maybe this digiscoping is growing on me!). More thoughts on the whole thing tomorrow once I can feel my brain again (quite numb at the moment!) Some more press coverage of the event (here and here) only a couple of minor inaccuracies involved! Fellow Hawk Watcher and blogger Ben posted his thoughts here.

Quaker Red-tail and Golden Eagle pics link

14 09 2009
Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

After moaning about digiscoping over the weekend I was actually quite pleased with this snap of the Red-tailed Hawk that loiters around the site generally killing and maiming most of the other Quaker Ridge residents, bunnies, milk snakes, he even gace Stefan a couple of funny looks today. Also just wanted an excuse to stick up a link to Benjamin Van Doren’ s pictures of possibly CT’s earliest recorded Golden Eagle from Sunday (link here).

Hawkwatching! Quaker Ridge Rules!

14 09 2009
Mugging for the Cameras! - Luke Tiller

Mugging for the Cameras! - Luke Tiller

Bloodshot and swollen eyes, skin tanned and leathery, a thousand yard stare that makes the most traumatized of shellshock sufferers look positively fine, all are marks of the seasoned hawkwatcher at Quaker Ridge. But what a nice group of guys and gals, and there couldn’t be a more entertaining gang to spend your day with staring into the blank empty nothingness of a pale, cloudless blue sky trying to pick up the distant silhouette of an incoming raptor .

I’d been initiated quietly into the world of pro Hawkwatching with some nice light days at the end of August where nothing much was drifting through apart from a few early returnees (many of them Bald Eagles!) Today however I was dropped into the deep end of Broad-wing craziness. The day started inauspiciously enough with just the one Kestrel making a beeline over the valley and scooting past me at head height. However as the clock ticked over towards 9:30am, suddenly things were changing fast. It started with just a handful of adult Broad-wings lifting up from the surrounding forests and starting to kettle up in the morning sun. In another 30 minutes I was quickly on the phone for battle hardened eyes to help to give me some chance of staying ahead of the approaching hordes.

By 10:00am the clans had gathered and we had 10 or so of the regulars out front and doing their best to make sure that every bird was located and equally that none were counted twice. Of course this isn’t the easiest task, with the frantic call of kettle! or streaming birds! going up left right and center. Heated discussions break out amongst good friends as to which birds might have already been counted or not and tallies are quickly processed on the essential clickers. All through this madness,however the witty banter keeps flowing and the mood is one of excitement and fun as the hordes of birds keep flying.

By 3pm (2pm Bird Time – which runs at EST for the count) bodies and eyes are tired, but the thrill and excitement of the first good day is finally settling  over everyone and we coast the last couple of quiet hours reflecting on a job well done. Another exhausting but fun day at the Hawkwatch and my first real experience of a full day of Broadie madness. It’s an incredible spectacle, so get yourself down here to Quaker Ridge in the next few days before you miss out on all the Broad-winged fun!

You can find information about the Quaker Ridge site on Hawkcount (here) and see a daily roundup of our sightings here.