Off to Israel to count hawks…

10 09 2014

Me counting hawks

Whilst counting at Braddock in May I was lucky enough to get to hang out with Yoav Perlman (blog here) and Jonathan Meyrav from the Israeli Ornithological Center (website here). I managed to share with them a drizzly but incredible morning’s warbler watching along Lake Ontario (Yoav’s blog post here) and we spent time both enjoying birds and talking about some of the challenges that face conservation organizations in our respective countries.

There are probably just a handful of places that can regularly hope to see a million plus raptors in migration in the world including Batumi in Georgia, Kekoldi in Costa Rica, Veracruz in Mexico and Eilat in Israel. Though the migration in Eilat takes place in spring the Fall migration in Israel can be highly impressive too. There has been an annual Fall ‘Soaring Birds’survey (they log storks, pelicans and cranes as well raptors) there since 1982. Initially, due to a lack of qualified birders, the IOC were dependent on drafting in a few foreign birders to complete their surveys (people like Frank Nicoletti from Hawk Ridge and Riff Raff hawkwatch page founder Pete Gustas spent time there). Now they are at the point where a blossoming birding scene allows them to complete the surveys without recourse to outside help: which is good for the IOC but means that you now really need to get a personal invite in order to join them for the season.

Booted Eagle - Catherine Hamilton

Booted Eagle – Catherine Hamilton

As well as the storks and cranes there are around twenty species of raptors to tally, which compares quite favorably with many US hawkwatches. The numbers of the most abundant migrants are impressive too: 300,000 White Storks, 400,000 Honey Buzzards, 50-60,000 Levant Sparrowhawks and 100,000 Lesser-spotted Eagles pass through this small country each Fall. As with raptors in the US some of these species, like Levant Sparrowhawk, live in areas that are rarely surveyed, so the fact that most of them migrate through this little birding bottleneck means it’s probably as good a place as any to see trends in their population.

Also as in the US there are a string of different manned sites (in Israel just a few kilometers apart) across the country that track the migration and which fulfill the very same dual objectives that we have at sites here: tracking the flight and educating and inspiring the public’s interest in birds. Some sites are relatively remote, but importantly one is just a few miles from Tel Aviv in order to encourage and facilitate visits from both adults and school children.


Black Kite – Catherine Hamilton

It’s a migration that I have always wanted to witness and having a month or two hole in the schedule this year and a generous invite from Jonathan and Yoav has given me the opportunity to do so. Being a big fan of Middle Eastern food and owner of every Ottolenghi cookbook I’m equally looking forward to the culinary experience too. I’ll be updating my personal blog (here) with pictures, eBird checklists etc as often as possible while I am there as well as updating the HMANA blog with what we are seeing out there during International Hawk Migration Week. Come join me online for the adventure.

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!)