Look to the Skies

I’ve found myself rather busy in the past few weeks, which is a welcome departure from the inactivity I was expecting from the month of September. Work at the center has been simple but good: I feel like I’ve gotten into the groove of interpreting when needed and keeping busy with books, games, and maintenance during the lulls. I’ve had family come to visit on two separate occasions this month, including my aunt and uncle, grandparents, and parents. The meals and stories shared during these brief weekend vacations are much appreciated, especially considering how little time I’ve spent at home in the past few years. The greatest source of recent entertainment, however, is my good friend Col. The two of us worked together on Eastern Egg Rock at the start of the season, though she stayed behind when I departed to begin boat tours. Island life suits Col very well, so when the opportunity came up to spend an additional two weeks on Seal Island after the research season ended, she jumped at it. She and SJ, another coworker, returned to the mainland in early September. Col then offered her services volunteering at the Hog Island camp, extending her stay with the Project by two more weeks and providing me with a partner in crime for outings.

The birding has been great so far this fall, especially along the coast. We can hear the calls of migrating songbirds every night from the darkness above, and the morning light often reveals flocks which settled down to feed in the trees along our property. Many shorebirds have already passed through the region, with only a few stragglers remaining along the local waterways. As we move forward into fall, however, another wave of migration is just beginning. Raptors have started the journey south high over our heads, and will continue to travel through late into the season. Col and I took advantage of this by heading up nearby Clarry Hill to join the hawkwatchers there. Hawkwatching is a very different activity from most forms of birding or wildlife viewing. You simply pick a spot, preferably somewhere high up with good visibility in all directions, and wait. It is most productive to scan along ridges and valleys, where changes in terrain produce rising air masses that give birds of prey a much needed lift. Because they depend on these aerial elevators to travel efficiently, the birds can only migrate during the daylight hours. Raptors often travel in loose associations called kettles as they migrate, soaring from thermal to thermal. These aren’t “flocks” in the truest sense of the word, since the main reason for their association is simply finding and using these pockets of warm air. This is fortunate for hawkwatchers, because it means the birds are often concentrated together, and their numbers can be truly spectacular.

Hawkwatchers atop Cadillac Mountain

Hawkwatchers atop Cadillac Mountain

Hawkwatchers have a well-organized system for recording and reporting sightings. Websites like HawkCount provide databases for hundreds of sites across the continent, allowing watchers to see when and where which birds are moving through. Some famous sites like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania count thousands of raptors representing more than a dozen species each autumn, while other locations are modest operations with only a handful of watchers. The data is valuable all the same, providing useful study of bird populations and movements throughout North America from year to year. The Clarry Hill regulars are out most days when the conditions are right, and they were most welcoming to Col and me. After a crash course on landmarks, terminology, and spotting tips, we joined them in scanning the skies on two different occasions. Early migrants like Sharp-shinned and Broad-winged Hawks have been passing over in good numbers, joined by some Ospreys, Northern Harriers, falcons and eagles. I intend to spend a few more days atop Clarry Hill before the season ends, hopefully contributing some good numbers or unusual species.

I also headed up to Acadia this past weekend, a story which will be told fully in an upcoming blog post. Upon arrival I headed up to the top of Cadillac Mountain, and in addition to beautiful views I found a sizable crew of hawkwatchers. Unlike the small team at Clarry Hill, this watch was led by a handful of rangers and attended by locals and visitors alike. People seemed to take notice when I showed up with my Cornell Lab jacket and large-ish camera lens, since I was better equipped than most guests but clearly not a regular. Before too long I was chatting with the rangers and other experts, pointing out and interpreting passing birds of prey. The crew seemed happy to have another knowledgeable person with good eyes on hand, and I was happy to be part of the team. The hawkwatching itself was stellar that morning. Huge kettles of Broad-wings passed low overhead, Sharp-shins came rocketing along the ridge at eye level, and surprising numbers of kestrels whizzed by constantly. We also saw good numbers of harriers, some Ospreys and Turkey Vultures, a playful raven, and a handsome adult Bald Eagle. The final tally was over 300 individual birds when we packed up around 1 pm: pretty impressive this early in the season! More hawkwatching and other wildlife stories are likely to come soon. Stay tuned!


About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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