Tag Archives: osprey

Raptor Migration and Hawk Watching

When we think about spring and fall in the northeast, we often dwell on the extraordinary changes that occur to our trees and other plants. In the spring, we yearn for green to replace the barren gray and white of winter; in fall we marvel at the warm oranges, reds, and yellows that are on display as our trees prepare for winter. But there is an equally amazing change that is occurring at the same time, one we often fail to realize because we simply don’t look up: the mass migration of raptors. Whether it is the sheer majesty of a bald eagle, the raw power of a northern goshawk, the pure speed of the peregrine falcon, or the extinct-ness of the Velociraptor, raptors have captured the minds and imaginations of people and cultures for generations. Raptors, also called “birds of prey,” include eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, ospreys, harriers, and owls.

Raptor-watching, normally referred to as “hawk watching,” is a great way to spend a spring or autumn afternoon and can be enjoyed in many of our State Parks. Hawk watching is a draw for both veteran and novice bird watchers alike. Raptors are highly visible during their migration as they soar through the skies, unlike songbirds who hide in dense shrubs and tree tops. If you go to popular hawk watching sites during migrations (www.hawkcount.org), you will often find other observers and official hawk counters. These fellow birding enthusiasts are always eager to help you identify the shapes and flight patterns of certain groups and species. With a bit of practice, you’ll be a veteran in no time!

Migration

Migration is no joke and (as you can imagine) can be exhausting. Some species, such as broad-winged hawks, travel over 4,500 miles in about 9 weeks. Why do these birds go through all this trouble, anyways? Your first guess might be that the birds are escaping the cold. However, if so, then why don’t they stay closer to the equator, where it is always warm? The suggestion that temperature triggers migration is a very common misconception and is often connected to human behavior. Many northerners head south for warmer climates to escape the winter chill. Those who spend their entire winters in the south are even given the name “snowbirds.” With bird migrations, they aren’t escaping the cold; they are often migrating due to the lack of food availability in the winter.

Picture this (shouldn’t be hard for us Northeasterners)… the sun starts setting lower in the sky, the days grow shorter, and the frigid air from the north starts blowing. Plants go through an amazing transition. Annual plants who have dropped their seeds have reached the end of their life, while perennial plants drop their leaves, transferring their energy into their roots and stems to outlast the winter. The world feels a bit barren with the browns and whites of winter. Those plants provide food for insects and many small mammals. When the plants retreat, these small animals follow suit with either long slumbers or feeding off their stockpile of nuts and seeds in their winter dens. Even our ponds and streams can’t provide a bounty, for water denizens are sealed under a thick layer of ice. If you were a raptor, would you stay around and risk not finding food, or would you soar south where food is still plentiful? That said… not all raptors leave. Driving along major highways, you’ll often see red-tailed hawks perched high above, waiting for a mouse or rabbit to make the mistake of exposing themselves. Food is still around, it is just harder to come by. Raptors who do fly south must compete with southern resident birds for food and roosting sites. This added competition is OK though, for the adult raptors only need to worry about feeding themselves. However, when the desire for mating and offspring arises, these southern retreats don’t provide enough food to feed hungry young bellies. So, adults return to their summer breeding grounds… right when their unsuspecting prey emerges from their long winter retreat.

Like humans, raptors concentrate along specific routes while traveling long distances. So, just like you would find more people driving cars on highways than backroads, you’ll find more raptors along flyways. Here in the Northeast, we are part of the Atlantic flyway. Raptor flyways are normally found over level terrain. Mountains, large lakes, and oceans create obstacles that raptors cannot easily cross. Mountains do have a very important role to play, besides being simple barriers. In North America our mountain ranges run north-south. When cross winds hit these ridge an updraft is created, which raptors then use to help them soar and stay aloft. These updrafts mean raptors need to flap their wings less, conserving an enormous amount of energy for their long trip.

flyways
Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Updrafts are extremely helpful… when the wind actually blows. So, what do raptors do in early fall, when the sun is still high in the sky and the winds relatively calm? Physics, my friend. Even if you aren’t an avid hawk watcher, you have probably noticed vultures or hawks flying in large circles with their wings wide and high in the sky. This trick is called soaring flight and it is raptors mastering flight on thermal air currents. Thermal air currents, or thermals, are created when air heated by the sun rises from the ground into the sky. Thermals are often formed along the slopes of hills, but can also form over flat ground. As this warm air rises it cools and condenses, forming puffy, beautiful clouds. If you have a sunny, warm day with puffy clouds, it is also probably a good day for thermals and a good day for raptors to soar overhead.

updraft-thermal
Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Thermals typically do not form over open water; water releases heat evenly and slowly. Without any type of thermal or updraft most raptors must resort to flapping their wings, which uses an extraordinary amount of energy. If raptors decide to migrate over large bodies of water and need to flap the entire way, they are taking a huge risk: if they run out of energy, they will most likely drown. So, when raptors come across a large body of water while migrating, they typically hug the shoreline until they find a short way to cross. These short crossings often form bottlenecks where thousands of raptors pass through every year. One of the largest bottlenecks in the world happens to be in Veracruz, Mexico, where tens to hundreds of thousands of raptors migrating from central and eastern North America pass through, trying to skirt between the Gulf of Mexico and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range.

Identification

The identification of raptors hundreds of feet in the air, where you can often only see a silhouette against a cloud, can seem… daunting. Luckily, with a bit a practice it might be easier than you feared. Hawk watchers often utilize an identification protocol called the SPASMATIC method:

Shape Relative sizes and proportions of wings, tail, and head
Pattern/plumage Contrasting patterns of dark and light
Actions How does the bird fly or what is it doing?
Size How big is the bird in comparison to other birds?
Multiple
Attributes
Use as many of the above characteristics as possible
Trust
In the
Concept
Believe in your ability to judge these characteristics

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

Hawk_silhouettes2
Hawk silhouettes, image from Learn.org

Accipiters (sharp-shinned hawk, cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk) typically chase and feed on songbirds in woodlands with closely spaced trees, so when in flight they have short, rounded wings and long narrow tails.

1024px-Sharp-shinned_Hawk_(Accipiter_striatus)
Sharp-shinned hawk, note the long tail and rounded wings. By Steve Berardi, accessed from Flicker

Buteos (red-tailed, broad-winged, red-shouldered, and rough-legged hawks) have broad-shaped wings for soaring and perching on high branches.

Red-tailed_hawk_(16381245001)
Red-tailed hawk, note the dark band of feathers across the belly. This can be seen in all birds, photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Falcons (American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon) often catch prey in mid-flight in open spaces and depend on speed to capture swift prey, so when in flight you can see that they have pointed wings.

An american kestrel ( perched on a wooden post.
American kestrel

Harriers have broad, strong wings held in the distinctive v-shape (or dihedral shape), which allows them to fly low and slow at ground level, typically around grasslands and marshes. Northern harriers are the only harriers found in our region.

Northern_harrier_(12344138524)
Northern harrier, photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Vultures (turkey and black vultures) have long and broad wings, which aids in soaring over fields and woods while searching for carrion. Turkey vultures hold their wings in the v-shape, but black vultures lack the v-shape almost entirely.

iStock_000049109130_Medium
Turkey vulture, note the difference in feather color between the top and the bottom of the wings,

Osprey distinctively look like large gulls in both body and wing shape. Their wings help them hover over water where they dive feet first into the water to capture fish.

Osprey_in_flight_(11820598024)
Osprey in flight, note the distinctive coloration of the feather, photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region

Eagles (bald eagle and golden eagle) have large wingspans to soar high in the air; this also aids them in capturing food in large open spaces on the ground or over water.

1024px-Golden_Eagle_1
Golden eagle in flight, note the large, long wings, photo by Juan Lacruz

Get out and Hawk watch!

New York has multiple premier Hawk watch locations, with many of them having designated hawk counters. HawkCount gives you the ability to find hawk  watch locations across North America, contacts of designated hawk counters or coordinators, and new and historical data that has been collected at these locations.

We hope you enjoy your next hawk watching adventure. Why not make your next hawk watching experience at a designated hawk watching site in a New York State Park? Here are a few to check out!

Happy birding!

To learn more about hawk watching and to find great resources, visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website.

Robert Moses State Park on Long Island

Out on the south shore of Long Island is a barrier beach called Fire Island, where the First Island Hawkwatch can be found at the east end of Robert Moses State Park. This all-volunteer watch provides coverage from September to November and has access to a hawk watch platform.

To get to the hawk watch platform, proceed south on Robert Moses Parkway and cross the bridge to Robert Moses State Park. From the water tower circle, proceed East to parking lot #5. Park here and walk east toward the lighthouse.

John Boyd Thacher State Park outside Albany

The Helderberg Escarpment Hawk Watch is found just outside Albany, NY at John Boyd Thacher State Park. At the overlook parking lot, hawk watchers can view thousands of broad-winged hawks and other migrating raptors during the park’s annual mid-September Hawkwatch Festival.

To get to overlook parking lot take I-90 to Exit 4 onto Rt 85 west. Follow Rt. 85 for about 11 miles and make a right onto Thacher Road (Rt. 157). “The Overlook” parking area is about 2 miles up the escarpment.

Braddock Bay Park outside Rochester

The great Braddock Bay area outside of Rochester, NY, is one of the top hawk watching sites in New York and is considered a migration “hot spot.” Millions of birds migrate through the area every spring as they head to breeding grounds farther north. In 1996 over 140,000 raptors were counted migrating through the area, and on April 27, 2011 they tallied 42,235 hawks: the biggest spring flight day recorded in the U.S. and Canada. The official hawk count is conducted only in the spring season between March and May. Viewers can use the hawk watch platform found in Braddock Bay Park, which is owned by State Parks and operated by the Town of Greece. The Braddock Bay Raptor Research (BBRR) has conducted the hawk watch since 1986.

To get to Braddock Bay take the Lake Ontario State Parkway until the East Manitou Road/Braddock Bay Park exit. Turn north onto East Manitou Road and turn left into Braddock Bay Park. When you come to a T in the road turn right and continue until you see the hawk watch platform on your left.

Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

The site is adjacent to parking lot at the crest of the road through Betty & Wilbur Davis State Park. It has excellent views to the west over and across the Cherry Valley Creek Valley, and south and southeast. The view to the north is good. The hill obstructs the views northeast and due east.

Check out our 2016 blog post about Golden Eagle migration surveys by Delaware Otsego Audubon Society.

By Matt Brincka, State Parks

Juvenile bald eagle featured image by Matt Brincka, State Parks

Early Spring Migrants

Signs of spring are beginning to show in the great northeast. The days are getting longer, skunk cabbage is beginning to erupt from the cold ground and birds that have been afar for the winter months are beginning to return to New York State. One may think “What birds? The birds have been here all winter.” True, not all of our native bird species in New York migrate south for the winter months. Birds such as chickadees, northern cardinals, and red tailed hawks tough out the winter, anticipating the spring breeding season (see prior blog post on overwintering birds).  But far more birds winter in South America, Central America, and the southern USA and make the long journey back to NY in the spring. It is an exhausting flight; the birds must make short stops to fuel up on available food and take a quick rest, then up to the sky to continue their journey. Upon arrival at their breeding/nesting grounds, whether in New York State or farther north, there is little time for rest or replenishment of their lost fat reserves from the long journey. The birds must stake out nesting territory, defend it, find a mate and start building the nest that they will care for, around the clock, in the weeks to come.

Keep your ears and eyes out for the early returning migrants, the birds that are first to arrive in the months of March and April. Before describing some of the species one may encounter while bird watching, lets discover the difference between bird calls and songs, primarily applying to passerines or “song birds”. A call is a brief simple sound like a chip note, peep, or chatter. A song is a longer sound segment, usually with distinctive melody such as a series of notes strung together. Calls can be heard all winter from our resident bird population, but in spring the songs begin. Songs are typically related to courtship and establishing territory. Bird sounds (song, hoot, chatter…etc.) are also very useful in assisting bird watchers with identification, as bird vocals are distinct to individual species.

Additional tips that help with bird identification are size, coloration or plumage, and habitat use. Pick a bird you are familiar with, say the American Crow, and think about the size of the bird you are trying to identify. Having an idea of what size the bird is can help you narrow down what the species is from one that may look similar but is larger or smaller than the bird you are trying to identify. Plumage (feather pattern) is very important when identifying birds and can also be very frustrating! However, the more you bird watch, the better you will get at noticing the differences between species.  Habitat type can also help narrow down what species a bird is. For example, if you are observing a bird in a wetland and you think you know what the bird is, but you’re bird guide says that bird is primarily found in dry open fields – you will have to continue looking. All of these factors combined; sound, size, plumage, and habitat use are useful tools in assisting the observer with identifying a bird.

Early Returning Migrants: Meet the Birds!

Passerines or Song Birds

Red-winged Blackbird

These birds often travel in large flocks and can be found nesting in wet marshy or shrubby habitat. A medium sized bird; the male has a distinctive red patch on the upper wing. The female looks very different in color, being a light brownish hue with darker streaking.

Length: 8.75 inches      Wing Span: 13 inches     Weight: 52 grams

Listen to a red-winged blackbird sing –

Martin St-Michel, XC137984. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/137984.

House Wren

The House Wren is smaller in size than the Red-winged Black Bird, weighing about 41 grams less. Both female and male House Wrens have similar plumage (meaning they look the same). Wrens in general are noted for the characteristic pose seen in the picture, with their tail feathers and head up in the air. The House Wren nests in dense brushy habitat, usually within woods. They will also take to bird boxes.

House_Wren_-_Colombia_S4E0879_(16980757130)
House Wren, By Francesco Veronesi from Italy (House Wren – Colombia_S4E0879) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Length: 4.75 inches      Wing Span: 6 inches    Weight: 11 grams

Listen to the song of a male house wren: 

Antonio Xeira, XC305012. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/305012

Common Yellowthroat

The Common Yellowthroat is a warbler and one of the first warblers to arrive in New York. The Common Yellowthroat is a small bird, similar in size to the House Wren. The male has a distinctive black mask, outlined in white – which the female lacks. Warblers in general are very colorful and eye catching. The Common Yellowthroat nests in wet marshy and brushy habitats.

Length: 5 inches      Wing Span: 6.75 inches     Weight: 10 grams

Listen to a male common yelllowthroat sing: 

Jorge de Leon Cardozo and Susan Hochgraf, XC181589. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/181589

Plovers

Killdeer

The Killdeer is an interesting bird, in that it has the unique behavior of displaying a broken-wing act to draw predators away from their nest. So if you see the act, consider yourself lucky, but do not approach! Killdeer are in the plover family, which primarily are a shore bird. However, the Killdeer can be found nesting on open ground in many habitat types, such as agricultural fields, parking lots, and sandy/bare ground areas. Their vocals sound similar to “Killdeer” and they have two distinctive black rings on their chest. Killdeer are larger than the song birds previously discussed, but smaller then a crow.

Length: 10.5 inches     Wing Span: 24 inches    Weight: 95 grams

Listen to a killdeer call: 

James Bradley, XC302258. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/302258.

Herons

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons have long legs for wading in water and can be over three feet tall! These birds have a diet composed of fish, frogs, and invertebrates (organisms lacking a spine, such as bugs and insects). Therefore they rely on open water to forage and find food and can be found anywhere from marshy wetlands, rivers, lakes and flooded areas to the shores of the ocean. Look for Herons as the waterbodies began to thaw in spring. These birds nest in rookeries with dozens of nests built of large sticks in a single tree or group of trees, usually within a wetland.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron, OPRHP

Length: 46 inches     Wing Span: 72 inches    Weight: 2,400 grams/ 5.3 pounds

Listen to a great blue heron call: 

Ian Cruickshank, XC210126. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/210126.

Raptors

Osprey

Ospreys are a large raptor – meaning they are carnivores. Primarily eating fish, they hover high in the air over water and then dive, talons first, at their prey. They can be found along the shores of river, lakes, and the sea and build huge nests compiled of sticks. The nests can be built on the crotch of a tree, utility poles, or platforms specifically installed for osprey nesting. Typically these birds mate for life, meaning once a pair bond is formed; it lasts until one of the birds dies. Ospreys will return to the same nesting site year after year, adding more to their nest as they see fit. Look for these birds as the water bodies begin to thaw, and their characteristic hovering behavior.

Jason Kazuta hancockwildife.org
Osprey, Jason Kazuta, http://www.hancockwildlife.org/forum/viewtopic.php?showtopic=756&page=55

Length: 23 inches     Wing Span: 63 inches    Weight: 1,600 grams/ 3.5 pounds

Listen to an osprey call: 

Paul Marvin, XC145834. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/145834

Now that you have learned about some of the early returning migrants, grab a good bird field guide, a pair of binoculars and a birding buddy and head to your local State or Town Park! Remember that these birds are under physical stress from their long migration, so avoid flushing or pushing them with your presence (don’t chase them). View with binoculars from a comfortable distance and maybe you will observe courtship behavior or the gathering of nesting material.

*Bird length, wingspan , weight and habitat preference obtained from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Sibley.

Post by Lilly Schelling, OPRHP, Wildlife Specialist