Saturday, September 19, 2009

Visiting the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch

That's not a cluster of flies you're seeing in the photo above. That's a kettle of migrating Broad-winged Hawks. These medium-sized raptors are concentrating in great numbers at this time of the year as they journey south for the winter.

Broad-wings can be seen in groups ranging in size from a few to a few hundred as they migrate high above our heads through the 3rd and 4th weeks of September. The above photo was taken on Tuesday, September 15 - a day that would see 2,400 of these birds passing over head.

Did you miss it?
These birds, and 15 other species of migrating raptor, can be viewed from now till the end of fall at the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch.

Where is it?
The Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch is located across the street from Westmoreland Sanctuary at the Arthur Butler Sanctuary. Park in the parking lot and follow the orange trail blazes to the left and up the hill until you reach a set of bleachers.

So what happens when I get there?
Well, you want to introduce yourself to Arthur Green, this year's official hawk counter, and ask what he's been seeing. He and/or other hawk counters will be more than willing to fill you in on what you've missed, what to look for, and how to identify it.

The scenery from the hawk watch is spectacular at this time of year. Repeat visitors will be treated to a changing sea of foliage as autumn progresses. There's also a great view of Long Island Sound and Long Island in the distance on a clear day.

Unfortunately, the migrating hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures do not come right up to you at the hawkwatch. Depending on the wind direction, the hawks may be moving across the horizon from a variety of trajectories with a direction of travel generally from left (North) to right (South). Some days bring excellent views at moderate distances, while others leave you wondering what species may be represented by the tiny speck moving across the distance. Either way, you're going to need to bring a pair of binoculars to view the vast majority of the birds.

The view from the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch faces generally East with an approximately 180-degree field of view. This huge panorama can make finding individual hawks a little difficult, so various features of the landscape are used as points of reference. These are also helpful when trying to describe the location of a bird that other hawkwatchers are straining to locate. The photo above (click to enlarge) identifies a few of the most obvious points of reference on the landscape at the hawkwatch: The Gap, Hill 1, Hill 2, Microwave Tower, Hill 3, The "V", Eagle, and The Sound.

There are other points of reference in between that are easily spotted through binoculars that are used as well, including Single Stack, Cell Tower, Four Stacks, and so on. Cloud formations (if present) are often referenced when a bird or group of bird's flight path takes them high above the horizon.

So using the points of reference mentioned above, I would say to other observers at the hawkwatch that I see a Turkey Vulture, left of the Microwave Tower, flying low and moving to the left. These cues would help others not looking in the same direction to quickly find the bird that I'm observing. Knowing what species of bird it is isn't necessarily important, as it is often the responsibility of the official counter to identify and tally each bird seen exhibiting migrating flight behavior. The most important thing is to call out the location of the bird so that the official counter and others have an opportunity to view the bird, identify it and enjoy the incredible sight of a raptor in flight.

Raptor ID takes a bit of practice and is a skill that will come with time and experience. Below are a couple of photos of birds flying over the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch. Each species has a definitive silhouette, flight behavoir, and other characteristics that allow identification even at a great distance. But not every bird is positively ID'd, so there are a few URs (Unidentified Raptor) every now and then. See if you can identify the birds pictured below (click on the photos for an enlarged view). I've included a few clues that may help. The answers are at the very bottom of this post.

Clue: Small, woodland hawks who make short work of nearly any songbirds it can capture.

Clue: Large raptor associated with rivers, lakes and marshes due to its preference for fish.

Clue: Most of these birds are the same as in the very first photo at the top of this post. The bigger birds in the photo are close relatives of our most common carrion-eating raptors.

Take some time to visit the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch or another one near your area. It's sedentary birding at its best! To keep up with the daily sightings from the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch, follow this link, and click on "Latest Count Data". Check our website for hawkwatching programs if you'd like to join in on the migration sensation.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Answers: Photo 1: Sharp-shinned Hawks, Photo 2: Osprey, Photo 3: Broad-winged Hawks with 3 Black Vultures

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