Sunday, May 31, 2009

Last day

Seven more raptors for the last day of the season, for a final total of 15,042 raptors this season. Two Turkey Vultures, one Bald Eagle, two Northern Harriers, a Northern Goshawk and a Peregrine Falcon were added to the count today.

Here are the season's totals:

Turkey Vulture: 370
Osprey: 56
Bald Eagle: 400
Northern Harrier: 522
Sharp-shinned Hawk (pictured above): 8,499
Cooper's Hawk: 51
Northern Goshawk: 69
Red-shouldered Hawk: 57
Broad-winged Hawk: 2,366
Red-tailed Hawk: 1,308
Rough-leged Hawk: 798
Golden Eagle: 89
American Kestrel: 322
Merlin: 64
Peregrine Falcon: 59
Swainson's Hawk: 2
Unidentified raptors: 10

I want to thank everyone who made my season at Whitefish Point more pleasant. Thanks also for the many positive reactions on this blog.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

2009: a slightly below average year

With still one day to go for the 2009 season, looking back on it might seem premature, but believe me: that last day is not going to make much of a difference. Hawk migration has been slow for a while now, with the last good raptor flight dating back to May 21.

Looking at the number of raptors counted for all species combined, 2009 was a slightly below average year. Over the last 20 years of counting, the average count for Whitefish Point is about 16,500 raptors. 2009 falls about 1,500 short of that average.

However, more species had a better than average year than below average. In fact, 6 species had a season with numbers well above average; 1 species was slightly above average; 4 species were about average; 1 species was slightly below average; and 4 species finally were well below average.

Better than average:
The six species that fall in this category are Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk, Golden Eagle and Peregrine Falcon.

Turkey Vulture numbers have increased at pretty much every Great Lakes and Northeastern hawk watch, as a result of a range expansion that probably started in the 1950s and is still ongoing. In the late 80s and early 90s, counts at Whitefish Point often stayed below the 100 mark. These days, seasonal counts of around 300 or 400 are the norm. 2009 so far had 368.

Bald Eagles are increasing after near-extinction only decades ago. 2009 ranks fifth in the series 1989-2008; all four previous years were (slightly) better.

The 2009 season also ranks fifth best for Northern Harrier, with 520 counted this year, a few more than last year.

2009 is one of only five years in the last 21 that had more than 50 Red-shouldered Hawks. This year's total reached 57, a few more than last year.

This was easily one of the best years for Golden Eagle (pictured above), second only to 2000, when 92 were counted. This year the count reached 89, many of them juveniles.

Peregrine Falcon too had a good year, with 58 for fourth best season ever. Another bird that's making a tremendous come-back after reaching near-extinction in the second half of the last century.

Slighty above average
The Rough-legged Hawk had a year with slightly above average numbers, about 12% more than average. The 2009 count got to 798.

All three accipiters had an average year. This actually comes as a bit of a surprise to me, because I thought that Sharp-shinned Hawk did poorly in 2009, while it seemed a good year for gos and coop's. Against long-term data (1989-2008), these three species however did just about average. Sharp-shinned Hawk was 6% above average, while Cooper's Hawk was 5% below average, and Northern Goshawk 3% below average. I know that the raptor banders that band very close to the count site had one of their best Northern Goshawk years in recent memory, so it's curious to note the difference.

Swainson's Hawk also had an average year, with 2 counted.

Slightly below average
Red-tailed Hawk was slightly below average in 2009, by about 13%. Their count reached 1,308.

Below average
For Osprey, 2009 was well below average, by 55%. This is the second worst season on record for this species; only 2006 was worse, with 42. This year, 56 were counted. The average for Whitefish Point is 123.
Broad-winged Hawk had a low spring too in 2009, although the count was practically the same number as last year. It may be interesting to note that all three major North American count sites for this species - Lake Erie Metropark, Corpus Christi and Veracruz - had low numbers of broadwings last fall.

Finally, the two small falcons - American Kestrel and Merlin - had a low season this year. For kestrel, less than half the number of last year were seen this year, and the count this year falls 37% short of the 20-year average. For Merlin, a factor may have been that a pair had a territory very close to the hawk watch. I saw both adults constantly, and decided not to add sightings to the count when it was obviously one of these two birds, for example when the bird flew by calling loudly, or when it was seen flying back and forth constantly. Undoubtedly, some true migrants may have slipped through this way.

Tomorrow, when the season is officially over, I'll post the official count results here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Listening to a Chipping Sparrow

Recently, when a group of second-graders visited the hawk platform, I was barraged with questions. They all wanted to know what I was doing, what the telescope was for, how many birds I had seen, did I live here, etc. etc. I guess one of them had observed me for a while, when he flat out asked me:

“Is this job boring?”

Perceptive kid, I thought. “Well, it is, sometimes,” I admitted.

Today, for example, the hawk flight amounted to 11 birds. For a full 8 hours of observation, that’s not much. Boredom definitely lurked, but I found some diversion in listening to a Chipping Sparrow that has established a territory right next to the hawk platform, but hasn’t found a mate yet.

Flipping through old issues of Birding the other day, I came across a review by Paul Hess of an article on the song of the Chipping Sparrow, written by Wan-Chun Liu and Donald Kroodsma, and published in 2007 in The Auk. Liu and Kroodsma looked at variation in the Chipping Sparrow’s song, and found that the species has two song types with distinct social functions. The dawn song is a fast series of short songs – 21.6 songs per minute, of 1.2 seconds length – while the daytime song is longer, and more widely spaced. The dawn song, sung from low perches, serves to advertise territorial boundaries and is primarily aimed at neighboring males, while the daytime song, sung from high perches, is aimed at attracting a female. Once paired, males stop singing during the day, but continue singing the dawn song – for as long as there are neighboring males around. Removing a bird’s neighboring males caused it to cease singing its dawn song; when the neighbors were returned, the bird resumed its dawn singing (Liu & Kroodsma 2007, cited in Hess 2008).

The Chipping Sparrow near the hawk platform is still unpaired, and sang throughout the day, or at least until 3:30 PM. Liu and Kroodsma found that the daytime song is not abruptly different from the dawn song, but rather that the bird tends to gradually sing longer songs, and fewer songs per minute, after sunrise. I started counting the songs of ‘my’ Chipping Sparrow at 9:56 AM, well after sunrise. I counted for three-minute intervals, and found him singing 16 songs in 3 minutes at that time, i.e. 5.3 songs per minute. About an hour later, I sampled another three minutes of his song, and this time found him singing 14 songs, or 4.7 songs per minute.

Then, at 11:25 AM, he was singing 6.3 songs per minute, while at 11:53 AM, he was back to 5.3 songs per minute. After noon, he took a long breather but resumed his singing at 1:30 PM with renewed vigor, now singing 7.0 songs per minute! The songs were getting longer too, from 2.5 – 3.5 seconds to almost 4 seconds for some songs now. He was keeping it up and 15 minutes later was still singing 6.7 songs per minute. At 2:45 PM I sampled his song three more times, and now heard him singing 7.0, 6.3, and 6.0 songs per minute respectively.

Liu and Kroodsma found an average of 6.4 songs per minute for daytime singing of Chipping Sparrows in Massachusetts. My Michigan Chipping Sparrow today sang on average 6.1 songs per minute. He actually sang slightly more songs – with more variation in song length and length of pauses between songs – later in the day.

All in all I timed 164 of his songs, but he probably sang more than 2,000 today. The ones I heard were all meant to attract a mate. Whether a female, so perceptively described by Kroodsma as “the silent architect of the male’s song” in the latest issue of Birding, was listening or not, I don’t know.

But today, I was.

Literature cited:
Hess, Paul (2008) “Chipping Sparrow Songs” in “News and Notes” section of Birding, Volume 40, Number 1, January/February 2008. (A review of a 2007 article by Wan-Chun Liu and Donald E. Kroodsma in Auk 124:44-52)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Peregrines and goshawks

Today's hawk flight was practically a rerun of yesterday's, with a couple of new plot developments thrown in by way of 2 adult Peregrine Falcons (one pictured above) and two immature Northern Goshawks (one pictured below).

Other raptors added to the count today included 6 Turkey Vultures, 2 Osprey, 3 Bald Eagles, 4 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Cooper's Hawk, 31 Broad-winged Hawks, 15 Red-tailed Hawks, and 1 Rough-legged Hawk.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On roughlegs

With the Rough-legged Hawk flight practically over, I realize that a blog entry on roughleg ID comes a bit late in the game, but hey - better late than never. Earlier in the season I didn't have all these photos yet.

Sunday's flight was unremarkable, so I'll just give you the numbers, and we can move on: 8 Turkey Vultures; 1 Osprey; 1 Bald Eagle; 4 Sharp-shinned Hawks; 1 Cooper's Hawk; 51 Broad-winged Hawks; 8 Red-tailed Hawks. That's right - zero Rough-legged Hawks! Somebody mentioned they saw one, but I didn't, and so... ha! doesn't get added to the count. That's how that works.

In North America, the Rough-legged Hawk breeds in the tundra and taiga of arctic and subarctic Alaska and Canada, and migrates across the boreal forest to winter in open country of southern Canada and northern United States (Bechard & Swem 2002). Whitefish Point is an important migration monitoring site for this species, and in fact holds the record for most roughlegs seen in a day (525 on April 23, 2000) and in a season (2,600 also in 2000) of all North American hawk migration count sites.

The Rough-leged Hawk shows a tremendous amount of variation in its plumages. Unlike other members of its genus (buteo), it even shows distinctive plumage differences based on sex, as well as age, and color morph. Let's review some of these plumages.

The bird shown at the top is probably the most characteristic plumage, with the bold carpal patches ('wrist patches'), the dark belly and the white tail with the broad dark terminal band. These are the field marks that most birders associate with this species. They are the field marks of an adult female.

The adult female is quite similar to the juvenile, but note on the adult female the darker markings on the underwing coverts (roughly the feathers between the belly and the carpal patch), and the dark trailing edge on the wing. The black terminal band on the tail is also more defined on the adult female, as compared to the juvenile.

Here is that juvenile. Note the unmarked underwing coverts, the absence of a dark trailing edge on the wings, and the less neatly defined tail band. That last field mark is harder to observe on a closed tail.

Now let's look at an adult male.

Compared to the female, we note that the carpal patches are less defined, that the belly only has some barring on the sides, not the solid black patch of the female or juvenile, and that the head is darker. The terminal band on the tail of males is well-defined but thinner, and often males show a few extra bands near the terminal band. On this bird, the two outer tail feathers appear to be free of extra banding, but a hint can be seen just above the terminal tail band in the middle. If this bird were to spread its tail, we would probably see one or more extra bands.

So much for the light morphs. This species also has a dark morph, and an intermediate morph. Dark morphs are rarer than light morphs, and intermediate morphs are rarer than dark morphs.

Here's an adult male dark morph.

It's a beautiful bird. Note the extra banding on the half-open tail. That, and the fact that the bird is pitch black, make it an adult male. Only the adult male dark morph is truly black.

Here's an adult dark morph that could be male or female. The dark trailing edge of the wings means that it's an adult, but in the dark morph roughleg, dark chocolate birds can be male or female. I'm inclined to say that's probably a female, given the tail pattern. It seems as if there is no additional tail banding besides that broad terminal band, but these things are hard to judge on closed tails.

Finally, a juvenile dark morph. There is no dark trailing edge to the wings, so it has to be a juvenile. The carpal patches and the dark belly are well defined.

This far I've only talked about plumage. On distant roughlegs, when plumage is not yet visible, a first clue will often be the way they hold their wings in a glide: the so-called modified dihedral, with wings raised but the outer parts of the wings held flat. They are a little bit longer winged than the Red-tailed Hawk, and from great distances can appear similar to Northern Harriers - especially males.

Literature cited:
Bechard, Marc J. and Theodor R. Swem. 2002. Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Unsatisfying looks

A decent variety of hawks was observed today from the hawk platform, although few of them provided very satisfying looks. Two immature Northern Goshawks made brief appearances, one of them attracting the attention of the locally nesting Merlin, who loudly told it to go somewhere else. In the photo above, taken a couple of weeks ago I think, an American Crow is escorting an immature Northern Goshawk toward the boundary of the crow's territory. That crow is nesting close to the hawk platform, and any raptor that flies low over that point gets mobbed.

A juvenile Golden Eagle was also briefly seen. Most tantalizing sighting was that of a probable dark morph Swainson's Hawk. It was a speck in the scope, it never got close, and when I lost the bird way out low over the tree line, I was 90% sure it was that species. It was really too far for a reliable ID, and sometimes you just have to let them go unidentified.

Another curious and ultimately not very rewarding sighting - but at least closer - was that of a Red-tailed Hawk with a nearly all-white, unbanded tail - with one red tail feather in there! The wings lacked a dark terminal band. I have to consider the possibility that it was a juvenile redtail that had just started replacing its first tail feathers, but I am quite sure the tail feathers were grayish white and unbanded - altogether wrong for juvenile redtail. I didn't see any obvious molt on this bird anywhere. I"ve seen so many odd-looking redtails here at Whitefish Point now, that's probably the one thing I'll remember most about this place.

Alright, count results: 1 Osprey; 7 Bald Eagles; 13 Sharp-shinned Hawks; 2 Northern Goshawks; 10 Broad-winged Hawks; 4 Red-tailed Hawks; 1 Rough-legged Hawk; 1 Golden Eagle; 1 Merlin.

Besides the Chaffinches mentioned yesterday, a European Goldfinch was also seen again today around the feeders. One of our blog readers posted a comment with a link to a very interesting article on European Goldfinches in the Great Lakes region that appeared in North American Birds last year. Apparently, a great many sightings can be traced back to a series of releases from the Chicago area. The following excerpt from that article just blew my mind: "As long as the birds are legally imported, there is no federal law prohibiting their release. Nor are any Illinois state laws targeted at the release of non-native birds." Not sure what the legal situation here in Michigan is, but I assume it's probably not very different. It seems very much a federal issue anyway, since birds do not recognize state borders. The last sentence in that article reads: "Citizens will have to apply considerable pressure to their state and federal legislators to encourage laws that prohibit the release of any non-native organisms if intentional introductions are to be prevented in the future."

Friday, May 22, 2009


It's late in the season, and hawks aren't exactly in a hurry anymore to get to where they are going. The ones that were, got there already. So today's juvenile Peregrine Falcon criss-crossed Whitefish Point air space throughout the morning, before eventually taking off. Most of the raptors now are juveniles of course, like for instance all of today's 8 Rough-legged Hawks (juvenile intermediate morph pictured above). Other raptors seen today included 1 Osprey, 4 Bald Eagles, 1 Northern Harrier, 10 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 19 Broad-winged Hawks, 6 Red-tailed Hawks, 1 American Kestrel, and 1 Merlin.

There appears to be a small influx of Chaffinches going on at Whitefish Point at the moment. Riding my bicycle to the count site, I already saw one male along the road, and when I got to the Point, there were two more males countersinging on either side of the parking lot! How crazy is that? To my European ears, this sounded like home, but I met birders who were puzzled by their loud, emphatic songs. These birds are almost certainly escaped from captivity, as no wild birds have ever been documented on this side of the Atlantic, and (therefore) North American field guides don't even feature them. Earlier this season a male was seen with a female near the feeders behind the Owl's Roost, and these birds have shown up at Whitefish Point in previous years too. One wonders which pet store they come from, who is releasing these birds, and if they will ever establish feral populations.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


A thunderstorm brought an abrupt end to what had started out as another wonderful, warm spring-like day. One moment the sky was full of hawks - the majority broadwings - and the next a chilly wind started blowing from off the lake, the temperature took a steep dive and all the hawks were instantly gone.

In that suddenly dark, suddenly empty sky, a Whooping Crane appeared briefly on the horizon! I saw it well enough to know instantly what it was, and had it in the scope for about 15-20 seconds, but the bird was not close enough for me to see any leg bands. A white crane with dark wingtips against a dark sky is quite a stunning image!

Before that, once again an interesting buteo was seen from the platform. I have no photos of this bird, but it was seen reasonably well by several observers. I took notes of what I saw and I'll describe this bird for you. In essence, the bird was a redtail with a whitish tail. As readers of this blog may remember, some weeks ago there was that "Krider's-like" bird with a tail that was whitish basally, reddish distally. Its underside was very lightly marked, with only the faintest hint of a belly band, and no markings on the underwing coverts. It had a very light head. Today's bird was very different. It had a 'normal belly band' and the head was 'normally dark'. The only two things that struck me as different from the average redtail, were the whitish tail, and the absence of a dark trailing edge on adult-shaped wings. What do I mean by that last qualification? Well, the shape of most buteo wings is subtly different between adults and juveniles. Anyone who has ever spent any time observing juvenile and adult Red-tailed Hawks side by side, will probably have noticed that the tails on young redtails tend to be slightly longer than on adults, and that the wings of adults tend to be broader, with more of a bulge on the trailing edge, than those of juveniles. Adults normally have a dark trailing edge on those broader wings - but today's bird didn't. Juveniles tend to have light primary panels - as discussed in one of the earlier postings - but today's bird didn't.

Hopefully this bird sticks around a little longer and will come in for better views and photo ops, because it exhibits traits associated with light or intermediate morph Harlan's Hawk, a subspecies of the Red-tailed Hawk.

The photo at the top shows a Bald Eagle and a small part of that broadwing flock. Practically all birds were seen in the first hour of the count, which included 3 Bald Eagles, 2 Northern Harriers, 1 Sharp-shinned Hawk, 319 Broad-winged Hawks, 4 Red-tailed Hawks, 4 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 Golden Eagle. Like one of yesterday's Golden Eagles, this bird had very limited white in the wing, and is probably one of those two.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another Swainson's

And what a beauty, too! This is an adult dark morph Swainson's Hawk, seen today on and off for 45 minutes from the hawk platform. For a buteo, this is about as dark as dark morph gets: other buteos that have dark morphs (such as roughleg and redtail) always have lighter flight feathers, but all Swainson's Hawks - light, intermediate and dark morphs - have dark flight feathers. The fact that the body feathers and the underwing coverts are dark too make this a dark morph Swainson's Hawk. Unusual for a Swainson's, and unfortunately not well visible in my photos, are the tawny, heavily barred undertail coverts of today's bird. Only a relatively small percentage of Swainson's Hawks are dark morphs, and of those only a few have such heavily barred, tawny undertail coverts. Oh, this is one sharp-dressed raptor; here's a view of the upperside.

As most birders know, the Swainson's Hawk is a western bird. Within its range, it is quite common. Dark morphs are found only in the western half of that western range, roughly west of a line that runs from central Saskatchewan southward through eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, eastern Colorado, to extreme eastern New Mexico. California has the highest percentage of darker birds (Wheeler 2003).

At Whitefish Point, the species is practically annual. In fact, it was seen in all but two of the last 21 years of hawk counting at Whitefish. Today's individual was the second this spring, and two is the average number for this species at Whitefish Point.

Here is the Swainson's Hawk on the right with a juvenile Rough-legged Hawk a little further back. Observe the long 'hand' of the Swainson's Hawk - that, and the dark flight feathers, are good field marks for this species.

It was a pleasant - and pleasantly warm - hawk watching day, with many folks of all ages stopping by on the platform. They were treated to a nice variety of raptors for this time of year, with 12 Turkey Vultures, 4 Bald Eagles, 9 Northern Harriers, 66 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Cooper's Hawk, 26 Broad-winged Hawks, 9 Red-tailed Hawks, 4 Rough-legged Hawks, 2 Golden Eagles, 4 American Kestrels, 1 Merlin and 1 Peregrine Falcon.

The buteo count today is likely an undercount, as a larger kettle of about 80-100 birds was briefly visible only through the spotting scope. These birds were literally dots in the scope, and I didn't even try to identify them in the haze and the heat shimmer. They were probably a mix of today's species, presumably consisting of broadwings, redtails, Turkey Vultures, harriers and some eagles.

Wheeler, B.K. (2003) Raptors of Western North America, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Late season flight

Fairly favorable conditions translated into a modest surge in numbers. Today's type of weather would have produced a great flight only two or three weeks ago, but now the count reached no further than 161, the majority being Sharp-shinned Hawks (94). The 'sharpie carousel' stopped turning altogether in the afternoon, when winds turned to the SW and became very strong.

Best raptor today was this immature female Northern Goshawk. Hadn't had one in six days. Other sightings included 15 Turkey Vultures, 5 Bald Eagles, 1 Northern Harrier, 29 Broad-winged Hawks, 6 Red-tailed Hawks, 3 Rough-legged Hawks, 2 American Kestrels, 4 Merlins, and 1 Peregrine Falcon.

Quite a bit of activity from the passerines today, with several flyby warblers, most of them Yellow-rumped but also a beautiful male Blackburnian and a male Black-throated Green. Two Tennessee Warblers landed in the tree next to the platform. Both Evening and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were seen as flyovers from the platform.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Slow Sunday

Another cold, blustery day with blue skies and strong NW winds did very little for hawk migration over Whitefish Point. Only 23 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Red-shouldered Hawk, 1 Broad-winged Hawk, and 1 Red-tailed Hawk were added to the count today.

Tomorrow's predicted south winds should see higher numbers.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Strong WNW winds gusting over 30 mph for most of the day and rain, later sleet, kept raptors grounded, like this adult Bald Eagle. This late into the season, conditions have to be downright favorable for any hawk migration to occur. That will probably not be the case Sunday, although Monday now does look somewhat favorable. Partly cloudy weather, a surge in temperatures and south winds for Monday should turn things back on, though probably not with the same force as a couple of weeks ago.

Friday, May 15, 2009


This is one of the lower years for Osprey, the bird pictured above and seen this morning only the 50th this season. Recent seasonal totals for this species have ranged between 43 (2006) and 109 (2007).

Other hawks seen today include 4 Bald Eagles, 5 Northern Harriers, 138 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Red-shouldered Hawk, 46 Broad-winged Hawks, 2 Red-tailed Hawks, 6 Rough-legged Hawks, 2 American Kestrels, 4 Merlins, and 2 Peregrine Falcons.

Cool non-raptor sightings today included a Red-throated Loon flying straight over the hawk platform, and the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season zipping by.

The weather forecast for Saturday does not look good for hawk migration, but seems a repeat of Thursday's nasty weather, which did bring lots of passerines to the Point...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bird-a-thon 2009

Dear all of you avid blog followers,

If you have enjoyed the various blog posts this season, now is your chance let us know by pledging to our staff Bird-a-thon. This is a great way to ensure that there will continue to be blog posts in the future to amuse and amaze you.

This is the 3rd year for the WPBO spring Bird-a-thon fundraiser. Last year the Bird-a-thon pledges were the single biggest contributor to the summer owl research project. The total amount of funding required for this program is $8,000. In the last month, we have raised $7,060 towards our goal, mostly through Bird-a-thon pledges. We are so close, please consider becoming a sponsor!

At the end of May, WPBO staff known as the “Northern Saw-whats” team will record the number of bird species seen in the Whitefish Point Peninsula area during a 24 hour time period. We hope to see about 100 species. You can choose to pledge per species or donate a fixed amount. All pledges collected will directly support the summer owl research at WPBO. Sponsors will receive a written account of our day, a species list and information on our summer research. Anyone who donates over $150 will receive a juvenile saw-whet adoption package, including a photo of your owl, banding information, and adoption certificate.

Be the first to pledge from this blog post! Send your name, address and phone # along with the amount you would like to pledge to, or send by snail mail to:
WPBO Birdathon
16914 N Whitefish Point Rd
Paradise, MI 49768

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Swainson's Hawk

High winds today did bring a surprise in the form of this adult intermediate (rufous) morph Swainson's Hawk. Conditions were not exactly favorable for photography, and the bird never got very close, so these two pictures are the best I have. I think you can see that it's a Swainson's Hawk (dark flight feathers, long 'hand'), but as far as age and color morph are concerned, I guess you will have to take my word for it.

Just before the start of the count, I said to my coworker Sarah that today's high winds might bring a surprise. Swainson's Hawk, was her reply. Nah, I said, you need west winds for that. Guess I was wrong!

Yesterday's 'vacuum cleaner' metaphor didn't exactly pan out either. A few new arrivals (Eastern Kingbird, Savannah Sparrow, Bank Swallow) but nothing in any great numbers. The hawk flight too was fairly modest today, with really only good migration of Peregrine Falcon (5), and Sharp-shinned Hawk (97). In the case of the latter, I have to wonder just how many of those birds actually went through, and how many were flying in circles. Other raptor sightings today include 6 Turkey Vultures, 1 Bald Eagle, 4 Northern Harriers, 3 Broad-winged Hawks, 3 Red-tailed Hawks, 4 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 American Kestrel, and 1 Merlin.

The Whitefish Point hawk count usually gets one or two Swainson's Hawks each spring. I thought the window of opportunity on that species had closed last weekend, but evidently I was wrong, and indeed recent records show sightings even later than May 13. In 2006, for example, a Swainson's Hawk was sighted on May 20, and again the very next day. Last year also had two birds, one on April 22 (also the date one was seen in 2007!) and another one on May 8.

Yesterday we looked at some redshoulder and redtail pictures. I have a few more pictures of redtails from yesterday to further illustrate the age / molt story.

This is of course an adult redtail. The wings have an obvious dark trailing edge, and there is no primary panel visible in the hand. The tail is a little shorter than on immature redtails, while the wing is broader, with more of a bulge on the secondaries.

Compare that adult bird with this juvenile, and note the absence of the dark trailing edge on the wings, the light primary panels, and the subtle differences in tail and wing shape, resulting in a slightly different overall shape.

Here's a juvenile bird molting its first primaries. P1 and P2 on this bird are growing in at the same time. Note the dark tips on the new incoming feathers: once they have all been replaced, the bird will have a dark trailing edge on its wings.

Then finally take a look at this bird. As far as I can tell, it's not missing any flight feathers in the wing (maybe a secondary in the right wing, although that could just be some feathers that need reshuffling). Most flight feathers are adult-type, but there are a few retained juvenal feathers here and there. Note that one of the 'fingers' is darker (adult) than the others (juvenal), and that some of the secondaries do not have a dark tip. The bird appears to be missing (i.e. molting) its central tail feather, resulting in a w-shaped tail end.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fickle weather

I guess it goes without saying that the hawk flight predictions here are completely dependent on the accuracy of the weather forecast. Yesterday I thought today was going to be great, but instead it ended up being merely good. There was some SE wind in the morning, but by afternoon this had shifted to E and eventually even NE. Winds also were lighter than forecast, and on those light winds birds got high, for a while even so high that they were barely visible in 10X binoculars.

Tomorrow's forecast is now for less rain than initially thought, and even stronger winds than previously predicted. It'll be an interesting day, for sure. With SE winds 15-25 mph, gusting to around 40 mph (!), you have to wonder how many birds that will dump over the northeastern UP. Think of a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up birds and blowing them our way.

Today's sightings include 5 Turkey Vultures, 9 Bald Eagles, 4 Northern Harriers, 95 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 2 Cooper's Hawks, 2 Northern Goshawks, 1 Red-shouldered Hawk, 218 Broad-winged Hawks, 40 Red-tailed Hawks, 13 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 American Kestrel, 1 Merlin, and 3 Peregrine Falcons.

Let's do a bit more hawk ID workshop. Most readers probably identified the hawk at the top of this post. If you don't know what it is, no worries - I'll walk you through it.

It should be immediately obvious that this is a buteo, not a falcon, harrier, eagle or accipiter. Medium-sized bird, rounded wings, relatively short tail: buteo. We can see part of the left underwing, and on it we can see the beginning of a dark marking on the leading edge of the wing, the so-called patagial bar. Red-tailed Hawk is the only one with this field mark, and all age groups show it, so we really don't need to look for additional field marks. (Most people know about the redtail's 'belly band', but that particular field mark is invisible in this photo.)

Remember from a few days ago, that Rough-legged Hawk with the light panel in the primaries? Most young buteos show this field mark, and our bird today also shows it: observe on the (right) upperwing the contrast between the darker secondaries (i.e. flight feathers in the 'arm' of the wing) and the lighter primaries (i.e. flight feathers in the 'hand' of the wing). Observe also how on the (left) underwing, there is no terminal band on the trailing edge. Both these items - light primary panel and absence of dark trailing edge - indicate a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. Most people know about the difference in tail color - red for adults, grayish-brown for juveniles - but that is usually not visible on a closed tail from below. But as I've demonstrated here, we don't really need it.

Here's one that's more difficult. If you know at first glance what this is, you're good. If you don't know what this is, then again let's review what is visible on this bird, and see if we can work it out. This bird is also a buteo. Now, based on what I said earlier about that patagial bar, we can rule out Red-tailed Hawk, because all redtails show that while this bird doesn't. We can also eliminate Rough-legged Hawk, for this bird has no carpal patches (i.e. big dark markings on the wrist). Virtually all roughlegs have them, although they can be less obvious on some males, where the carpal patch blends in with the rest of a heavily marked underwing. These underwings are very lightly marked, without a carpal patch, and only a very faint 'hook' on the underwing primary coverts.

It's not a Swainson's Hawk either, for that bird has darker flight feathers.

So, we're left with Broad-winged Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk, both of which are quite distinctive in the adult plumage. Obviously - no dark trailing edge on the wing - this is a juvenile, and these two species are surprisingly similar in the juvenal plumage.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that the bird is in a glide, with half-folded wings. Both adult and juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks show light crescent-shaped panels in the 'hand' of the wing, but that feature is hard to judge on a bird with folded wings.

This is where subtle differences in shape and plumage start to become relevant. Shape: fairly long tail for a buteo (but note that juvenile buteos have longer tails and slimmer wings than adults do), and fairly slender body. These are both better for redshoulder. The dark throat and the evenly blobby markings on the body are also better for redshoulder, and this is indeed a Red-shouldered Hawk, as the following photo - with spread wings - will confirm:

Now the light crescent is visible in the hand, just where the darker 'fingers' of the hand start. Beware of buteos molting their primaries, which sometimes can create a similar impression of a crescent-shaped lighter panel. Our bird here has just started molting its flight feathers, and two feathers in each wing are missing. Red-shouldered Hawks have 10 primaries, which are usually numbered from the innermost (P1) to the outermost (P10). This bird appears to be molting P1 and P4 in each wing.

Another field mark that works well on distant birds: if you're not sure the bird is a buteo or an accipiter, it is probably a redshoulder. The basic shape is still buteo, but on the 'accipiter end of the spectrum', with a relatively long tail (for a buteo) and a slender body. Broadwing is stockier, and has pointier wings.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Upward trend continues

.Light NW winds and blue skies make for pleasant hawk watching, albeit with birds mostly distant on the southeastern end of the Point. Monday was again an improvement over the previous day, both in quality and quantity. Especially mid-afternoon was nice, with 6 Peregrine Falcons in about an hour's time. Other raptors counted include 10 Bald Eagles, 4 Northern Harriers, 27 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Cooper's Hawk, 1 Red-shouldered Hawk, 118 Broad-winged Hawks, 22 Red-tailed Hawks, 6 Rough-legged Hawks, 3 Golden Eagles, and 1 American Kestrel.

A little flock of four Magnolia Warblers were seen as flyovers over the platform. Also seen as flyover a breeding plumage adult male Lapland Longspur. Heard singing today was a Black-throated Green Warbler. Two Caspian Terns flew by in the afternoon.

The next two days look very promising, weatherwise. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and predict 1) that the hawk watching - and the overall birding for that matter - will be outstanding on Whitefish Point those two days, and 2) that Tuesday will probably have the greater numbers, but Wednesday possibly the bigger surprises...

For Tuesday, conditions will be downright good. Expect birds to be directly overhead and probably not too high right over the platform (as opposed to 'over the harbor', where most of the flight has been of late). It looks like we're in for a lot of rain Wednesday, but also very strong SSE winds, and who knows some southern rarities... Everything will depend on how much rainfall we will get, and in which part of the day. I guess Tuesday is more or less guaranteed to be good, while Wednesday is more of a coin flip: it may turn out a dud, or it may just be fantastic...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hawks bounce back

It wasn't exactly epic, but the raptor flight did pick up a bit after yesterday's low point of 14. Today, the count reached 82, with a couple of Osprey, 2 Bald Eagles, 2 Northern Harriers, 23 Sharp-shinned Hawks, a juvenile Northern Goshawk, 25 Broad-winged Hawks, 19 Red-tailed Hawks, 7 Rough-legged Hawks, and 1 American Kestrel.

Based on current weather forecasts, it seems reasonable to expect this upward trend to continue over the next few days. For Monday, sunny weather and light winds are forecast - which will be nice with or without birds - but the best hawk days are likely to be Tuesday and Wednesday.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Saturday was a windy day at Whitefish Point, with fairly strong north winds in the morning and even stronger northwest winds in the afternoon. Temperatures didn't even make it into the forties today. There was very little active hawk migration visible today, although a few raptors could be seen hunting or just hanging in the wind for most of the day, like this adult Bald Eagle. Birds that were added to the count as migrants included 2 Osprey, 3 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Red-tailed Hawk, 4 Rough-legged Hawks, and 3 American Kestrels.

The forecast for Sunday is only marginally better. A more substantial improvement, with once again favorable conditions for a hawk flight, is now forecast for Tuesday.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Strange buteos

This top bird is not a strange buteo, but - on the basis of just this side view - it's probably not an easy ID for most birders. If you don't know what this is, then let's review what is visible on this bird and see where that gets us.

It's a hawk with rounded wings and a medium-short tail - in other words: a buteo. We see some kind of light panel in the primaries, a light buffy bar across the upperwing coverts, and - for a hawk at least - a small bill. Let's take a look at another photo of the same bird, with more field marks visible.

Here we have a clear view of the bird's upperside. It would probably be easier if we had a view of its underside, because that's just how we see buteos most often. But we can work it out with this upperside view just fine. What else is visible that wasn't earlier? Exactly, the tail. Brown tail with wide dark terminal band and smaller bands on the rest of the tail. That wide dark terminal tail band should suggest Rough-legged Hawk to us, and the earlier noted small bill would confirm that ID. Those light panels in the upperwings are quite characteristic of juvenile Rough-legged Hawk. Juvenile Red-tailed Hawks have primary panels too, but usually not this exaggerated.

Here then finally a photo of the underside of the same bird, and it should be quite clear now that this is a juvenile dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. Those big dark carpal patches are what most birders think of when they think of Rough-legged Hawks, and most of them indeed show that field mark.

I'll admit, this is a rather contrived and elaborate - OK, far-fetched - way to get to my real topic, i.e. 'strange buteos'. What I really mean is strange redtails. Two days ago there was that "Krider's-type" bird, which hasn't been seen since. For those of you who have back issues of Birding on their shelves: that bird was a spitting image of the bird illustrated in the October 2001 issue of that publication, in figure 20, showing a bird captured at a raptor banding station in Braddock Bay, NY. Jerry Liguori, author of that article, suggests that the bird in that photo is an adult Eastern Red-tailed Hawk, probably a Krider's intergrade but not a true Krider's. The head on that bird, like on our bird of two days ago, is pale, but not whitish. I think Wednesday's bird was most likely also an intergrade, not a true Krider's. There are still things to be learned about sub-specific variation in the Red-tailed Hawk; the more you look into it, the more variation you will find.

Today, another pale redtail showed up, but this was a different individual from two days ago. It had a little more spotting on the sides of the belly (still unspotted mid-belly), the head was a fraction darker (but still quite blonde), and the tail was all-red, with a narrow black subterminal band. (The tail on the earlier bird was half-white.) The back on today's bird was extensively speckled with light markings.

Then also today there was an adult 'rufous' intermediate morph redtail, and a juvenile 'rufous' intermediate morph redtail, possibly the same bird that was seen yesterday and the day before of a similar description.

But the real mystery bird was seen in the first hour of the count only. I don't have photos but I followed the bird for a while in the scope, and made extensive field notes:
  • all-dark buteo, shape like redtail
  • slightly smaller and shorter-winged than roughleg, with which it soared for a few moments
  • dark tail with wide dark terminal band, smaller bands on rest of tail (not unlike bird pictured above!)
  • remiges (flight feathers) quite dark! almost as dark as on Swainson's Hawk
  • dark trailing edge on wings (i.e. adult)
  • jizz not like Swainson's, also undertail coverts dark (not light, as in Swainson's)
  • jizz not like Short-tailed, also wingtips not upturned when soaring
  • structure essentially like redtail
So what's an adult dark redtail whose tail is not red? Is that a Harlan's, or is it yet another dark redtail variation?

Good. So much for that 'familiar' buteo, the Red-tailed Hawk, which shows so much variation. Other raptors added to the count today were 7 Turkey Vultures, 3 Bald Eagles, 6 Northern Harriers, 11 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 2 Cooper's Hawks, 3 Northern Goshawks, 196 Broad-winged Hawks, 14 Red-tailed Hawks, 7 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 Golden Eagle, 4 American Kestrels, 2 Merlins, 3 Peregrine Falcons, and one unidentified buteo. Also seen from the platform today an adult female Rusty Blackbird, sadly a bird rapidly plummeting toward extinction. Good sparrow variety at the feeders, with American Tree, Chipping, Song, Lincoln's, White-throated, White-crowned, Vesper and Clay-colored Sparrows present today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Strange weather

What began as a rainy day, turned into a foggy day for a few hours, then finally a beautiful, sunny afternoon. As soon as the fog rolled out to the lake, early afternoon, there were birds in the air. The broadwing/redtail flock quickly grew to 123 Broad-winged Hawks and 28 Red-tailed Hawks, including a juvenile dark/intermediate redtail, presumably the same individual from yesterday. (The 'Krider's' type bird wasn't seen again today.)

The afternoon flight again turned into a pretty good Peregrine Falcon flight. A total of 8 Peregrines were counted, tying with May 4 for highest day count so far. This species is now a daily sighting, or at least has been for 6 days straight. Most of today's birds were adults, but this is an immature.

Cooper's Hawk is not quite a daily sighting, but I had one again today. This is an immature bird. Other sightings included 3 Ospreys, 3 Bald Eagles, 4 Northern Harriers, 87 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Red-shouldered Hawk, 12 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 Golden Eagle, 3 American Kestrels, and a Merlin.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Krider's Red-tailed Hawk?

The bird of the day was this unusually pale adult Red-tailed Hawk, showing several field marks good for 'Krider's' Red-tailed Hawk, a Great Plains race of the Red-tailed Hawk.

The bird was around for most of the day, and may very well still be present tomorrow.

It never got very close to the hawk platform, so my shots are very low quality. Still, the following distinguishing field marks are visible: extremely pale underparts, with practically no belly band; no markings on the underwing coverts; a pale head with a slightly darker malar mark and a neck strap; faint patagial bars.

Visible in the field, but not in my photos, were the following field marks: extensive white spotting on the upperwing coverts; basal part of the tail white, distal part orange-reddish.

Jerry Liguori in Hawks From Every Angle warns against confusing pale eastern borealis redtails with Krider's, but those birds generally exhibit only one or two Krider's-like characteristics. Our bird appears to show all those characteristics.

Chris Neri may have better photos of this bird... to be continued.

There was also a juvenile dark/intermediate Red-tailed Hawk present today. Other sightings included 9 Turkey Vultures, 1 Osprey, 10 Bald Eagles, 10 Northern Harriers, 259 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 2 Cooper's Hawks, 3 Northern Goshawks, 59 Broad-winged Hawks, 19 Red-tailed Hawks, 21 Rough-legged Hawks, 2 Golden Eagles, 4 American Kestrels, 2 Peregrine Falcons, and 2 unidentified buteos. The total count was 403 raptors.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On sharpshins

Joe Nault covered the count for me today, and recorded another pretty good early May flight, similar to what we've been seeing for a number of days now, albeit with fewer buteos. Roughlegs actually did do pretty well today. Many thanks for providing me with a day off, Joe!

Overall count reached 481 today, and included the following raptors: 12 Turkey Vultures, 14 Bald Eagles, 12 Northern Harriers, 380 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 3 Northern Goshawks, 8 Broad-winged Hawks, 5 Red-tailed Hawks, 27 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 Golden Eagle, 16 American Kestrels, and 3 Peregrine Falcons.

Sharp-shinned Hawks still dominate the flight, although their peak flight probably occured last week, when a couple of days had more than 1,000 sharpies. Right now, there's a mix of adults and immatures migrating through Whitefish Point. Soon, the flight will be dominated by juveniles. For practically all raptors, adults precede juveniles in spring. This makes sense, because the adults need to be on territory by a certain time (which differs per species). Show up later, and the best spots to raise a family will be taken by someone else already.

At some other sites I've counted I have seen a two-peak seasonal pattern in Sharp-shinned Hawk migration, with the first peak consisting largely of adults and the second largely of juveniles. This two-peaked pattern appears not to occur, at least not as a rule, at Whitefish Point. Here, as records show, the percentage of juveniles gradually increases as the season progresses, without a secondary peak.

Top bird is an adult male, with fine barring across the chest and a dark red eye. Second bird a subadult female, with body feathers showing a mix of mostly juvenile feathers (streaking) with some adult feathers (barring) growing in, and a yellow-orange eye. Both photos taken today.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Great Peregrine and Golden Eagle day

Clear skies and hardly any wind set the stage for a pretty good hawk flight, with highlights being 9 Golden Eagles - 8 of which were seen soaring together - and 8 adult Peregrine Falcons. I felt bad for one of our visitors, who stayed a little later than planned hoping to see at least one Peregrine, and when she left said "you'll probably get it after I'm gone". About 20 minutes after she left, we got the first one, with 7 more to follow. All these birds were in the afternoon.

Again several kettles of broadwings were visible throughout the day, this time their count reached 493. Overall count (all raptors combined) was 704 today.

Tomorrow's (Tuesday) weather forecast looks particularly good for a hawk flight, and may produce a big broadwing flight. With stronger SE winds, birds should be right overhead and not too high.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Decent early May day

Sunday was a pretty decent early May Whitefish Point hawk watching day, with broadwing numbers still increasing, and the highest day count for Peregrine Falcon yet. Golden Eagles again put in a good showing, with at least 5 counted. That too is a day high count for this species, but it was reached three times earlier this season: twice in March (18th and 30th) and once in April (23rd).

As I've said before, on days like this when the winds aren't exactly favorable, it is not easy sorting out just how many Golden Eagles there are in the area, and what part of that number is really moving through, and what is there on multiple days. Golden Eagles were seen throughout the afternoon, flying out to the Point, sometimes past the Point, and very often returning. At least 4 of them were seen in the air at the same time, all juveniles. (The adult Golden Eagle flight is essentially over, they should really be on territory by now.) In the last hour of the count, a young Golden Eagle was seen flying at some altitude in a straight line toward and beyond the Point, with a Rough-legged Hawk in tow. I watched them until they were dots, and they were not seen returning. Now if this was a bird that had tried many times earlier today and this time finally made it, or whether this was a new, gutsy individual that went on the first try... who can say for sure?

Most Broad-winged and Red-tailed Hawks also mill around, very afraid of all that water between Whitefish Point and Ontario. There were small kettles of broadwings around for much of the day, but I didn't see any leave the Point for Canada, although some of them probably did.

The total count today reached 535, and included 11 Turkey Vultures, 4 Bald Eagles, 5 Northern Harriers, 135 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 1 Cooper's Hawk, 3 Northern Goshawks, 307 Broad-winged Hawks, 26 Red-tailed Hawks, 18 Rough-legged Hawks, 5 Golden Eagles, 13 American Kestrels, 1 Merlin, 4 Peregrine Falcons, and two unidentified (distant) buteos.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A few more broadwings

A few more broadwings were counted today by Nathan, who used to be a counter here some years ago, while I (John) had a day off. Thanks so much Nathan!

Best sightings today included those 123 Broad-winged Hawks, an adult Peregrine Falcon, 3 juvenile Golden Eagles, and 2 Merlins. The overall count got to 424, exactly half of them were Sharp-shinned Hawks.

There was also at least one Short-eared Owl around on the Point today.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lots of hawks

Like most raptors today, this Golden Eagle came in low and provided great looks to the three hawk watchers on the platform. Diversity was a little lower today compared to the last couple of days, but that was made up for by yet again higher numbers. Particularly Sharp-shinned Hawk put in a strong showing, with 1,641 for a day count. Most of them were seen in the second half of the morning, when strong southerly winds produced a strong flight. Other raptor counts included 12 Turkey Vultures, 17 Bald Eagles, 24 Northern Harriers, 1 juvenile Cooper's Hawk, 1 juvenile Northern Goshawk, 16 Broad-winged Hawks, 57 Red-tailed Hawks (including another intermediate 'rufous' morph, different individual from yesterday), 37 Rough-legged Hawks, that Golden Eagle, 31 American Kestrels, and 2 Merlins. The overall count reached 1,840 - the highest day count so far this season.

This last day of the month is a good moment to once again take stock of how the hawk season is progressing this year. With a month and a half behind us and only a month to go, let's review the numbers.

For Turkey Vulture, April 2009 was average, with 200. It's interesting to note that, unlike at most other hawk watches, there is no clear peak in the numbers. This species is almost at the northern edge of its range, and the birds counted at Whitefish Point may well be primarily summer residents flying past the hawk watch, not migrants.

April 2009, with 39, was low for Osprey, though not as low as April 2006 for example. Their migration continues into the first half of May.

Bald Eagle (205) had the best April of the last four years, as did Northern Harrier with 429.

Today's phenomenal flight of Sharp-shinned Hawks helped put April 2009 into second place of the last four years. Only last year's April count was better, by about 800 birds.

This April was easily the best April of the last four for Cooper's Hawk, with 38 counted. Recently, April counts have ranged between 10 and 26. This high count was helped tremendously by an unusually strong flight of 12 on the 24th. Most of those 12 birds were seen within a two-hour time frame: a bubble with Cooper's Hawks. This species is much more common downstate, but reaches the northern limit of its range here at Whitefish Point.

Of the last four years, only last year's April had a higher Northern Goshawk count than this year.

The buteos are interesting, because one of them had the best April of the last four years (Red-shouldered Hawk), while another had the worst April by far of the last four years (Broad-winged Hawk). Red-tailed Hawk had the second worst April of the last four, while Rough-legged Hawk had the second best April (last year was better).

Golden Eagle had the best April of the last four years, beating last year's April count by two eagles.

The falcons did poorly overall in April 2009. All three falcons - American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon - had the worst April of the last four years! For Merlin and Peregrine, the differences with other years are not as pronounced, but this year's count for American Kestrel is about half the normal count for that species...