Friday, April 17, 2009

Afternoon birds

Across the years, bird migration follows fairly fixed patterns, and yet it remains an exciting and unpredictable phenomenon from day to day. For me as a hawk counter, sometimes the first hour of the count can serve as an indicator of things to come, of how the day will play out. Today, when I had a kestrel in the first hour, I suspected something was up with that species, and I anticipated a larger flight. Same thing with Northern Harrier (adult female pictured above), although that bird is less unusual for the first hour. Both species tend to migrate (late) afternoons, and late today when all other raptors had settled down in the area and some could be seen hunting here and there, these two species alone were still actively migrating. Both counts were up dramatically from recent days, although I suspect that neither one reached their peak flight today. For American Kestrel, which got to 26 today, that is almost certainly not the case, as peak flights in recent years have hovered around the 100 mark, with an impressive day count of 206 on the 11th of April in 2006. In 2007 and 2008, the peak flight for this species was later, on April 22 and 21 respectively.

Northern Harrier reached 62 today, with a fairly even distribution of birds throughout the day. Last year's peak flight was 55 on April 16, while April 20, 2007 had 80, and April 11, 2006 had 76.

I stayed an hour later today than usual, and was rewarded with an extra 11 kestrels and 9 harriers. The overall count for all species today reached 342.

Another Osprey was the second of the season, after yesterday's bird. Soon, there will be more of them.

Still no Broad-winged Hawks today, although I feel a little better now, having looked at Whitefish Point's historical data for this species. Based on reports from other sites - practically everyone else has had it by now - I thought it was getting late to Whitefish Point this year. But last year and in 2006, the first bird showed up on the 15th, while in 2007, the species wasn't recorded until the 22nd of April. So they should be here any moment now, but they aren't really as late yet as I initially thought. I have to remind myself, this is Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where spring just arrives a bit later...

A few more Rough-legged Hawks today (68) as that flight gets underway, although I believe it could have been better if those southwest or west winds that they promised us had materialized. Perhaps the weather gods in their wisdom decided to keep this in the can for next weekend, Spring Fling. A Golden Eagle, 3 Red-shouldered Hawks, 5 Northern Goshawks and 3 Cooper's Hawks were among today's highlights.

An interesting bird today was this rare dark morph Red-tailed Hawk. The photo is of poor quality, and rather heavily back-lit. Still, dark body feathers and dark underwing coverts plus a red tail can be made out. Here's another photo of that bird with a 'normal' redtail for comparison. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

This so-called dark morph is a color variant of the Red-tailed Hawk that is found only in western populations, where it is uncommon. Most Red-tailed Hawks seen on migration at Whitefish Point belong to the so-called 'borealis' race that breeds in eastern Canada and eastern US. Occasionally, I see some birds here that look more like western 'calurus' redtails than eastern 'borealis' redtails, although well-known raptor specialist (and former Whitefish Point hawk counter) Jerry Liguori has demonstrated how difficult it is to separate the light morphs of those two subspecies in the field. In this particular case, with a dark morph, it is of course quite easy.

Yesterday's pelican was again seen today. It probably realized the error of its ways and made a U-turn when it reached Ontario, where the species doesn't breed. Also seen today were several Tree Swallows, and large numbers of Sandhill Cranes.

Note: it should be easier now to leave comments here, as the settings have been changed, and registration is no longer required. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts on this year's raptor migration at Whitefish Point.


  1. Thanks John,

    Great posting, maybe the pelican will still be circling at Spring Fling


  2. Thanks for keeping this updated! It is much appreciated, and I'll make it over there one of these weekends.

    Would just like to mention (being from Ontario), that pelicans do actually breed in Ontario in the Lake of the Woods and, more recently, Lake Nipigon areas. The birds at WPBO probably wintered in Florida and decided to migrate up the east coast of Lake Superior instead of flying around.

    Good Birding,
    David Bell, 17
    Sault Ste. Marie, ON