Raptor Observatory Update: Rare Sightings and New Records

Posted on October 10, 2012

By Phil Brown, Raptor Observatory Coordinator

It’s early October, and we’re now more than halfway through the official hawk watch season at NH Audubon’s Carter Hill and Pack Monadnock Raptor Observatories. With over 5,500 and 11,000 migrant raptors counted at each site, respectively, 2012 has proven to be a memorable year. For each site’s avid hawk watchers, it is clear that this year’s count has been above average, but it may be the quality of species that leaves such a legacy in 2012. The clear highlight of Pack Monadnock’s season, thus far, came on September 10, when a single Swainson’s Hawk was spotted – and, ultimately, positively identified by site Staff Naturalist Henry Walters, and volunteer, Katrina Fenton. A rare treat anywhere along the East Coast, the sighting provides the first confirmed record of this species at either observatory – and one of just a handful of records for the entire state! Each year, a few are counted at hawk watches in the Northeast. Less rare in NH, but still a treat for the Carter Hill Observatory, was the first Black Vulture documented in this the site’s fifth year of observation, on September 21. The story with this species is one of northward range expansion. Smaller, but more aggressive than their  cousin, the  common Turkey Vulture, this species has only recently pushed into southern New England as a breeding species and now makes a few appearances over the Granite State each year. With warmer winters, it may just be a matter of time before the species breeds here, too.

The season has featured mainly good migration weather and few rainouts until the last week of the month into the first week of October. September started off sluggishly, but picked up steadily with the onset of Broad-winged Hawk migration, accounting for an unprecedented stretch of 13 out of 14 consecutive days on which over 100 individual raptors were counted at Carter Hill. Because of continued dry weather and the lack of significant fronts to stall migration, Broad-wings this year trickled through rather than moving in one big push. Still, onlookers were rewarded with three ‘big days’ of over 1,000 birds at Pack Monadnock over the course of a nine-day span. Broad-wings moved in above-average numbers at both sites in 2012, but none which rival last year’s record high counts.

After the clearing of several fronts, early October has featured excellent migration, highlighted by counts of Ospreys (50), American Kestrels (45), Sharp-shinned Hawks (166), and Peregrine Falcons (9) at Carter Hill on October 5 – all of which blew away past daily records for these species at this site! (Hawk watchers: remember this lesson the next time rainy days get you down….there IS a silver lining to those gray clouds.) 2012 is already a record season for each of the above species, as well as Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Bald Eagle (over 100), at Carter Hill. Speaking of eagles, several avid observers – and a number of visitors – were treated to the season’s first Golden Eagle, an adult bird, on October 6. This species moves through NH annually in small numbers, usually in mid- to late October.

So, why is it another good year for raptors? From raptor population status perspectives, it is likely that birds to our north fared well during this breeding season, and trends are generally upward for many species, but, that’s certainly not to say all raptors are thriving. There are still many unknowns regarding raptor populations, and year-to-year counts don’t tell the whole story. Making sense of the long-term trends is one role of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), the organization and repository of data to which NH Audubon’s raptor observatories submit their observations. To read about regional populations and see trend graphs and maps of all raptor species in HMANA’s Raptor Population Index project, click here <http://rpi-project.org/2011/>

Another exciting development in raptor monitoring has occurred recently with the satellite-tracking of a few Ospreys from NH, an effort that will help us learn more about the full life cycle events of Ospreys, including the threats that face them. The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center (SLNSC), in partnership with biologists including Chris Martin of NH Audubon, is monitoring the migration of these individuals to parts of South America – and back. Of interest to us more locally is how close some of these tracked birds flew to the Carter Hill Raptor Observatory (we may have even counted them!). Click here to read more about this exciting project and to view tracking maps <http://www.nhnature.org/osprey_project/overview.html>

The raptor observatories are so much more than just the hawks… There are many other types of migrating birds to witness (join us for ‘Big Sit’ events at each observatory on Sunday, October 14, as observers look for ALL species of birds!), ongoing natural spectacles such as foliage season (peak time is NOW!), free instruction and hands-on learning from our daily Staff Naturalist and volunteers, and the camaraderie of those who are there to take it all in. The hawk-watching communities at both observatories continue to expand in both numbers and knowledge. Volunteer coverage continues to get stronger at Carter Hill, with many more experienced eyes on the sky as this site and its dedicated volunteers enter the fifth year of observation, and daily staff coverage at Pack Monadnock permits regular education sessions with school and other groups, and individuals, alike. If you are among one of the thousands who have stopped by to spend time at the observatories this fall, you are aware of its magic and allure. If not, I’d encourage you to come by and watch the spectacle of migrating hawks, each one a rite of passage in its own. Promises of Red-tails and Red-shoulders, Goshawks and Goldens, await you. And if you would like to help out with the funding for each site, be sure to purchase a raffle ticket—or ten!–available at both hawk watches.