Eyes on the sky

By JUDY SHULER

Special to the OBSERVER

The seasonal migration of birds through long distances and improbable odds has captured the imagination and inspired people through centuries. We mark the seasons with their hopeful first arrival in spring, and settle into fall at their departure.

The spring count of hawks and eagles, birds of prey known for their keen eyesight, agility and skill as hunters, began nearby on March 15. One of the best places to follow their travels along the southern shore of Lake Erie is at the Ripley Hawk Watch.

Two miles east of Ripley and 4 miles west of Westfield, Ripley Hawk Watch is made up of three sites located between the Lake Erie shore and the top of the steep escarpment about three miles south of the lake. The top of the escarpment runs parallel to Lake Erie and defines Lake Erie’s prehistoric shore.

Raptors often soar on updrafts to aid their travels. They do not like to cross large bodies of water where there are no updrafts. Instead, they follow land routes and shorelines to navigate around large waters. The proximity of the Alleghany Escarpment to Lake Erie narrows and concentrates their migration pathway in our area.

Ripley Hawk Watch shares the Lake Erie migration corridor with the Presque Isle Hawk Watch in Erie, Pa., and the Hamburg Hawk Watch near Buffalo. While the raptors are traveling west to east, counts often vary surprisingly at each location.

At Ripley, the count season runs March 15 through May 15. Last year, after an uncommonly mild winter and an ice-free Lake Erie nearby, the total count was 23,160 birds. It was down 19 percent from the 10-year high count of 28,522 in 2011 following that year’s winter. Ten years of electronic data from the site have been archived and analyzed, but site data from Ripley have been filed with the Hawk Migration Association of North America since the early 1980s.

Species seen in the greatest numbers are turkey vultures (11,061 last year) and broad-winged hawk (9,564 last year). Sharp-shinned hawk (1,037) and red-tailed hawk (624) logged the next largest counts. A total of 17 raptor species have been recorded. Other species being followed with interest are common loons, because of conservation concerns in New York state, and sandhill cranes. Unlike hawks, loons fly directly toward and out over Lake Erie.

Bald eagles have also been showing up in increasing numbers. Last year a record-setting 139 migrating bald eagles were supplemented by 131 sightings of non-migrant eagles over the two-month watch. The big day for migrating bald eagles was May 2, with 40 birds tallied.

Because migrating hawks are often seen high overhead, identification can depend on recognizing their silhouettes. You can download a free two-page silhouette guide at hmana.org/silhouette-guide/ or order a laminated copy from the Hawk Migration Association of North America and help support the monitoring and conservation of raptor populations. Hawks in Flight, (Sibley et al.) is a very helpful introduction to hawk watching, and most popular field guides provide useful information on plumage and behavior.

Turkey vultures are one of the first birds to move north in spring, as early as mid-February. Peak flights typically occur in late March and early April. Last year, more than 1,100 were counted on March 21. Soaring with wings raised in a V and making wobbly circles, Turkey vultures are large dark birds with long, broad wings. Bigger than other raptors except eagles and condors, they have long “fingers” at their wingtips and long tails that extend past their toe tips in flight. Turkey vultures, like many retirees, are coming back from Florida, Texas, or as far south as Mexico.

Broad-winged hawk comes in two color phases: the common light phase and a rare dark phase. The dark form is entirely sooty brown with a tail like the light morph, and with whitish flight feathers contrasting with the dark wing linings. They usually migrate in large flocks or “kettles” that can range from a couple of individuals to thousands. Last year nearly a third of the season’s migrating broad-wings, a jaw-dropping 3,162, were seen on a single day, May 2, along with the eagles and a strong count of other birds.

A recent study attached satellite transmitters to the backs of four broad-winged hawks and followed them as they migrated south in the fall. The hawks migrated an average of 4,350 miles to northern South America, and traveled an average of 69 miles each day.

Volunteer observers and counters at Ripley Hawk Watch typically begin their tally around 9 a.m. and continue into the afternoon. Weather conditions will determine exact times and which of the three sites to staff.

Southerly winds force the birds closer to Lake Erie shore. To find the site closest to Lake Erie, follow Route 5 west 3.5 miles past the traffic signal at Barcelona, just beyond Shorehaven on your right.

Predominantly westerly or easterly winds allow the birds to spread out between the lake and escarpment. Head for Parker Road, between Route 20 and Barber Road.

Northerly winds encourage migrants to ride the winds deflected by the face of the escarpment, favoring the Creamery Road site, south of Barber Road.

All sites are marked with signs and are located on private property.

Bring a folding chair, a field guide and binoculars, and dress for the weather. Early spring weather can test the mettle of the most dedicated watchers. Last year rain, snow or fog closed the watch seven days.

Between the three watch sites, elevation rises from 630 to 1,454 feet above mean sea level and weather can vary considerably, particular with fog and wind.

Daily counts are posted at hawkcount.org.Hawkcount.org was started to report counts at Holiday Beach in Ontario in early 2000. Since then, it has expanded to include site reports from over two hundred hawk watch sites in Mexico, the U.S., Panama and Canada.

Visitors to the watch and beginning birders are welcome. For further information, contact Gil Randell, site coordinator, at janngil@fairpoint.net.

Judy Shuler recently joined Lake Erie Bird Club to learn more about local birds and natural history. For further information on the club, contact Joanne Goetz at goetz@netsync.net.