Hawk Migration Up-Close and Awesome

This fall, I’m stationed atop Capilla Peak in the Manzano Mountains, about 25 miles southeast of Albuquerque. My purpose: count, identify, and band as many migrating raptors as possible. Myself and three others are working for Hawkwatch International, an organization devoted to the conservation of North American raptors. There is nothing quite like a complete immersion into the miracle of migration, and the majesty of hawks never ceases to amaze me.

While the Mazano site will never match the numbers of eastern sites such as Cape May and Hawk Mountain, we have just started our peak month (September 15 – October 15) and things are getting fun. Our daily counts are steadily increasing, and the speed and difficult of ID’s are rising as well. No matter where you are in the US, separating Sharp-shinned Hawks from Cooper’s Hawks at a distance can always be challenging. These two accipiters are our ‘bread-and-butter’ species, and we can expect about 2,500 of these forest specialist whizzing past our mountain over the course of the season. Our site is one of the few HWI sites to also have a banding operation, and as you might expect Sharpies and Coops feature heavily into our stations.

View from the Manzno Hawkwatch

View from the Manzano Hawkwatch (photo by Steve Brenner)

Banding accipiters is not only an incredible experience, but it is also eye-opening from an identification perspective. If nothing else, I’ve re-discovered the old hawkwatching adage: Identifying hawks is not necessarily about how things are, but rather how things appear. This is remarkably true when it comes to accipiters. Yes, the flight style is different. Yes, the heads appear larger. But spending every day watching hawks for weeks has shown me plenty of exceptions to the rules: some sharpies in flight have unusually large heads…some coops exhibit some pretty square tails. Accips are tough, and sometimes the looks from observation are never quite good enough. Throw all of that out once you get an accipiter in the hand.

Sweet freedom! Immature sharp-shinned hawk after being banded and measured (photo by Steve Brenner)

Sweet freedom! Immature sharp-shinned hawk after being banded and measured (photo by Steve Brenner)

The heads of sharpies are tiny. I mean, tiny. Obviously the legs are quite thin as well, and everything about the males of the species is exaggerated to a new definition of “our smallest accipiter.” Enter Cooper’s Hawk: large, squared head, powerful legs, overall a bulkier, ‘fuller’ bird in the hand. Females can be downright scary. However, while the sharpies might be tiny, they certainly don’t lack attitude.

Immature Sharp-shinned hawk, peering into my soul (photo by Steve Brenner)

Immature Sharp-shinned hawk, peering into my soul (photo by Steve Brenner)

As with any bird in the hand, plumage tips can be gleaned, and this has proved helpful in some identification pitfalls with accipiters. You can see how messy the streaks of immature sharpies are, and when compared to a Coop, there seems to be order, or at least some ‘attention to detail.’ The head shape and size is also a huge stand out to me, and from a field observation standpoint, this is really a great mark. Tails are much longer in Cooper’s Hawks, and this mark is another good one in the field as well as in the blind. Throw in the all around proportional differences of wing size, shape, tail, and flight style, you got yourself pretty reliable points for proper ID once all are taken together.

It isn’t all sharpies and coops up in the land of the Green Chile and Breaking Bad (Walter White has yet to visit the hawk watch). Kestrels, Peregrines, and Prairie Falcons come through in modest but steady numbers. Broad-winged Hawk numbers continue to climb with each season (an average of 8 per year, and we already have counted 8). Red-tail numbers have been a bit slow thus far, but nothing beats banding these incredible buteos. Up close and personal, this bird is awe-inspiring. And the classic ID and aging points on these birds really hold up in the hand. Note the wing panels, lack of red in the tail, dark patagials, and belly band. Also note how awesome this bird is: despite how common the species may be, we shouldn’t forget to appreciate the Red-tailed Hawk.

When you talk about Buteos in the west, look no further than Swainson’s Hawk. Having hawk-watched and birded out east for a large portion of my life, this bird was few and far between. This fall has been quite different. Everyday we get large numbers of Swainsons, and everyday I’m still in love with their graceful flight style, ability to catch insect in mid-air, the different color morphs….simply put, everything about them is face-meltingly cool. Our count can get a serious boost from grouping Swainies, and at different points through the month we have had 200 to 400 of these Buteos group together. Of course, these kettles will grow to massive proportions once the birds reach Corpus Christi and Veracruz, but getting to see so many Swainson’s together has been truly spectacular. Note the contrast between the underwing/upperwing coverts and flight feathers, visible from both sides of the bird. From a distance this contrast really stands out, even on immature birds (such as the one pictured here).

Immature Swainson's hawk, frontside.

Immature Swainson’s hawk, frontside.

Immature Swainson's hawk, from the backside

Immature Swainson’s hawk, from the backside

As we enter peak, things should really heat up at our site, and I cannot wait. Wherever you may be across the country, find a local (or even not so local) hawkwatch site and have a blast. Rarely is the spectacle of migration and birding so apparent, so dynamic, and so awe-inspiring.