In the Beginning-Part 1
by Gerry Smith
First the Wisconsin glaciations period retreat begat a pile of unconsolidated material beneath Lake Iroquois. Eventually that begat Lake Ontario, although it was several thousand years before Fritz Scheider and, Harry Van Buerden from Rochester, begat the Derby Hill hawk watch. Fritz was a twenty-three year old med student, already an accomplished amateur ornithologist, when he deduced the existence of a hawk migration concentration site near the eastern end of Lake Ontario.
Hawk movements, all going east, along the south shore of Lake Ontario had been known for decades. So one spring day in April 1954 with strong southerly winds the intrepid pair were exploring sites in the Town of Mexico. Driving up a very rough agriculture/cottage drive they found a hayfield overlooking the lake. As Fritz put it “I got out of the car and was nearly impaled by a Sharp-shinned Hawk”. Thus Derby Hill (not yet thus named) became known to the ornithological community.
Sage Creek bluff, as it was known to the locals, consisted of proposed cottage lots on the bluff side and hay/corn field on what was to become the north lookout. Fortunately the elderly farmer who owned the site cared not if these slightly odd bird people watched from his field. This discovery excited members of the newly formed (1951) Onondaga Audubon Society to begin to count migrants at the site. Dr. Walter Spofford, a world renowned expert on Golden Eagle, took a great interest in the flights. Whenever those early pioneer watchers could find free time they would visit. It’s worth noting that knowledge we take for granted today, regarding weather conditions and flight timing, was mostly unknown at the time. Information from the older watches such as Braddocks Bay near Rochester was helpful but the effects of local winds etc proved very confusing. From 1954-1962 early Derby watchers gathered the data they could and sought to define what was happening with the mechanics of Derby Hill flights. It is interesting to note that a count of 14 migrating Bald Eagle in 1955 would not be matched or exceeded for another 35 years (Remember DDT!!!) despite much more regular coverage by observers.
As has been noted many times, Derby Hill is one of the best 10-15 hawk concentration sites in North America and one of the best three in spring. Most of these sites, such as Hawk Mountain, were first discovered by hawk shooters who slaughtered birds during migration. This abominable practice continued well into the twentieth century at many sites. Research with local people shows that, as far as we can determine, Derby Hill lacks a bloody past. Members of a local farm family present in the area since the end of the nineteenth century indicated to me that organized shooting never occurred. “Everybody was too busy feeding, milking and planting to worry about hawks”. A distinction regarding Derby Hill that we should celebrate.
The early efforts of the first decade at Derby Hill were about to be greatly enhanced in 1963. Stay tuned.
In the Beginning – Part 2
By Gerry Smith
Beginning in the spring of 1963 the first systematic study of hawk migration started at Derby Hill. John R. Haugh was a PHD student of famed raptor man Tom J. Cade. Cade was a professor at Syracuse University but would soon move to Cornell where his efforts in raptor conservation made him legendary. John’s thesis work would be the first complete attempt to define hawk migration in the eastern Great Lakes region. He would conduct spring studies at Derby Hill and fall efforts along the north shore of Lake Erie. While we have learned much since it was the pioneering work of Haugh and Cade that laid the groundwork for future efforts. These early efforts were conducted from 1963-1966 with some data gathered in the late sixties. Results were published in Cornell’s SEARCH AGRICULTURE and the WILSON BULLETIN during that period.
During the study a half to two-thirds of the days in the period 1 March to through 31 May were covered from 1963-1965. In 1966 using volunteer’s almost complete coverage was achieved. Yeoman volunteers Todd and Ester (Terri) Farnham, Jean W.Propst and Edie Estoff carried much of the load. Todd was a World War I veteran and along with Terri and Jean had flexible schedules. On weekend and occasionally at other times they were joined by Fritz Scheider, Marge Rush Al Baker and Stu Hosler. Yours truly appeared in 1966 and along with Mr. Hosler still regularly visit the premises. These data from 1963-1966 offers a fascinating peek into hawk numbers during the depths of the DDT era. Of course eagles Peregrine and Merlins were very scarce. When compared with today the TOTAL of 30 Turkey Vultures seen for the 1963 season seems ludicrous. It’s a reminder that this species was just beginning their expansion north. That expansion during 52 years of climate change era continues with 14000 plus now passing each year.
Most of these 1963-1966 data were gathered from the North Lookout as the understanding of wind drift for Broad-winged Hawks and other susceptible species was just developing. Thus comparing numbers of buteos in particular must be done with great caution. It was the volunteer observers who assisted John in defining likely flights under various wind conditions. Similar patterns were documented at the fall sites on Lake Erie when wind drift was a much greater problem that at Derby Hill. As they do today, light south winds often led to very high flights of difficult to see birds. On one such day in these years Mrs. E Evans of Pulaski was present and being several decades Fritz’s senior was having difficulty seeing some migrants. Thus developed the following comment” F. Scheider I shall count the visible birds and you count the invisible ones” Since I am now in the ballpark of Mrs. Evans age at the time, I relate. I think this is a Derby Hill quote for the ages (and aged).
We all owe a debt of gratitude to John Haugh and Tom Cade for their pioneering work. The mid sixties was notable for other important events at Derby Hill-stay tuned.
In The Beginning-Part 3
By Gerry Smith
The Haugh-Cade era was significant for several other events at Derby Hill. First the north lookout was officially named Derby Hill by the ornithological community. Known as Sage Creek Bluff to the locals, it had been called a variety of names by birders prior to 1963. Haugh noted that there was a United States Geological Service Benchmark on the bluff across from the main lookout. This was marked “Derby” based on the owner of these lots, one Arlo Derby. Thus Derby Hill was born and Mr. Derby achieved immortality that I suspect he never planned on.
Another event was increasing concern over possible development of the lookout area. In 1960 a small white cottage, that OAS would eventually purchase, had been built just east of the main lookout. I remember my astonishment as a young birder, watching the older gentleman homeowner tend this garden nonchalantly ignoring the Sharp-shinned Hawks that nearly struck him. This was sacrilege to my birders mind but I can only imagine what he thought of us crazy bird people. Development concern was justified as the farmer who owned the lookout had reached retirement age and wished to convert his land assets into cash.
Once again Haugh and Tom Cade helped secure the lookouts future. Cade was still at Syracuse University (SU) and already was a rising star in academic ornithology. Using his influence he helped convince SU to partner with the newly formed Central New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to purchase the land. In 1965-66, 60 acres south of Grandview Ave were protected for about $8000.00. Dr Harry Payne, of what is now the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, was instrumental in arranging TNC participation in the project. Many members of the young Onondaga Audubon Society made significant financial contributions to the repayment of the TNC loan. When Tom Cade jumped ship for Cornell , taking John with him, the SU administration lost interest in the project and a few years later TNC bought SU out. Again Onondaga Audubon members and others provided necessary funds.
A major contributor to protecting this land was Dr. Edwin Jahn, a professor at SU. Providing funds to TNC in memory of his late wife Helen, Dr. Jahn and his family gave essential support to the project. This parcel of Derby Hill is officially dedicated as the Helen Jahn Memorial Sanctuary as those reading the plaque at the main kiosk will note. Eight thousand dollars was great deal of money in those times and the fledging TNC chapter took the project on with much trepidation. Thanks to the efforts of many the entire main lookout was now secure for the future.
During the late 1960s Derby Hill would be a sea of tranquility amidst the social chaos afflicting the nation. Many a hawk flight brought together a divergent group of watchers for fun and camaraderie. Soon many people who would influence the course of Derby Hill in future decades would appear. Stay Tuned.
In The Beginning-Part 4
By Gerry Smith
The period following the Haugh/Cade era marked a time of transition at Derby Hill. Lasting from 1967 through 1978 it included the end of the first quarter century of Derby Hill ornithological history and the beginning of activities that continue to this day. Many of the human players that would help shape future years became more active or appeared on the scene. Notable in this regard were Fritz Scheider, Dorothy Crumb, Bob and Ellie Long, Al Baker, Stu Hosler, Marge Rusk, Dave and Jan Muir, Tom Carrolan, Judy Thurber and yours truly. Over the coming years many others would provide essential impetus to growing awareness of and activity at Derby Hill. Innovations such as the two lookout count and increasing coverage on days with “off “winds began to develop.
As previously mentioned, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) had purchased the north lookout in the 1960s. Through an agreement they retained ownership, while management was by Onondaga Audubon. The primary business of TNC was protecting sites containing rare plants, animals, and/or natural communities. None of these were present at Derby Hill other than as flyovers. Derby was and is a people place where our species can witness the wonders of bird migration and monitor bird populations Thus in 1975, during the term of Onondaga Audubon president Dave Muir, the Helen Jahn Memorial Sanctuary deed was transferred to the chapter with a reverter clause. Onondaga Audubon is allowed to steward the property with certain activities, such as commercial logging and building condos, prohibited. In 1975 the young Dr. Muir was a very busy president as the Richard A Noyes Sanctuary also transferred from Mr. Noyes to Onondaga Audubon via TNC. Suddenly we were land barons with all the responsibilities thereof.
After the transfer Onondaga Audubon began to look at the long-term viability of Derby Hill for visitor access. It was immediately clear that the four, fifty foot bluff lots were acquisition priorities. Negotiations were begun with Arlo Derby and other owners. Over the next few years these lots were protected. Of the four lots we purchased one of them twice because of deed irregularities. Two additional lots to the west were desired, but the Mexico attorney who owned them wanted too much money. Perched atop an eroding bluff they seemed to us unsalable. Wrong! The former Palm house was built there in the early 1980s proving that anything with a water view may attract a buyer.
The 1974 HMANA conference had greatly raised the Derby Hill profile and many new folks began to regularly visit. Among these were Harold H. Axtell (1904-1992) retired curator of Vertebrates at the Buffalo Museum of Natural History. Another regular for the next twenty years was Walter Friton(1916-2004) a retired NYC fire captain and lover of Rough-legged Hawks. These guys are worth articles in themselves. Their presence brightened the lookout and along with Fritz Scheider they provided this young hawk watcher with one heck of an education. More would soon follow and Derby would grow in both land and in activities, so stay tuned.
In The Beginning-Part 5
By Gerry Smith
The increased fame of Derby Hill following the HMANA conference, led to some soul-searching on the part of the Onondaga Audubon regular watchers. What were the future Onondaga Audubon priorities at the site and how could we continue to address these needs. Beginning after the transfer of the north lookout from The Nature Conservancy, discussions began on such matters. As always, our fearless leader, Fritz Scheider was at the forefront of examining all options. Fritz strongly believed that we should improve our data gathering and management. Also we should be prepared raise money for land options that might develop. This planning proved to be very appropriate in the late 1970s.
The small cottage just east of Derby Hill became available and Onondaga Audubon jumped at the chance to purchase it. Using a revolving fund available from National Audubon, $25,000 was borrowed to obtain this building. The loan was repaid over a five year period and we now had a physical base of operations. Also, I had visited Cape May Bird Observatory in the fall of 1977 and became very excited over the possibilities at Derby Hill. Further discussions occurred and suddenly the Derby Hill Bird Observatory was born. Derby Hill Bird Observatory was approved as a research and education function by the Onondaga Audubon board in the period around 1977-1978.
Formation of Derby Hill Bird Observatory gave us membership in the bird observatory family at a time when many of these entities were being chartered. Note that we are Derby Hill Bird Observatory of the Onondaga Audubon Society, not Derby Hill Hawk Observatory. Even though raptor migration has always been a primary function of Derby Hill Bird Observatory it was created with the recognition of an abiding interest in other bird migration. Both the spring migration of other species and the fall migration, with its emphasis on water birds, were to be part of data gathering and education efforts. The missions of Derby Hill Bird Observatory from the get go were:
• Research and monitoring of migration.
• Educational efforts related to bird migration.
• Quality experiences for visitors to enjoy bird migration.
• Other programs as appropriate.
Derby Hill Bird Observatory was envisioned as a resource that would monitor birds to develop conservation information and enhance peoples understanding and enjoyment of our feathered fellow travelers.
The official consecration of Derby Hill Bird Observatory was a big step for Onondaga Audubon. We now had two sanctuaries, including a building and substantial expenses related thereto. It was clear that more land would be needed to provide for program needs. Over the period from 1979 to present, efforts were made to meet those needs as resources allowed. Beginning in 1979 the Derby Hill Bird Observatory of the Onondaga Audubon Society would undertake the program for which we are best known in the ornithological community. That effort would mark the end of the beginning period of history at Derby Hill. We had come a long way from standing in that cornfield in 1954. Plans were afoot for going to the next level. Stay tuned.
Part 6 – Land Barons
By Gerry Smith
It was apparent in 1979, when Derby Hill Bird Observatory was founded, that we would need more land over time to accomplish our mission. That was clear then, and it remains clear now, that Onondaga Audubon should protect both existing and additional holdings as needed. During the three and a half decades from then to the present we have added approximately 30 acres to the original 60 of the Helen Jahn Memorial Sanctuary. These generally small but critical parcels have protected observation sites and bird habitat at Derby Hill Bird Observatory. The following tracts are not in sequence of acquisition but were protected at various times through the years:
- The four bluff lots north of Grandview Drive totaling less than an acre of eroding drumlin. These lots allow visitors to view the lake and are critical to watching the fall water bird flights. Fritz Scheider and many others provided the funding for protecting these lots.
- Approximately 11 acres along Sage Creek Marsh. Purchased with funds provided by Fulton Boiler Works of Pulaski, they protect marsh and wetland shore from development and enhance Derby Hill Bird Observatory’s educational mission. Two mobile trailer structures were removed as part of this purchase and restoration work was conducted. Ron Palm Sr., company president at the time, was instrumental in providing funding for these protection efforts.
- First purchase at the south lookout where the current parking lot is located. Approximately five acres that controls part of view shed and provides off-road parking and kiosk location. This tract is dedicated to Dr. Bruno DeSimone, an Oneida dentist, who made major contributions to secure this parcel. This site was the original south lookout until the purchase of the next tract.
- Located east of Sage Creek Road this five acre tract is the current south lookout observation point. Formerly known as the manure pile, for cow dung depository reasons, this slight rise enables observer’s greater visibility in many directions. Dedicated to Donald (Don) S. Barnes, the donor of funds to secure the tract. This purchase not only protected the best south lookout site for future observation, but definitely cleared the air breathed by hawk watchers.
- The parcels extending from the north lookout to Sage Creek Road and also extending to Sage Creek Road from the original boundary of the Helen Jahn Memorial parcel in the most southerly field. These parcels have created the badly needed third field parking lot and snowplow turn around/parking lot at the road west of the north lookout. Critical for visitor access and parking, these purchases were also largely funded by Don Barnes.
Onondaga Audubon would love to be able to protect more land and develop more programs at Derby Hill Bird Observatory if resources permitted. Currently 200 plus acres that surround Derby Hill Bird Observatory on two sides are for sale. Also a house near the north lookout that would make a great visitor center is on the market. The main obstacle is money, so if anyone has $300,000 to $500,000 spare cash and would like to make a donation please contact the Onondaga Audubon president.
In addition to physically expanding Derby Hill Bird Observatory, the chapter would soon begin the hawk count that has continued annually since 1979. Stay tuned.
Part 7 – Red-letter Days 1
By Gerry Smith
After nearly fifty years of watching at Derby Hill, fifteen of those as hawk counter, I have seen many great flights. A few stand out in my memory, mostly prior to 1993. I suspect that is due in part to the rarity of species such as eagles and how highly prized observations of even a few of them were. Also from the pits of the DDT era through the early hawk population’s recovery phase, many species of raptors were less common and great flights tended to be remembered by the observers present.
These hawk flights prior to 1993 stick in my mind:
The first was a two day flight that occurred on 3-4 April 1974. This spectacular movement was caused by intense warm air clashing with the winter conditions that had remained in place through March. Over this Wednesday-Thursday period nearly 3,600 raptors, including several eagles, flew by the north lookout. This was in the era prior to the explosion of the Turkey Vulture population that has now inflated migrant hawk numbers in late March and early April. The numbers of eagles seen on these two days exceeded the number of observers present, something that was virtually unheard of in the DDT era. These flights coincided with now famous killer tornado outbreaks in the Midwest at places including Xenia, Ohio. As the front moved through in the late afternoon of the fourth, the pea-green colored tornado sky was seen at Derby. Probably the highlight of that second day was yours truly looking at a first year Bald Eagle (a very great rarity in 1974) while Fritz Scheider identified a Golden Eagle. Since Fritz was never wrong and I clearly was on a Bald a couple rounds of repartee” It’s a Golden no it’s a Bald “ occurred. Fortunately the only other observer present, Dave Muir, pointed out that we were looking in exact opposite directions with our backs to one another. This illustrates how rare two eagles of any species, appearing at once, were in the early 1970s.
Another very memorable day occurred in late April 1977. A classic system with a low pressure area moving through the upper Great Lakes was approaching DHBO pushing a warm front before it. Ahead of that front was a solid area of moderate rain but behind it virtually no precipitation. Thus the flight possibility was determined, as they so often are, by the timing of frontal passages. Birder par excellence, the late Bob Smart, was a teacher at a private school in Millbrook, New York in the central Hudson Valley. He had loaded a van full of teenage students at 4 a.m. and headed for the five-hour trip to DHBO. Needless to say arriving during pouring rain with a van of sleep deprived grumpy teens that were less than happy, did little for the atmosphere on the hill. But Bob had read the weather perfectly and as the warm front moved northeast, skies cleared and Broad-winged Hawk boils began to erupt from the west. Over the next few hours a classic Derby Broad-wing flight, including several immature eagles, streamed by. A fond memory is of retired NYC fire captain Walter Frition, lover of Rough-legged Hawks, nearly apoplectic trying to decide whether to look at the boil containing three immature Golden Eagles or the one with six Rough-legs. All the while most of Bob’s teenage students slept in the van to the horror of this hawk watcher who was a decade their senior. How soon one forgets being a teenager!
Other red- letter days would happen leading up to THE DAY in April 1993.
Part 8 – Red-letter Days 2
By Gerry Smith
Another memorable flight produced the largest single day count in Derby Hill Bird Observatory history with over 21,000 hawks recorded. I believe it was 21 April 1984 when a perfectly timed weather system pushed hordes of Broad-winged Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks past the north lookout. Beginning early, before 8 a.m., birds streamed past all day. I am sure the day total is an undercount as, while the hawk counter tried to keep up with Broad-wings streaming past a few hundred feet up; Sharpies were passing just above ground level. Talk about a neck impacted by “Bird of Prey Vertebrate”. Being a weekend, during school vacation I think, the number of humans enjoying the spectacle was considerable. It was a classic Broad-winged Hawk flight with groups to the west lofting up on moderate southerly winds, drifting out over the lake then streaming back in over the lookout. If I could design the perfect flight pattern for Derby Hill Bird Observatory this would be it.
As is often the case for mass spring movements at Derby Hill Bird Observatory, the flight lasted into the early evening before the troops began to seek suitable roosts. As any hawk counter can tell you, the exertion of constant scanning, counting and recording can be exhausting. At age 35 this day was a challenge; at age 66 counting such a flight might be fatal. I remember that this was the day of the first visit to Derby Hill Bird Observatory by now long-time regular and associate counter Bill Purcell. Talk about beginners luck! Bill has found out since that all days at Derby are not like this one, but I suspect another visitor may not have been so enlightened. While in a semi-comatose condition at the end of the day I was approached by and older lady. She politely asked “Oh this was very nice when I can see this again”. I think I mumbled something about this doesn’t happen every day (year/decade). I do not recall ever seeing her at Derby Hill Bird Observatory again.
As my hawk counting tenure was coming to an end THE DAY occurred. On the 24th of April 1993 the fates sent a couple of bonuses to the assembled 100 plus watchers on the North Lookout. Again an excellent Broad-winged hawk flight had begun early and I was busily counting. Just before 9 a.m., in a boil, an individual appeared that I never expected to see in the East. It was a dark morph Broad-winged Hawk, a color type Fritz Scheider had only seen in California. These dark birds occur primarily in the far west originating from the extreme northwestern part of the species breeding range. Such a sighting is so rare in the East that I was sure nothing could top that as a counter retirement present.
Wrong, as a little over one hour later I was very busy counting hawks overhead. I believe Dave Heath, now of New Hampshire, first called a raptor out-front coming directly at us. He mumbled something about wedge shaped tail as I kept counting. A few seconds later, as the bird approached about 150-200 feet up and coming directly overhead toward the shore, I looked at it. A few more seconds and I screamed (with appropriate decorum of course)”get on this bird it’s an eagle but it’s not a Bald or a Golden”. At that moment I missed Fritz Scheider, who had passed in 1989, more than ever. As THE BIRD swept by we watched it for a total of about two minutes. One person got some grainy pictures that showed shape but little plumage detail. Contrast this reality with today’s when such a sighting would be photographed by everyone present with a cell phone.
Among those present was Ned Brinkley, then a grad student at Cornell, and Adam Byrne also a student. Ned is a superb birder who would go one to become an editor of American Birds/North American Birds. Adam is an excellent artist whose sketches, made at the time, proved very valuable. Honestly at that moment we could not identify this bird but we did have suspicions. It was clearly a sea eagle like our Bald. After painstaking research, mostly by Ned who reads many languages, it became clear the bird was a sub- adult White-tailed Eagle from the Old World. Interestingly the last bonified record of this species in eastern North America was at Nantucket Light Massachusetts in 1939 by famed ornithologist Ludlow Griscom. Griscom was accompanied by a teenage birder from the Boston area, one Richard S. Hill. The same Dick Hill age 90, is now a Derby Hill Bird Observatory regular, and was present on 24 April 1993. Unfortunately as Dick said “54 years between sightings does not allow for much identification practice” even though he had seen the bird in Europe.
Unfortunately despite extensive work by Ned Brinkley, Including a detailed article in a recent North American Birds, this record has not officially been accepted by the New York Avian Records Committee. This is regrettable, particularly in light of Ned’s thorough article which hopefully will lead to its reconsideration. Forgive my hubris but from my standpoint I really don’t give a ——-. As I told the then chair of the committee in 1984 “I know hawks better than any member and I did not know then what the bird was but I do now”. Although he admitted this, I was told the main reason for denial is they could not be certain in was not a Stellar’s Sea-Eagle. Personally I find that absurd and hopefully the current NYSARC committee will correct this long-standing error after reviewing Ned’s article.
After this gift from the powers that be, this hawk counter knew the fates were telling me to move on, as topping THE DAY in my lifetime was probably impossible. Now as a current Derby Hill Bird Observatory regular no longer entrusted with the responsibility of counting, thanks to providence, I am still looking to top THE DAY but suspect it won’t happen. Stay tuned.
Part 9 – Golden Eagle
By Gerry Smith
The main mission of the Derby Hill Bird Observatory raptor count, established in 1979, was to monitor eastern hawk populations passing Derby Hill. In the 36 seasons since it began, the effort has been generally successful. Despite the variability of migration pattern by species, annual weather fluctuation and differences in competence and commitment among the 12 individuals conducting the count, these data have shown a number of long-term trends. Sampling bird migration is an inexact art and drawing any conclusions from year to year is a very risky business. Over intervals of decades, however these data are very useful.
One example is our count of the eastern population of Golden Eagle. The group of this “king of birds” that passes through our area was virtually unknown to ornithologists until the 1930s. Maurice Broun, first curator of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, reported migrant golden’s in numbers that were unprecedented for eastern North America. Verification of these sightings by others led to the understanding that a population existed in the east for a species thought only present in the west.
Despite the nearly three-quarters of a century since Maurice’s work, we still know remarkably little about our Golden Eagle. Small numbers were observed at Derby from the earliest years. When the daily hawk count began both species of eagle occurred in very small numbers. Golden would sometimes slightly outnumber Bald during the early years after the banning of DDT. This situation has dramatically changed since 1990 as the Bald reclaims it status as the common eastern eagle. The conventional wisdom of the time was that the former species was not affected by pesticides because of its mammal feeding habits and northerly distribution. Since most research was conducted in the west the differences between the ecology of the two populations were not recognized. It now seems clear that both eagles suffered from pesticides but the always more abundant Bald’s decline was more obvious.
Our Golden’s are highly migratory moving between the Appalachians and northern Quebec and Labrador. Waterfowl are an important part of their food source, particularly on the breeding grounds and prior to fall migration. Thus the theory of no pesticide problems doesn’t hold and the eastern population experienced a poorly documented decline from organoclorine contamination. Just as with the Bald Eagle, the banning of those persistent pesticides and resultant decline of residues in the environment has helped foster population increase of these boreal migrants.
Derby Hill Bird Observatory data clearly reflect this change from 10-20 per year in the early years to some annual counts of about 100 recently. Golden Eagle migration at Derby consists largely of non-adult birds that travel between late March to early May. It is likely that these are non-breeders and the few adults we see usually pass the lookout before 20 March. Current evidence suggests that most Golden Eagles, including the vast majority of breeding adults, migrate spring and fall along the eastern mountain ridges. Thus we see mostly young birds that leave the ridges either voluntarily or involuntarily. Our largest single day counts, in the mid-twenties, have occurred with a rain shield over the Appalachians that forces birds to the west. Under such circumstances more western lakeshore hawk watches such as Ripley, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania may see more Golden Eagles. This species is far less common at those lookouts than at Derby Hill Bird Observatory.
As noted it is very clear that this species has increased dramatically as a migrant through our region. In addition to spring flights at Derby Hill Bird Observatory small numbers now occur locally in fall migration. In recent years a few winter records have occurred, something that would have been unheard of thirty years ago. Recent research in Canada has shown that this population primarily nests from the Gaspe region of Quebec north through Labrador to Arctic coasts and west to James Bay. A small number of nests occur in Ontario near James Bay. The increase in this population in the last three-to four decades may have been in part due to elimination of certain pesticides but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The explosion in Snow Goose populations is no doubt feeding a lot of Golden Eagles. Concentrations have been noted in late summer around goose molting areas along James Bay, where the geese are flightless for several weeks. Many young birds have been reported to be part of these eagle gatherings. Even the most incompetent young hunter, now out on its own, can probably secure many a meal by plowing into a flightless flock of Snow Geese. This has ramifications for survival of individual eagles that might otherwise not make it. Also survivorship of this large, conspicuous and slow reproducing species has probably been helped by a reduction of illegal shooting. Enhanced public education about birds of prey, beginning in the 1960s, has resulted in changing attitudes of many people for the better.
So we, who watch at Derby Hill Bird Observatory and Delaware- Otsego Audubon’s Franklin Mountain, are the beneficeries of the increased abundance of this magnificent bird. But complacency from the standpoint of their conservation is not justified. The eastern Golden Eagle population has been estimated at 1500-5000. This is very small in comparison to the western population estimated at 40000 and this number excludes the large Alaska population. Our birds remain poorly known and their basic ecology, as well as conservation needs, requires much further investigation. There are serious clouds of conservation concern on the horizon, most notably development of industrial wind power. This species has been shown to be sensitive to turbine induced mortality at poorly located projects in the west. Recently the proposed ”white pine” windfarm along the north shore of Lake Ontario ,west of Kingston, has been seen to be a potential threat. Unfortunately our Canadian friends continue to pursue poorly sited wind projects. New York State also now has bad sites under consideration. Increased human activities in their formerly remote breeding grounds may also threaten the species.
Monitoring programs at Derby Hill Bird Observatory and sites like those on the interstate highway for this species, Franklin Mountain, New York and Tussey Mountain, Pennsylvania are essential to tracking the species future. Stay Tuned.
Part 10 – Bald Eagle
By Gerry Smith
The story of how widespread use of DDT nearly eliminated our national bird from many parts of the country is widely known. The species decline lasted from just after the Second World War through the mid nineteen eighties. Only after many pesticide-laden adults had left the breeding population, a decade post pesticide ban, did the species begin to recover. For those birders who began observing during the last twenty years the scarcity of Bald Eagle in the previous four decades is hard to comprehend. Today’s young birders often deride the species as “trash birds” since they have become so common. Not so for the then kid birders of the baby boom generation who prized any view of these magnificent birds.
Our early attempts to maximize views of any Eagle at Derby Hill sometimes became a bit extreme. Several of us would “eagle chase” individuals as they departed DHBO headed northeast. Both Eagles were so scarce in those days pursuing one rarely resulted in missing another. Also Grandview Drive was far less occupied by human residents in those days thus speedy rapid departures from the hill were more socially acceptable than they would be today. Although such extreme birding was rarely successful, when it was the risk was worth it. Extended views of an Eagle, as it soared and drifted was a rare treat in those days. The then older and wiser now deceased Dr. Robert Long once said he was convinced the group of us would never see thirty. And he always made sure to have his medical bag with him just in case. Oh well to be young and convinced you’re indestructible again.
Today’s hawk watchers at DHBO would not relate to the eagle chasers as now all one has to do is wait for the next eagle. On flight days it is usually a short wait and birds frequently come in multiples. Several Bald Eagles lofting over the lookout simultaneously is no longer that unusual. On some occasions in this century, I have seen more Bald’s at once than I counted during the entire 1980 spring season. Seasonal counts of this species have exceeded the bad old days by two orders of magnitude. I my opinion there are probably more Bald Eagles in eastern North America than anytime since the Civil War. Improvements in firearms at that time led to widespread slaughter of all wildlife. Being large conspicuous creatures and given the bad rap against predators at the time, this species would have been targeted by every farm boy with a gun.
It was not until the widespread DDT caused decline and resulting sympathetic publicity did attitudes begin to change. Enhancements in nature education have resulted in changing public attitudes. This in turn has resulted in greatly reduced shooting losses although unfortunately some still occur. As a result of post DDT enhanced reproduction and reduced unnatural mortality populations are skyrocketing in many regions. While threats such as habitat destruction, industrial wind power, climate change and land use from increasing human populations cloud the future, the short-term outlook for Bald Eagle appears bright.
What this means for watchers at the hill is the likelihood of even greater numbers passing our lookouts. At this time the evidence suggests that about one-third of our Bald Eagles originate from northern populations with the remainder coming from gulf coast regions primarily Florida. The nesting cycle of Florida and northern birds differs by six months so it is fairly easy to assign most individuals to a population by plumage, molt pattern and timing of migration. The Florida population has been booming in this century whereas northern populations may be recovering from DDT more slowly. Reproduction in both groups appears healthy thus it is reasonable that both populations may continue to grow in the near-term.
Bald Eagles may now be seen twelve months a year at Derby Hill although there is no proof of local nesting. Early in the migration season sorting out northbound birds from local wintering individuals is a challenge for the hawk counter. Definitely this was not a serious problem for hawk counters of much earlier decades. Using behavior attempts are made to minimize double counting of early migrants. By mid-March that problem vanishes as northern birds pass by. Adults become scarce during a two-week period in April and adults thereafter are likely Florida birds heading for their “summer vacation “. Molting unkempt northern non -adults mix with increasing numbers of southern birds including lots in fresh juvenile plumage. Most of these birds are only a couple months from fledging before undertaking this major trip.
We really do not understand the adaptive reasons for these dispersal flights but heck I would get out of Florida in the summer also. Bald Eagle numbers peak in mid-May with the largest flights to date in the 70-90 per day range. Northbound movements continue through June on days with southerly winds. One year a movement including about 14 Florida Bald’s occurred in mid-July.
The late Fritz Scheider, guru of Central New York birding, passed away just as this species recovery was really beginning. Most of his birding career was in the DDT era and I can’t but think how much he would relish the present Bald Eagle situation. This species is now present year round at DHBO and many other suitable locations in our region. At the Montezuma National Wildlife area they are omnipresent with a dozen or more sighted daily. What was once a rare treat is now a commonplace joy. Given the uncertain future of wildlife in our increasingly human altered world it is our responsibility to assure they remain secure. Never again should necessity dictate the return of future eagle chasers at Derby Hill Bird Observatory.
Part 11 – Turkey Vulture
By Gerry Smith
The population explosion of this species during the last half century boggles the mind. From a few dozen passing the lookout in the mid 1960s, counts have risen to more than 14000 annually. There are many theories about the causes ranging from increasing road-kill to loss of habitat in southern parts of their range. Given the timing and pattern of this northerly expansion it is likely a response, at least in part, to climate change. Turkey Vulture invasion of upstate New York began in the early twentieth century at a time when several other southern birds species also began moving north. Whatever the causes the resulting boom is spectacular.
This species is now one the two most numerous raptors at Derby Hill Bird Observatory along with the Broad-winged Hawk. We have always counted Turkey Vulture as a raptor so it’s recent DNA based reclassification as a stork is being ignored. Along with the population increase, as expected, their date range of occurrence has expanded. The first migrants now appear in late February or early March. Whereas the third week of March was normal forty years ago. Migration of some birds, presumably non-breeding juveniles continues into June. Only from late November through the beginning of spring migration this species is absent near Derby. Given the recent tendency for groups to winter at the Jamesville quarry near Syracuse and in the Niagara gorge this pattern may change in the near future.
Many others soon follow the first few migrant scouts of early March. Based on behavior, it appears that the Derby Hill Bird Observatory area breeding pairs arrive soon after the beginning of migration. By the last ten days of March a surge has begun that produces peak flights between 25 March and 10 April in most years. These movements can be truly awesome as thousands of these large birds sail past in only a few hours. Vultures are marvelous fliers and one can appreciate their ability as they pass by in steams and swirling boils. Those who deride vultures as “ugly” have never witnessed these masters of the air streaming past the lookout.
Numbers of migrants decrease until late-April to early- May when a second smaller wave occurs. Presumably they are immatures hatched the previous year that will not breed. A small trickle of such individuals continues well into June. Given the presence of a small flock of local breeders it becomes difficult to determine who’s a migrant. Also by late summer post-breeding groups are roosting together with some migration beginning by September. While less impressive than spring flights, movements to the south and west past Derby Hill Bird Observatory in fall may be substantial. From late September to late October up to several hundred birds have been counted in a single day.
This species expansion north shows no sign of abating. They are now regularly seen well up into eastern Canada including the north shore of the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean. Wanderers have reached Churchill Manitoba at the edge of the Arctic tundra. It is hard to believe that there exists enough carrion to feed all these birds. While winter killed white-tailed deer are probably an important early spring food source what sustains these hordes thereafter is a mystery. While so many of our planet’s vultures are declining severely the Turkey vulture is bucking that trend. For the foreseeable future it appears our abundant vulture will carry on with its range expansion and population increase.
Part 12 – Falcons
By Gerry Smith
Through the years I have been asked by visitors to Derby Hill “how can I learn to identify falcons”? My answer ” go to Cape May in late September and early October”. An observer can see more of our three regular falcon species in a good hour than we see at Derby Hill Bird Observatory in an entire season. There are several reasons for this, and but the tendency of Merlin and more so Peregrine not to be intimidated by the open water of Lake Ontario is a major factor. The latter species regularly crosses the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Virginia. Merlins may and American Kestrel does stay closer to shore and also seem to favor migration routes proximal to ocean coasts spring and fall.
The spring falcon flights at Derby extend through the season. The first Merlin and American Kestrel appear in early March. These early birds may be individuals that wintered within a short distance from the lookout. The former occurs until late May with a noticeable increase in frequency in late April and early May. The latter also is seen into early June with distinct peaks in late March and again in late April. Peregrine can occur in March but is most frequent from late April through mid -May. The Peregrines of March and early April are most likely birds that are derived from the reintroduction program for that resulted from their decline due to DDT. These early season Peregrines tend to be darker colored than their Arctic-nesting cousins that migrate later in the spring.
The falcon counts from Derby Hill Bird Observatory are hard to interpret for many reasons.
The Peregrines we see are a result of birds hunting or joining other hawk groups that are soaring overhead. This species is not intimidated by fifty miles of water and, although they use thermal lift well, their strong flapping flight would get them to Canada in an hour. The recent counts of more than a dozen and a half Peregrines a year is a far cry from the one to three a year of the DDT rebound seasons. This does illustrate on a small scale the great population increase that has resulted in removal from the federal endangered species list.
Counts of Merlin have also increased greatly in the last quarter century and reflect their escape from the disaster of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides. A wonderful 1980s birder, the late Ruth Knight, had Merlin as her curse bird that seemed to avoid her. It was eerily predictable that the small number of Merlins then present in a day would assiduously arrive five minutes after Ruth departed the lookout. The greater number of this species recently reflects both population increase and rapid evolutionary adaptation. Merlin migration at Derby Hill Bird Observatory and many other sites often peaks late in the day with more birds passing in the late afternoon than earlier in the day. Counts clearly indicate they have recovered from DDT and adapted to using previously unused habitats, such as urban green space. Local breeding and wintering Merlins were unknown thirty years ago. Now they breed uncommonly but widely in many upstate areas. They are a wide spread nesting species in the Adirondacks and Tug Hill Plateau and continue to expand in many regions. Wintering now regularly occurs where it was unknown not that long ago.
American Kestrel, while still the most common falcon at Derby Hill, is not doing as well as we would like. There is strong evidence of a widespread decline in this handsome little predator. Counting this species at Derby, as with it cousins, is difficult. The count protocol has the observer at the south lookout on northerly winds. In recent years we have discovered that many falcons and Turkey Vultures, as well as a fair number of accipters and other species, pass over the north lookout under such conditions. Even large birds such as the vultures may not be visible to the observer at the south lookout. Often these birds are low and moving fast making them difficult to count. Also even on good south wind days at the north lookout many American Kestrel and some Merlin pass below bluff level further complicating matters. Derby Hill is a place to enjoy the falcons seen but not a place to learn them well or draw any real conclusions about population trends based on these data.
One always hopes for the rarities while birding and Derby Hill Bird Observatory has two spring records of that Arctic will-of-the-wisp the Gyrfalcon. Both records are of white individuals from 1963 and 1980. Why so few from a well-established hawk watch so far north? Well if fifty miles of water is not a barrier for a Peregrine it’s a cakewalk for a Gyrfalcon. This is supported by the three fall records plus one probable of Gyrs at Derby Hill. All were seen coming in over the lake waters headed south. Thus our sightings of this magnificent northern visitor are purely random chance events of one passing over when experienced observers are present to identify it.
So enjoy the falcons you see at Derby Hill and plan your next fall trip to the hawk watch of your choice between Plum Island and the south end of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Part 13 – Northern Goshawk
By Gerry Smith
To quote F.G. Scheider ” If you think it is a Goshawk it isn’t ” For those of us lucky enough to witness the irruptions of this magnificent northern forest hawk in the 1970s and 1980s there is no difficulty identifying these birds as they pass Derby Hill Bird Observatory. Unfortunately relatively few of these birds have been seen recently at Derby Hill. This is a result of poor southbound flights from the boreal forest in the last quarter century. Thus it may be hard for newer birders to relate to the former abundance of this species during some spring migrations from the mid-1960s to 1990. Such inexperience has even led to uniformed chatter regarding suspicion of poor past identification of this species. It has even been suggested that every Northern Goshawk should be photographed to prove each identification. As a lucky observer of the earlier large flights, often with Fritz Scheider present, I find such suggestions silly. Hopefully we will soon have another outbreak of this powerful Accipiter so today’s cadre of younger hawk watchers will have a chance to learn how easy this species is to Identify.
Historically most Northern Goshawks we see at Derby Hill originate in the vast belt of boreal forest extending across the continent from eastern Canada to Alaska. While small numbers of this species nest to the south of the main range it is the boreal birds that exhibit irruptions. These flights usually occur on a nine to eleven year cycle. Some flights, such as those in the mid nineteen thirties and mid-nineteen seventies, are huge in numbers of birds and geographic extent. Others are more limited in size and scope. Traditionally movements are tied to the population cycle of the snowshoe hare. As the numbers of this rabbit rise, the reproductive success and population of a principle predator, the Northern Goshawk, also climbs rapidly. At some point, as a result of predation and disease as well as other factors, the hare population collapses. At that point the majority of the goshawk population in the affected region must get out of town or starve. That is when the fall hawk lookouts first detect the southbound explosion Following these diaspora we get to see the survivors at Derby Hill the next spring.
Such was the case in 1973 following the great burst of the fall of 1972. This flight was the largest ever recorded in the ornithological record. Hawk Ridge in Duluth Minnesota counted more than 5000 individuals. Many sites farther east had several hundred to nearly 1000 during that fall. Birders in our region began seeing immatures in September and by early October and through much of the winter this species was recorded on most days afield near Lake Ontario. The spring of 1973 was several years before the start of a daily hawk count at Derby Hill Bird Observatory. The limited catch as catch can coverage undoubtedly resulted in many returning Northern Goshawk being missed. That said the nearly 400 goshawks counted year still stands as the highest count for a single season. Eighty-eight of those birds were counted on a single day, my 24th birthday 29 March 1973. Like many of today’s less experienced observer’ while I was impressed and was improving my goshawk ID skills I really did not appreciate the true significance of the event. After witnessing a boil of eight Northern Goshawk soaring together Fritz said “. I am trying to make some of those into Coop’s but they aren’t going amazing ” Then in almost reverent tones “Gerry watch this well neither one of us may see such a sight again in our lifetime “. He didn’t and I haven’t yet.
Why there have been no significant irruptions into our region in nearly three decades is unknown. The science of understanding the mechanisms that develop conditions leading to outbreaks is by no means completely clear. As for our understanding of how human habitat alterations can disrupt natural cycles, that science is in its infancy. The Boreal forest region has come under increasing pressure from extractive industries such as logging and mining as well as fossil fuel exploration and production, in the last twenty-five years. It is not possible to predict how these activities, at a large scale, will impact these sensitive ecosystems but the results are unlikely to be good for Northern Goshawk. Could it be that these or other activities are at least partly responsible for the drought of irruptions? I haven’t a clue but given the impacts of our species throughout all ecosystems worldwide we need to be concerned Whatever the reasons for this dearth, I hope it goes away soon so newer hawk watchers can enjoy the opportunity to study these birds those of us present in previous decades were fortunate to have.
Part 14 – Cooper’s Hawk
By Gerry Smith
In the late 1970s I was standing atop Derby Hill with Fritz Scheider and Harold Axtell who were without doubt among the best hawk identifiers of their respective generations. As a small accipiter approached Fritz said “Coopers” I said “Sharpie ” and Harold said, “I don’t know”. I think cautious Harold may have been the only honest one in the group. This perhaps illustrates the difficulty of always identifying this medium sized bird hawk with certainty. Even after a half century of watching, and the great advances of hawk ID over that period, I still puzzle over a few probably males of this species. Beginning hawk watchers are still driven to a point of distraction when first seeking to separate this species from its cousins. Fear not it gets easier after the first 100,000 or so views. Actually the greatest difficulty is separating Cooper’s from Sharp-shin. Given the plethora of great identification books that now exist and with practice the task of separating these species is not nearly as daunting as it was in past decades.
The numbers of Cooper’s Hawk passing Derby Hill Bird Observatory in a season is usually in the 350 to 600 range. We are fairly close to the northern edge of the species range, which extends only less than 100 miles north of Ottawa. Therefore the adult Cooper’s mostly pass Derby Hill in March and very early April. Until the very end of March this species may outnumber the later moving Sharp-shinned Hawk. Immature Cooper’s are present in small numbers through mid-May. Consistently a pair of this species has nested in the woods west of Sage Creek often arriving in early March. Their “fruit bat flap” courtship display is often seen and appears somewhat stimulated by the flight of migrant adults. The local hunting male blows by both lookouts on a regular basis terrorizing all the local small birds.
There is strong evidence from the core of the species range to our south that Cooper’s Hawk has recovered nicely from its bout with DDT. Population increase has resulted in their removal from most state endangered and threatened lists in the Northeast and Midwest. In many areas, including our region, both nesting and wintering populations suggest this species is doing very well. Derby Hill Bird Observatory data, however, are much less certain and appear to possibly suggest a decline in the migrants passing Derby Hill Bird Observatory. This is by no means clear and the fact that such a decline would contradict most other data one must be very cautious. Further detailed analysis is required before any pattern can be discerned. For the time being it appears no serious concern for this species future is warranted.
The best way to learn about this difficult to identify species is to acquire recently published specialized hawk ID guides and come to Derby. There the cadre of local experts will enlighten all with their wisdom. I guarantee that after a few trips you will feel more confident with calling these difficult species. Soon you will be as sure of your next accipiter Identification as Fritz, Harold and I were of the aforementioned bird of four decades ago.
Part 15 – Sharp-shinned Hawk
By Gerry Smith
Our smallest and most numerous accipiter is a crowd pleaser at Derby Hill and many other lookouts. They often pass within a couple feet of observers on days with strong southerly winds. Many a new visitor has been warned that Onondaga Audubon is not liable if they have to seek medical attention to have a Sharp-shin removed from any bodily part. No kidding there are days when it seems one could capture many using a butterfly net. These feisty bird hawks seem always on the lookout for a meal. Many moving Sharpies, particularly early in the day, will dive at the songbirds present scattering them in panic.
The great appreciation for this species that modern hawk watchers now exhibit was universally lacking in the majority of birders and ornithologists prior to the 1950s. The success of Sharp-shinned Hawks in hunting the songbirds, beloved to many, earned them monikers like “blood thirsty little cutthroat” etc. The vast majority of professional biologists of the era supported destroying all accipiters whenever possible. Only the development of modern predator prey theory and other advances in science has changed these ideas during the last three quarters of a century. We now understand that all predators are critical to maintaining healthy populations of prey species.
Such an appreciation of this fact was lacking during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Along with raptors of all types, these “blue darters”, as hawk shooters called them, were slaughtered at many major migration concentration points. Ornithologists Roger Tory Peterson and Allen Cruickshank, monitoring hawk shoots at Cape May, New Jersey in the late 1930s, were “treated” to an evening meal of roasted Sharp-shin by local gunners. Feeling very guilty both observers reported that the fare was quite tasty. Along the Lake Ontario south shore in spring this unregulated shooting occurred east to at least little Sodus Bay. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier in this series, Derby Hill lacks this bloody past. By the time our lookout was discovered, declining populations from DDT, improved hawk protection laws and changing human attitudes had greatly reduced this destructive activity.
As with all raptors whose diet contained a high percentage of birds and or fish, this species took a major hit from thoughtless use of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides. Sharp-shin populations were noted decreasingly rapidly at established lookouts by the 1950s. Except in migration this small secretive species is very hard to study or monitor. Thus while the evidence was suggestive of a great decline in the species documentation is less than for birds such as Osprey and Bald Eagle. There is little doubt that serious reduction occurred because with the banning of DDT an equally serious rebound began. This is a short-lived high turnover raptor unlike many larger species. Thus as DDT levels declined and contaminated adults were replaced by cleaner individuals, reproductive success skyrocketed. This was reflected by the surge in numbers at coastal hawk watch sites along the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast. From the late 1970s through the 1980s very large flights occurred. Derby Hill Bird Observatory daily and seasonal totals from that period were truly impressive.
But it seems in the natural world change is always under way due to factors we humans rarely detect until they are well developed. Since the early 1990s this species has suffered a clear decline in the numbers of migrants passing major coastal lookouts. This apparent reduction in numbers has also been seen at several Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes sites that witness large Sharpie flights. While Sharp-shinned Hawk is still a common bird this pattern is now a quarter century old and quite worrisome. During the last two years at Derby Hill Bird Observatory weather conditions that would have produced flights in the low thousands three decades ago barely reached four figures on these ideal days. Why? No one knows for sure but theories abound. My personal one is as follows: Sharp-shinned Hawks moving through the northeast include a large number of birds that nest in the boreal forest. These birds have evolved to match their breeding cycle to their primary prey group. Thus they are adapted to preying on migrant Neotropical songbirds. When the male hawk is feeding the female and young in the nest it is a time of peak song in male warblers etc. thus increasing their exposure to the predator. When young of the year are learning to hunt is the time when many young inexperienced songbirds are out and about providing a vulnerable prey base. There is ample evidence of serious reductions in populations of these long distance migrant songbirds. Even though resident songbirds may have ample numbers their breeding season is out of sync with these migrants. Evolution is generally a long-term proposition and it’s very difficult for a predator to adapt to such changes in the short-term.
Whatever the reason, this decline in our regional population of this wonderful little bird of prey, is in my opinion, all too real. The good news, however, is this species is still quite common. Beginning in early March the first few birds, probably nearby wintering individuals, pass the lookout. It appears there are two major waves that pass through the first in late March to mid-April and the second in late April to early May. These flights probably reflect different breeding latitudes for birds involved. While many birds present in these waves are adults, immatures occur throughout the species migration period. First year birds dominate from mid-May until the last trickle ends in June.
So pick a day with a strong southerly wind and bring your optics, but please NO butterfly nets, and come to Derby Hill Bird Observatory. Since some Sharpies stay low even when afternoon flights of soaring species go stratospheric their entertainment value remains. While enjoying the passage of these blue darters give thanks to the fates that today’s observers carry camera and binoculars rather than shotguns.
Part 16 – Northern Harrier
By Gerry Smith
Pete Dunne, longtime director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, once dubbed this species “the great fooler” from an identification perspective. That’s because depending on gender, altitude, angle and other factors a given individual can look like many other raptors. This species should also be called “the great enigma” as its population swings confound those biologists monitoring the species. The late ornithologist France’s Hammerstrom’s book, The Marsh Hawk, the Hawk that is Ruled by a Mouse, explains many of the reasons why this species biology is so complex. A circumpolar species they are the only North American member of the harrier tribe, a group with many more species found in the old world.
Numbers of Northern Harrier passing Derby Hill vary widely from year to year. This species is subject to wide population swings depending on the availability of its favored microtine prey. In years with high prey numbers reproductive success is excellent. If survivorship in winter is high then flights passing Derby Hill Bird Observatory number in the high hundreds. Counts in poor seasons are much lower with fewer immatures noted. This species is a polygamist and it is not unusual to see a gray ghost adult male with one to three females passing the lookout in close proximity. This breeding strategy allows for rapid population expansion when food is abundant.
This species has an extended migration period with birds observed moving from February into June. While as would be expected early migrants are often adults, first year birds may appear at any time of the season. The peak of harrier migration occurs from late March through mid-April and in good years flights of 100 to 150 in a day are possible. Seeing large numbers of the silvery adult males shining in the sun as they skin low at the lookout is a real treat. Usually adult males are rare after early May but immatures often continue well into June. Since the arrival date for southbound Northern Harrier at Cape May is often the first week of July the last northbound bird and first one southbound may wing salute as they pass.
This species is listed as threatened or endangered in many northeastern states. The work of Fred and Fran Hammerstrom and others clearly indicated that harriers were another DDT casualty. In addition however, loss of habitat and modern agricultural practice are a severe problem for this species. Its former name, Marsh Hawk, shows their affinity for wetlands and upland grasslands are their other preferred nesting and hunting habitat. Widespread destruction of wetlands during the last two centuries combined with row crop conversation and intensive mowing regimes, put great pressure on many populations. These and other habitat related factors, such as development of industrial wind energy in upland areas, are only increasing. For these reasons the long-term future well being of this raptor is very uncertain. Monitoring the status of Northern Harrier populations, as previously noted, is very complicated due to their natural population ecology. This is why long-term data from Derby Hill Bird Observatory and other major hawk watch sites is so valuable.
Observing Northern Harrier’s as they course past Derby Hill is a wonderful opportunity to identify the great fooler from all angles. One can study flight behavior of this interesting and complex species. It also gladdens the heart of less experienced hawk watchers when a harrier initially fools the local experts and one can almost hear the bird chuckling “got ya”.
Part 17 – Osprey
By Gerry Smith
The pattern of decline and recovery of this “fish eagle” from the ravages of DDT closely matches that of the Bald Eagle. Osprey recovery began a few years before that of the eagle and has continued unabated ever since the early 1980s. Numbers of migrant Ospreys have generally increasing slowly since then. Except for the unexplained anomaly of the 1979 flight the counts of several hundred per year now appear normal. In addition to migrants moving through our region, breeding locally has increased greatly. From Central New York to the St. Lawrence River the Osprey nesting population has exploded. Where breeding pairs were virtually unknown prior to the mid 1980s they are now common. In areas such as the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and the Thousand Islands Region there is serious competition for prime nesting structures. Utility poles, cell towers and navigation light platforms all attract eager occupants. Osprey is far less wary of humans while nesting than Bald Eagle pairs and often breed in areas heavily trafficked by our species. There is evidence that in some regions population may be reaching the carrying capacity of the environment to support them thus limiting future expansion.
The first Ospreys usually pass over Derby Hill Bird Observatory during the last third of March. Presumably these are birds breeding in Northern New York and very southern Ontario. At that season in most years many lakes on the Canadian Shield are still frozen. Overall this is our latest regular migrant hawk, with peak movements usually occurring in very late April and the first half of May. It is likely that since all are adults, immatures spend their first summer on the wintering grounds, many migrants are heading for waters just opening up for the summer. Some migration continues well into June although these birds may be non-breeding floaters. Ospreys do not generally breed until they are three years old. On the St. Lawrence first time breeders arrive about a month after experienced adults. Their inexperience in constructing nests is very obvious both in materials and engineering ability. One can assume that nests containing old cornstalk and various weeds are the work of first time breeders. Like younger members of many fairly long-lived species, these young pairs are rarely successful the first time out. When they return the following year they are old pros and usually get the logistics of successful reproduction right.
Ospreys can travel great distances over water thus there are many disjunct populations on most continents except Antarctica Our breeders are long-distance migrants to Central and South America. While such birds live in endless summer these great journeys are not without hazards. Hurricanes, tropical diseases and, for such a large conspicuous species, human interactions can be real survival threats. Shooting increases in many regions south of the border. Increasing fish farming in tropical regions may make Ospreys unwelcome visitors. It was not that long ago that shooting was a real problem for Ospreys in North America. Also DDT and its derivatives, manufactured in the north, are still is used in the south. It appears that currently any contamination received on the wintering grounds is below threshold levels that impact reproduction. And, oh yes, the 800 pound gorilla in the room, climate change, could significantly affect the entire world populations in the future.
For the moment, however, the fish hawk is thriving in most parts of its extensive range. A far cry from the dark days of the 1960s, watchers at Derby Hill Bird Observatory can now witness boils of these striking creatures soaring past the lookout. This wonderful increase have led some to suggest.in jest we trust, that they need to be controlled to protect the carp. The great news is that we can enjoy large Osprey flights at Derby Hill Bird Observatory now for current and hopefully for future generations.
Part 18 – Red-tailed Hawk
By Gerry Smith
This species is our most conspicuous and widely distributed large hawk. Most people interested in birds are familiar with them regularly perching along major interstate highways in the region. Seen year round locally this species is assumed by many birders to be resident. Actually birds present from March to October are mostly different individuals from the birds we see during late fall and winter. Our breeding birds migrate south and are largely replaced by individuals from more northern latitudes. While some overlap occurs, especially during migration and a few local breeders may winter this is usually the case. Plumage differences in all age classes permit separation of these groups.
A Red-tail is very often the first migrant hawk to pass Derby Hill each Spring. This species usually dominates any movements that occur before mid-March. Adults make up the vast majority of these early flights and the few immatures present seem a bit out of place. Peak flights occur from mid-March to mid-April often with two bursts about three weeks apart. My impression is that early flights contain more light colored eastern adults while the latter peak is made up of more darker colored boreal forest breeders. Numbers passing the lookout decline rapidly after mid-April with May movements comprised largely of first year birds. Some birds, including the odd adult, are still passing in early June. In most years a small numbers of Red-tails passing the lookout are dark color morph individuals. In addition over the course of Derby Hill history two “Harlan’s” hawk and several “Krider’s” Hawks have been recorded. These are distinctive subspecies that are identifiable in the field and both are rare in eastern North America.
Spring counts at Derby Hill Bird Observatory in this century suggest a decline from those of the 1970s through 1990s. More detailed data analysis would be required to confirm if my perception is real. That said I am personally convinced this species has decreased in our region over the last quarter century. During the New York State breeding bird atlas of 2000-05 one might find one pair in a block that would have had several pair in the 1980s. I personally suspect West Nile Virus as the culprit causing this apparent decline. This is based on its timing of invasion of the state and this species sensitivity to the imported disease. It is now likely affecting this species in its boreal range. Can I prove this theory? Absolutely not! But if this is correct then over time survivors of the disease with resistance will rebuild affected populations. This is where more sophisticated analysis of long-term Derby Hill Bird Observatory data may be very valuable.
Red-tailed Hawk is still a common species and is probably more abundant than it was when all hawks were considered vermin by the two-legged primate with opposable thumbs. They made a tempting target for every farm boy who carried a gun. When the local Cooper’s Hawk dashed in and snatched a chicken it was the obvious Red-tail that paid the price. At the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century many eastern ornithologists considered this to be an uncommon species. As the era of gratuitous hawk shooting waned this species ecology was well suited to the family farm wood lot mixed habitats of the Northeast. Forest fragmentation favors this hawk allowing it to invade areas previously more suited to species such as Red-shouldered Hawk. Also Red-tailed Hawk is primarily a mammal hunter allowing them to resist the impacts of DDT better than other species including Red-shouldered Hawk.
So possibly the flights of this large Buteo that sailed past Derby Hill Bird Observatory from the 1960s through the 1990s represents a period of peak abundance for the species. This perhaps was due to optimal habitat conditions, reduced competition from DDT decimated species and other factors. Only time will tell if apparent decline is real and represents a natural fluctuation or something partly induced by humans. Once again the Derby Hill Bird Observatory data will hopefully prove valuable in monitoring the ups and downs of this still common and easy to study large hawk. Present day watchers at Derby Hill can still enjoy the treat of boils of swirling Red-tails riding southerly breezes overhead as a March sun warms us all. Hopefully this experience will be available for future generations.
Part 19 – Red-shouldered Hawk
By Gerry Smith
Many people, myself included, consider this species to be our most beautiful eastern hawk. When the adult Red-shoulders are migrating over our snow covered lookout in early March they literally glow. Few sights anywhere in the world of hawk migration outshine the adult Red-shoulder migration past Derby Hill Bird Observatory. The majority of adults of this species fly north within a narrow three to four week time window. Observers wishing to enjoy this species gorgeous adults must visit between the ides of March and the end of the first week of April. Since the initiation of the daily hawk watch in 1979, we have learned that species is closely tied to this narrow date range. In this interval ninety percent of their total count, including virtually all adults, move through. They do not wait for warming southerly winds but will move under conditions of light northerly winds and sunny skies. Red-shouldered Hawk is the poster child illustrating the importance of daily census coverage at Derby Hill Bird Observatory.
The evidence from Derby Hill Bird Observatory count data suggests a decline of the population that migrates past Derby Hill. This species range to our north is very similar to that of Cooper’s Hawk extending only 50-100 miles north of Ottawa. Since they are near the northern edge of their range and species at edge of range may be particularly sensitive to disruptions. Red-shouldered Hawk populations, due to their feeding on water-based organisms, were greatly impacted by DDT. While Derby Hill Bird Observatory data has not been analyzed in detail this long-term observer has no doubts that fewer of these birds fly past Derby Hill Bird Observatory than did in the 1980s. In recent years ideal weather conditions have produced flights that would have been much larger thirty years ago. My guess is this species pattern is similar to that of the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Red-shoulders may have recovered from DDT by the early 1980s with either a natural or human induced decline occurring since the late 1990s. All this is pure speculation based on my own experience and interpretation of Derby Hill Bird Observatory data. While none of this is proven I believe there exists enough reason for concern regarding the future well being of this northern population. Information from the core of this species range to our south seems to indicate overall the eastern population of the Red-shouldered Hawk is doing OK.
As noted previously adults migrate primarily in March with the ten percent of the migrants that are first year birds occurring in small numbers throughout the spring until mid -May. These young birds often confuse inexperienced observers who think they are Northern Goshawks. This species is a long- tailed Buteo so such confusion is understandable. There are many times when at certain angles, the proportions of this species with its comparatively narrow wings and long tail, suggest the appearance of a large Accipiter.
Hopefully my concerns about a population decline in our migrant Red-Shouldered Hawk population are unwarranted. Any loss of opportunity to enjoy one of these striking creatures diminishes our lives. Careful monitoring of migrants passing through our region and local breeding birds is clearly warranted. The lives of future generations of watchers on the hill would be cheapened by any reduction in the presence of these lovely creatures.
Part 20 – Rough-legged Hawk
By Gerry Smith
This handsome Arctic buzzard is a lemming specialist on its breeding grounds. Reproductive success and population status are closely tied to the cycles of lemming populations. A circumpolar species, occurring in both the old and new worlds, this bird has both light and dark color morphs . Interestingly dark color morph birds occur only in the North American part of the species range. As with all raptors that are closely tied to lemming cycles this species is irruptive into its winter range. In some years there are many birds present and in others very few.
These variations from year to year are reflected in Derby Hill Bird Observatory counts. In some seasons 150 is the total while in others the count is five to six hundred. The usual ratio of light to dark individuals is three or four to one. Occasionally it is only two to one probably reflecting a preponderance of birds from the far eastern North American Arctic where the dark color morph is more frequent. The northbound flights at Derby Hill usually extend from late-February to mid-May. During large incursions birds have been observed in June and summer records exist for July and August in our region. While some birds are present through the migration period adults usually peak in March and immatures in the last half of April. In contrast to fall hawk watches, where one would never see all four eastern Buteos on a single day that happens regularly at Derby Hill.
South of Derby Hill Bird Observatory Rough-legged Hawk is an uncommon to rare migrant at most hawk watches. Thus visitors from Pennsylvania and south particularly prize views of this species. Derby Hill Bird Observatory and Hawk Ridge, Duluth Minnesota, are probably the best places in eastern North America to observe migrating Rough-legs. Fifty or sixty on good days is not unusual but those numbers in a day would cause apoplexy at most other eastern hawk watch sites. In 1981 an intense late-February warm system resulted in more than 160, primarily adults, passing Derby Hill Bird Observatory in a single day. This record still stands and as Fritz Scheider said, to the small number of people present, “enjoy, you may never see this again” To date no one has.
Rough-leg migration often extends late into the day on good days. A significant proportion of the day’s passage may occur between four PM EDT and nearly sundown. This late day movement is often passing at low levels and thus is a lot of fun to watch. They, Merlin, Northern Harrier, and the occasional Golden Eagle are the hawk species that tend to migrate late in the day. This species and the harrier also regularly occur among the first raptors moving on many days. Unlike species such as Northern Goshawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk and Bald Eagle they do not exhibit any preference for times of day when thermals are strongest.
As with all Arctic species the Rough-legged Hawk faces an uncertain future. While habitat alteration and increasing human extractive activities in its breeding range are potential threats, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is climate change. It is a real question if by the end of the coming half-century if Derby Hill Bird Observatory will still be a place to witness the passage of substantial numbers of this species? Will climate change result in northward shift and reduction of both breeding and wintering areas? If so the observers of the future will be missing out on a real treat. I hope that the two-legged primate with opposable thumbs is smart enough to prevent this loss. Hopefully we will get it right so both humans and Rough-legged Hawks prosper. Thus watchers on the hill would still thrill as these magnificent northern visitors loft on past.
Part 21 – Broad-winged Hawk
By Gerry Smith
THE hawk at most hawk lookouts this species is a long distance migrant to South American forests. This abundant and timing predictable species is the bread and butter bird at most watches in Eastern North America. Breeding largely in forested areas of the eastern and northern North America, Broad-wings spend at least four to five months in transit between these widely separated areas. They are very efficient at soaring and make these epic journeys by limiting the energy needed. There is strong evidence that once these birds pass south of central Texas, until they enter the South American continent, they consume no food and are living off their bodily fat reserves. Examinations of roosts used by tens of thousands in Central America have found no evidence of excreta or pellet remains of prey. It is likely their normal effective soaring techniques are even more efficient in the very strong thermals of the tropics.
Much like the Red-shouldered Hawk, the adults of this species pass through our region in a narrow time window. Most adults migrate during the last half of April and first week of May. Usually first appearing in small numbers between the 10th and 15th of April these scouts are soon followed by large groups. The earliest accepted record at Derby Hill Bird Observatory is six April with reports before then not considered credible. If weather cooperates flights of 5,000-10,000 in a day may occur. The record daily count is 16,000 and change. Adult flights rapidly diminish after 10 May. A second wave of first year birds can occur at the end of May and the first week of June. These birds are often not detected as the official census period ends 31 May and observer coverage may be lacking. Some Broad-wings, including the odd adult, continue drifting north through June.
As a species that is addicted to soaring flight on migration they are very subject to wind drift and may be pushed miles inland from Lake Ontario. The Derby Hill Bird Observatory sampling protocol requires the official observer to remain at the south lookout under such conditions and he (all counters to date have been biological males) usually can only watch the flight drift away. While other observers have followed movements inland, by the time they have drifted a few miles they become hard to locate. The flip side of this problem may be being answered by use of modern technology. We have always wondered why Braddock’s Bay might count three times as many of this specie, on very good flight days, as we do. At Derby Hill Bird Observatory theories such as excessive consumption of spirits or need for an eye doctor have been advanced. Turns out all such suggestions may have been unkind. Thomas Carrolan, using data from NEXRAD radar, appears to have hit on an explanation for this discrepancy. Broad-winged Hawks are considered to be averse to any substantial crossing of large water bodies. Well maybe not under the right conditions. Tom’s work strongly suggests that on moderate to strong southerly winds, considered ideal for creating Broad-winged Hawk flights at Derby Hill Bird Observatory, large numbers of this species are cutting the corner of Lake Ontario. It seems these birds may be jumping off somewhere west of Oswego and coming in along the Jefferson County shore. If so they are too far out to be seen from the north lookout. The much greater width of Lake Ontario near Braddock’s Bay would likely discourage such behavior. If all this correct, and it sure looks good, then we must rethink the realities of Broad-winged Hawk migration at Derby Hill and throughout the eastern Lake Ontario region.
Based on the above and for many other reasons, use of counts from northeastern North America, for monitoring the species population is an exercise in futility. Probably this species is best monitored at Veracruz Mexico and Central American sites. Unfortunately we have little data from any of these concentration areas prior to the 21st century. Thus any ideas of population trends from earlier decades are general speculation. So I will go out on a limb and speculate that the numbers along this flyway are considerably less than they were thirty to forty years ago. Like all speculation this cannot be proven. Intuitively the massive loss of wintering habitat in areas such as Amazonia cannot be good for this species or for resident raptors. Monitoring is now in place at Veracruz and other appropriate locations that hopefully will track trends in ways not possible at Derby Hill Bird Observatory.
For decades this hawk was by far the most abundant species tracked at long standing hawk watches. Now at Derby Hill the exploding Turkey Vulture numbers run neck and neck with the “broadies”. Is this trend also a result of declining numbers of the latter species as well as the exploding population of the former? I haven’t a clue but this still abundant raptor needs enhanced study and monitoring. New thinking, like the radar efforts noted above, will help us gain insights in to the migration ecology of this wind drifted soaring enigma. Hopefully this will allow for better long-term conservation of all migrant raptors. If so then it will be assured that Broad-winged boils at Derby Hill Bird Observatory are not relegated, for future generations, to the status that hordes of Bison and Passenger Pigeon are for us.
Part 22 – Rare Hawks
By Gerry Smith
Rare birds spice up a birders life and unusual hawks passing Derby Hill Bird Observatory are no exception. Six species that are not considered regular migrants have been recorded. They are:
GYRFALCON See Part 12 – Falcons above
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE See Part 8 – Red-letter Day 2 above
SWAINSON’S HAWK – This western buteo is usually seen at least every two to three years. They are long-distance migrants and are usually sighted in association with large flights of Broad-winged Hawk. This species may actually be an annual migrant in small numbers but individuals are easily missed in the crush of high altitude and intense flow Broad-wing movements. The late-March record for this species was of an immature probably originating from the population, of primarily juveniles, that winters in South Florida.
Most records here are in late April into May. Light and dark color morphs have been recorded at Derby Hill but the former is far more frequent. Evidence indicates this species regularly occurs in the spring hawk flights along Lake Ontario. It is likely that observers with hawk watch experience in the west would detect them more regularly. This was the case during the two years the count was conducted by Kyle Wright. It has been suggested Swaison’s Hawk is declining in its native range so future status in the east is uncertain.
BLACK VULTURE – From the first record at Derby Hill in 1974 this species has been increasing decade by decade. While this species is still rare at Derby there is evidence of a slowly increasing pattern throughout the Northeast. In recent years small numbers have occurred in winter, with Turkey Vultures roosting, in the Niagara Gorge. While the overall pattern for this species is erratic in timing and numbers, large flights of hawks during late March is prime time for them to appear. We have records for all three months of the watch. It is likely, as with Turkey Vulture, that birds in March and early April are adults with later records being first year birds. My favorite sighting of this species was of one in the early 1980s. This bird was around for a couple hours going east over the lookout then passing back west then east again all the time looking down and turning its head vigorously from side to side. The observers present found it hard to avoid being a bit anthropomorphic. We could almost hear the bird going” where the heck am I and the ——- what is all that bloody water”. It is likely that our Black Vultures originate from the Ohio Valley population expanding northeast. If this species continues to move northward it may become as regular a sight at Derby Hill Bird Observatory as it now is at many hawk watches to our south and west.
MISSISSIPPI KITE – There are two spring and extraordinarily two late summer records of this species at Derby Hill Bird Observatory. The spring records are both from May in 1990 and 2008. The two eastern kite species, Mississippi and Swallow-tailed, are expanding their ranges north in recent years. It may be that once depressed populations of both species are reclaiming nineteenth century range along major rivers north to the Great Lakes. This species is a very late spring migrant and a very early fall migrant. Most spring records in the Northeast occur in late May and early June. This is when the Derby Hill Bird Observatory hawk watch is shutting down so these birds may be missed. The two extraordinary fall records result from watchers observing at Derby Hill Bird Observatory when late summer dispersal flights of hawks from the south occur. This species is clearly expanding north and its population appears to be increasing so more Derby Hill Bird Observatory records are likely.
SWALLOW-TAILED KITE – There are now three records of this spectacular species at Derby Hill. As the only observer fortunate to have seen all three, see Part 23 – Kite to Kite below, I am now sure that all were first year birds off to see the world. This species is known to wander far afield from its normal range. Swallow-tailed Kite is a master of the soaring art and a long distance migrant in its own right. Broad-wing time during the last two weeks of April is the period when watchers hope one of these exotic critters will grace us with its presence. There is evidence that this species ranged farther north in the nineteenth century than it did in the last century. Perhaps if they are reclaiming lost ground more sightings will occur at Derby Hill. We can only hope.
Part 23 – Kite to Kite
By Gerry Smith
On May 5th 2012 when Bill Purcell yelled “Swallow-tailed Kite”, I looked up from the south lookout parking lot to experience a Derby Hill Déjà vu moment. As this kite lofted at the top of a Broad-winged Hawk boil my mind flashed back thirty-six years to the first of its species that graced Derby Hill on 16 April 1976. In 1976, 16 April was Good Friday and the day began with a heavy fog blanketing the north lookout. In those days there was no daily hawk count and many days lacked any observer coverage. On the 16th a few observers gradually arrived including Dave and Janet Muir and Bill and Larry Holland. Thick fog is unusual along Lake Ontario in spring and it seemed reluctant to lift. Glenn and Betty Perrigo from Rochester arrived then departed for a cup of coffee. As we waited patiently, patience being a great Derby Hill virtue, hoping for an early Broad-winged flight, the fog began to stir with a stiffening but still light southerly wind. A couple of Sharp-shinned Hawk appeared low through the haze giving hope of a flight. In those dark days of the DDT era, with unnaturally low raptor populations, any migration was a treat.
All present were hoping for an eagle, any eagle, as one-two eagles in a day made a successful Derby visit. Little did we suspect the rarity of the day would be far more unusual than any eagle. Soon after the haze had lifted and the wood line to the west became visible a couple more hawks appeared. I remember looking at the first Broad-wing of the day when I heard Bill Holland, age 16 at that point, utter” What kind of swallow is this?”. Bill was a good young birder who undoubtedly knew it was not a swallow but was reluctant, with four adult birders present, to identify the bird. As I swung my binoculars to the southwest they filled with the image of a Swallow-tailed Kite coming directly at us slightly above eye level gradually gaining altitude. Outside of screaming SWALLOW-TAILED KITE! I do not recall what else was said and probably from the standpoint of decorum that is a good thing. The bird lofted and moved slowly to the east over a period of four to five minutes giving us all great looks. It is interesting to note that the 2012 bird also was in view for several minutes. Even though only 2 individuals of this species have passed over Derby Hill Bird Observatory a total of 10-15 minutes of observation time has been possible. The Perrigos missed the bird by three minutes making their coffee extremely costly. For the rest of us Derby’s first Swallow-tailed Kite is a great birding memory. Of the five observers present on 16 April 1976 Larry Holland is no longer with us, but I am sure the other four all remember that first bird fondly. My only current concern is the realization, that if the time interval between Swallow-tailed Kites at Derby Hill Bird Observatory remains 36 years/3 weeks, it may be a real challenge for me to be present for the next one!
Part 24 – Dorothy Crumb and HMANA
By Gerry Smith
The first Hawk Migration Association of North America Conference (HMANA) was held in Syracuse in 1974. Dorothy Crumb was head of the local organizing committee and along with Karen Slotnick, Fritz Scheider and others made this seminal event happen. In her early 50s at the time DW Crumb, was a force of nature organizing the conference. Notable hawk watchers such as Maurice Broun, first curator of Hawk Mountain, and author Mike Harwood, (The view from Hawk Mountain and other books) were present. Scheduled in late April to take advantage of a field trip to Derby Hill on the Sunday of the weekend, this effort brought together the Who’s Who of northeastern raptorphiles. I say northeastern because with the exception of a few sites hawk migration study at that time was largely restricted to the northeastern quarter of the continent.
Dorothy organized the effort like a military campaign down to the smallest detail. This included sending one of the youngest (and therefore most naïve hawk watchers) to the airport to pick up a man with a reputation within the hawk watching community for being very difficult. After this friendly chore (and he did not even tip when the driver was hauling his bags) I think it took some time for me to forgive DWC. The conference; however was a roaring success resulting in the formation of HMANA and the start of its many contributions. Over the last forty years the data base developed has a myriad of information covering much of North America extending to Central America. These data are proving very valuable in our rapidly changing world where raptors as a group are high quality canaries in the coal mine.
The odds on scheduling a field trip to Derby Hill or any other hawk watch, a year out and getting the big flight of the season are not good. The fates were with Dorothy that day as roaring south winds and warmth ahead of a cold front pushed hordes of Broad-wings and other April migrants past the north lookout. I remember Maurice Broun and Harold Axtell, two of the pioneers of North American hawk observing, nearly dancing with delight at the sight. Most of those present observed at their watches in fall so the sight of Rough-legged hawks mixing in Broad –wing boils blew their collective minds. The good flight continued through the next day and to the delight of those of us present, Derby Hill’s first Black Vulture sailed by the lookout.
Except for Karen and I all the other folks mentioned herein are no longer with us. Their legacy from 1974 lives on in HMANA’s current good efforts and the good works of Onondaga Audubon at Derby Hill
Part 25 – Return of the Raven
Apologies to Edgar A Poe but today quoth the raven “nevermore shall I be a stranger in my own land”. Common Raven has now reclaimed its long vacant place in our skies. As a young birder, in the 1960s, this was almost a mythical species to me. Only in the Adirondacks was Common Raven regularly seen. They were unknown at Derby Hill and elsewhere along the Great Lakes plains during those decades. To get my life bird required a visit to the” fabled” birding site at the Big Moose dump. There, in late summer, a Raven family group might be found scavenging amongst the obligate black bears present at this then unregulated human debris depository.
This situation was a far cry from the state of affairs of our largest ” songbird ” when Europeans first arrived in North America; this highly adaptable circumpolar species was wide spread throughout most of the continent. A favorite subject in the lore of the indigenous peoples, Common Ravens were found from forest to mountain ridge and desert plain. The extensive forests of the Northeastern part North America provided ideal habitat for an omnivorous Raven searching for a meal. This species remained widely distributed in our region through the beginning of the 19th century.
As European immigrants expanded westward the fortunes of the Common Raven declined greatly. As the nearly continuous forest was fragmented into ever-smaller pieces, by family farms, this species available habitat decreased. Probably Ravens were as common or more common here than the American Crow at the beginning of that century. Raven populations declined severely for other reasons as well. In the folklore baggage, that accompanied settlers from Northern Europe, this species was portrayed as disreputable. Seen by farmers as a threat to small livestock and crops they were actively persecuted. By the peak of the family farm era, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Raven numbers in our region were a tiny portion of their former abundance. Only in the few remaining extensive forest enclaves did this symbol of wild North America remain common.
Following the Great Depression and extending to the present the amount of forest cover in New York has increased dramatically. Forest occupied about 1/4 of the land base of the state in 1920 and covers over three quarters at present. The extent of forest cover, regardless of the quality, is clearly the crucial factor in the current recovery of this species population. Also environmental education, as with birds of prey, has reduced shooting, trapping and poisoning mortality. Thus our native has begun to prosper in this new, but less familiar, landscape created by our species.
As noted previously, Common Raven was a very rare species away from the Adirondacks until the 1980s. They were listed on the first New York State threatened and endangered list in the late 1970s as there was concern for the species survival in the state. Apparently that’s about the time their recovery began.
We began to seen small numbers passing Derby Hill Bird Observatory during spring migration by the mid 1980s. Often these were birds observed in late April and May, clearly immature non-breeders from an expanding population. As is usual in such populations growth is slow at first then accelerates rapidly until reaching the carrying capacity of the available habitat. Ravens occurrence at Derby Hill Bird Observatory during the last three decades clearly illustrates this population growth pattern. Slow steady growth occurred at the end of the twentieth century followed by explosive expansion in the current century. Where once a single bird along the Lake Ontario shore was an event, flocks of a dozen or more may now occur.
It is now difficult to count migrant Common Ravens at Derby Hill Bird Observatory largely because we now have locally nesting birds. A family group of 4-5 birds is often present for much of the year. The species is now a widespread breeder in the Northeast and may be nearly as abundant as it was prior to 1600 AD. Adaptation to nesting on human structures, ranging from cell towers to abandoned house, is allowing the species to inhabit quite urbanized areas. This once symbol of the wildernesses is now right at home from Long Island to Central and Northern New York. Only in the lake plain country of western New York are they still relatively uncommon. They will no doubt accomplish the reoccupation of that part of the former range in the coming years. We should all cheer the comeback, accomplished without direct human help, of our native Raven. While we watch these wonderful creatures soar and tumble overhead we can be thankful for their long-term resilience in the face of our species outrages against the natural world. They are deserving of our administration as survivors in the Anthropocene era of planet Earth.