“Do I need a background in science?” she asked. A woman interested in volunteering visited our office last week with this question. She had recently had a mesmerizing experience where she watched raptors soaring overhead and was now looking for a way to get involved with our work.
Among the many ways that you can help HawkWatch International conserve raptors and our shared environment, assisting with research is a fun way to volunteer and it doesn’t require scientific experience.
HawkWatch International, and many other organizations, offer citizen science projects—opportunities for amateur or nonprofessional scientists to help conduct important scientific research.
In fact, much of this research would simply not be conducted without the help of citizen science volunteers. For example, 196 volunteers participated in HawkWatch International’s projects last year. In total, these volunteers provided $103,829 worth of service, helping us to learn more about wintering raptors, Short-eared Owls, American Kestrels, and more.
But it isn’t just the organization that benefits from citizen science. Research has shown that citizen science provides members of the community with a chance to increase their scientific literacy and network with likeminded people, helping to build a more educated and engaged community (Conrad and Hilchey 2011). It also benefits the environment, as citizen scientists help to collect more data and across larger areas than would be possible with the use of professional scientists alone.
Ready to get involved in citizen science? Check out the list below for ways you can get involved in citizen science in your area!
North American Breeding Bird Surveys Experienced birders can help track the trends of North American bird populations by helping to identify birds during breeding season (June for most of the U.S. and Canada). Participants should be able to identify birds based off sound alone.
American Kestrel Project Help monitor American Kestrel nest boxes in your area and contribute to the conservation of North America’s smallest falcon.
USGS Banded Bird Report your sightings of banded birds to the United States Geological Survey to help scientists learn more about the movement, survival, and behavior of birds.
eBird Report your sightings of birds from your phone with the eBird app.
Christmas Bird Count Participate in North America’s largest and longest running citizen science project that focuses on bird sightings in December and January.
1. Conrad, Cathy C., and Krista G. Hilchey. "A Review of Citizen Science and Community-based Environmental Monitoring: Issues and Opportunities." Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 176.1-4 (2010): 273-91.
Have you ever noticed that a Bald Eagle's bill is much larger than a Golden Eagle's? The reason for this is likely quite obvious. Fish, of course, is the main diet of a Bald Eagle, and salmon is a part of that fish diet--a significant part in the Pacific Northwest. If you have ever prepared salmon for dinner, then you know how tough the skin can be. So, imagine how powerful a bill it takes to break the skin of a salmon!
Our friends at Outdoor Project recently launched their 52 Week Adventure Challenge. They have put together a list of 52 geological features and adventure themes to keep you inspired all year. Week 5 is for the birds, and we wrote this blog post to inspire you to get outside this week and do some winter bird watching!
Share your birding photos on Instagram with the #HawkWatch and #52AdventureChallenge for a chance to win some sweet gear from HawkWatch International. Please only submit bird photos taken during this week's challenge. Winner will be selected on February 13, 2017.
Written by Dave Oleyar, Senior Scientist
Most people associate birding with spring and the dawn and dusk choruses that are associated with territory-claims and the nesting season for our feathered friends. While spring and summer are certainly great times for birding, winter birding has plenty to offer as well, especially for those fond of ID challenge and feathered visitors from more northern climates. Microhabitats with little to no snow, or open water, become big draws during winter for birds and other wildlife seeking the resources they need. These are great places to look for birds!
In the lowlands, you can still hear and see resident bird species that forego migration and tough out the winter along with many of us. American Robin, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhees, Varied Thrush, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Pacific Wren are all species you are likely to encounter on winter adventures. In fact, this is the time of year when you might get your best look at some of these species as deciduous foliage isn’t around to hide that little 9g Pacific Wren singing up a storm and wagging his tail in the undergrowth (to me their song conjures the sound of fast-forwarding or rewinding an audio tape or film projector).
In higher elevation you get some heartier species, including Snow Buntings and a variety of corvids (jays, crows, and ravens). These species use their guile, tolerance of humans, and ability to take advantage of the food subsidies we produce (feeders, trash, campground begging, etc) to make a living in a variety of habitats, even during winter.
Winter is also a great time for seeing birds of prey —our favorite! These predators are often elusive and broadly dispersed during the spring and summer, but in winter territorial boundaries relax somewhat as species intermingle in search for their next meal and try to make it through the lean season. It’s not uncommon to see an eagle, hawk, or falcon on almost every tree perch or pole in some open areas during winter. Again, the lack of leaves makes spotting these keen-eyed hunters easier than other times of year.
Another bonus to winter birding is that while our neotropical migrants head south for the cold season, in many places we get visitors from more northern climes. Winter is the only time that many of us get the chance to see the Rough-legged Hawk, an arctic breeding raptor that winters in parts of the U.S. In flight, dark, square-ish wrist-patches and a heavily marked bellyband are identifying features for this species. It is fun to watch them hover hunting for voles over open fields, as often observed. Merlins are small, fierce falcons of open areas and are much more abundant in the lower 48 states during the winter, even in urban areas. Winter is a great time to find trees near water sources that can be loaded with Bald Eagles in many areas around the country, or fields filled with Snow Geese or Tundra Swans. Finally, the lucky and diligent winter birder could come across a Snowy Owl or Great Gray Owl roosting or even hunting during the daytime.
All you need to do is go out and look around during the winter to enjoy birds, but some gear does help—binoculars, a spotting scope, or a good camera lens will give you better looks of majestic winter scenery and birds. In fact, light reflecting off snow-covered ground can provide unique lighting opportunities for those into photographing both birds in flight and landscapes. Just remember to be an ethical photographer or wildlife watcher—do so from afar and don’t ‘bump’ or cause animals to move because you want a better look or shot—moving costs energy, and energy can be hard to come by during this time of the year.
by Dave Oleyar, HawkWatch International Senior Scientist
As cold temperatures finally begin to arrive, I’m entering data and thinking back to this summer and the inaugural season of our Forest Owl Study in partnership with the Earthwatch Institute, and long-time collaborator and friend, Markus Mika, of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. Our goals are document and better understand how populations of small owl species are influenced by climate change and by forest type in western North America. By ‘small owl’ we are talking about species such as the 38 gram Elf Owl, the 60 gram Flammulated Owl, the 68 gram Northern Pygmy-owl, the 80 gram Whiskered Screech-owl, the 110 gram Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the ‘hulking’ Western Screech-owl that weighs in at 200+ grams in some locations. All of these owls, and many other species of wildlife, use tree hollows for both roosting and nesting. Processes like windstorms, decay, fire and excavator-species including many woodpeckers create these tree hollows, or cavities. If we want to understand how secondary cavity nesters including small owls respond to forest type and to climate change, we need a better understanding of how cavity availability and the dynamics of the ‘cavity population’ vary in response to these things as well.
To these ends, 56 citizen scientists ranging in age from 17 to 83 years young joined us on seven different Earthwatch expeditions from May-July this past summer. Among this group were 20 amazing high school students from the Los Angeles area, who spent 2 weeks with us. Our two study areas encompass a variety of forest types, elevations, latitudes, and owl communities. In northern Utah we work in the majestic Wasatch mountains where we encounter a diversity of birds and three species of tiny forest owls in beautiful groves of Aspen and mixed-conifer forest. Other wildlife encountered include bobcats, deer, elk, beaver, flying squirrels, and moose. In southeast Arizona we work in the amazing Chiricahua mountains, a bonafide birder’s paradise, where the extent of southern ranges for many North American species overlap with the northern range boundaries for many central American species creating a biodiversity hotspot for insects, mammals, reptiles, bats, and birds-- including six small owl species!
During each expedition we searched for and mapped cavities; surveyed for, trapped, and banded adult owls; monitored owl nests found in cavities and nestboxes; and measured vegetation around cavities. We’ll do this each year going forward to get an estimate of productivity for each species in the different forest types they use, to see how frequently the same individuals are encountered over the years, and to document how the timing of these events is shifting in response to climate change. We’ll take a similar approach to tree cavities in reference study plots---what are rates of cavity loss and gain over time, how do cavity characteristics change over time, and does forest type matter?
This first season was a resounding success—we gathered more cavity and owl data than expected. More notably I was overwhelmed by the energy, dedication, and eagerness to work and learn that every volunteer brought to the project. To see the wonder in faces of all ages when we successfully caught, banded, and sent a Whiskered Screech-owl or Flammulated Owl back into the night; to see young adults (and not-so-young-ones too...) pushed beyond their comfort zones and grow as they gain an appreciation for wild places and the creatures they contain; and to hear multiple times from the backseats of our vehicles “Stop! There’s a nice hole in that tree- we should check it out!” gives me great joy and hope that these efforts will have a conservation impact not only because of the data we gather, but because of the information and awareness that our participants take back home. Something to be thankful for and a small, yet reassuring thing during these uncertain times.
If you are interested in taking part in this work or giving a loved one an amazing experience, Earthwatch is booking expeditions for 2017 and 2018. Click the logo below for details and registration.
Text and photos by Brigid Berger, Texas Master Naturalist, Mid-Coast Chapter
As the kids got back on the bus to head home, I asked them to name a bird they had seen today. While not all of them were completely accurate in their identification skills, they were certainly all exceptionally enthusiastic. The 16 students, ranging from 1st to 8th grade, spent the day at Corpus Christi HawkWatch site in the Hazel Bazemore County Park experiencing their first Hawk Watch. Our birding program at Austwell-Tivoli ISD helps the school provide a challenging learning experience for these students who’s tests scores have deemed them to be gifted and talented. Since for many of them this was their first birding experience it required them to use skills they have never used before.
After outfitting them with binoculars, Dane Ferrell, site leader for the Corpus Christi HawkWatch talked with the kids about raptors and migration. The students were engrossed and hung on his every word being interrupted only when raptors were spotted. The kids jumped to their feet with eagerness and honed their binocular skills. Soaring high in the sky and not always easy to find, the students not only learned to spot birds but also how to look closely at detail and the language of birding. Hearing the description of the birds features and behaviors as well as the details of where to find the bird in the sky are lessons learned through novice-expert interaction in the field.
The native plants and drip basin attracted other birds and a horde of butterflies for the students to take in from the lower platform blind and hummingbirds allowed close observation while feeding at the strategically placed feeders. Before heading back to Tivoli, the students birded the ponds in the park’s low lands and observed several more species.
They were so pleased with the day that they made a special trip back to the platform to thank Mr. Ferrell, Mr. Matt Mills, Mr. Kevin George and Mr. Glenn Gomez for showing the them such a fun and informative day at the HawkWatch. Even if they don’t get all the names of the birds correct, they now know to look high in the sky each fall for the migrating raptors, to scan ponds for waterfowl & shorebirds and to provide feeders and native plants to support birds and butterflies. We hope that by bringing them outside to experience the natural world that we are planting the seed of love for the environment in them which will grow as they do because as Jacques Cousteau taught us, "People protect what they love."
It’s a bit hard to believe, but we have less than a week of raptor counting left at the Grand Canyon HawkWatch! As the season winds down, we are not seeing as many hawks as we did a few weeks ago. Our two biggest days this past week each had 45 raptors, a far cry from the 366 raptor day we had a month ago on September 30. In fact, we actually had more visitors to the site than raptors this past week, with 211 raptors and 288 visitors.
Despite the reduced volume of birds, we’ve still had some good sightings. We watched a beautiful adult Bald Eagle soar over our heads after flying by a mule train descending the South Kaibab Trail. The mule riders below us exclaimed excitedly when they noticed the eagle. Unfortunately, that was the only eagle of any species observed since last week’s blog post. We saw four Ferruginous Hawks at Yaki Point this past week, putting our count at nine for the season, passing the historical seasonal average of seven. Not one but two of those Ferruginous Hawks were rare dark morphs. We matched the season record for migrating Peregrine Falcons this week with a current season total of 19, a record previously set in 2007. That makes three raptor species this season with record counts, the others being Prairie Falcons (see blog post from October 24) and Northern Harriers. Speaking of Northern Harriers, our harrier count keeps climbing! We’re at 67 harriers as of Sunday, October 30, up from 63 last week and high above the historical season record of 56.
In non-raptor news, we had another close encounter with a desert bighorn ram. The encounter was so close, in fact, that the ram nearly walked into one of the counters as he walked up the trail from the count site! Some interesting non-raptor migrants delighted the bird-loving crew, including Horned Larks and Evening Grosbeaks. We hope for more interesting birds, raptors and otherwise, to close out the season during our final week!
Thanks to all who visited the site this season, followed our blog adventures, and everyone else who put their eyes to the skies. We will see you next season!
After a week of thick fog, snow, and blustery wind with the threat of more to come, we sat on the rock for the last time this season. Migration definitely slowed to a trickle up at Chelan Ridge HawkWatch, but we were blessed with spectacular views of some of our favorite birds one last time. Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Merlin, Osprey… and as the evening sun illuminated the valley beneath us we counted our last bird. Old reliable – one more Sharp-shinned Hawk zipped by us for a farewell as it headed south, totaling 1,374 birds counted.
The past two weeks have been an amazing whirlwind of counting, trapping, enjoying visitors, and surviving some crazy weather – the perfect end to a season. We had our annual Hawktoberfest celebration up on the mountain. Alumni, friends, and partners joined us for a great evening of celebration, story sharing, and silly costumes. The next day a great group of North Central WA Audubon society members joined us for some spectacular hawk encounters. Our first blanket of snow covered us that night, and ever since we have slowly been preparing for our last days. We couldn’t end without finally catching our first Rough-legged Hawk and one more Golden Eagle, though!
The 2016 fall season on Chelan Ridge has been more than I could have imagined. From the first sharpie I counted, held, and put in the hands of another, to the last that flew by us a couple evenings ago, every moment has changed my life. Even when days were long and cold, we all (the crew) have loved this season, and we hope that we have inspired and changed the lives of others. We all want to say a huge thank you to everyone that made this season possible for us – our amazing local Forest Service partners Janet Millard, Kent Woodruff, and the hardworking smoke jumpers, our SLC HawkWatch team, the Chelan Ridge alumni, and all our visitors and supporters. It was a great one to remember, and we couldn’t have done it without you all!
We are now just two weeks away from count’s end here at Yaki Point HawkWatch, and our daily counts reflect the late season. Our week started out surprisingly big, though, with a late push of straggling migrants; three days over 80, and one even above 150, gave us the boost we needed to blow past the season average for this site. However, the number of raptors migrating dropped precipitously afterwards, taking species diversity with it.
Despite the expected decline in numbers, we saw some great birds this week. Three close-flying Northern Goshawks more than doubled our count for this species, from two to five. Our Merlin peak continued into the first two days of the week, bringing our season total of this uncommon falcon to a whopping 19—only three birds shy of the record 22. We also had two late Prairie Falcons, leap-frogging over the record high of nine, to ten, for this even less common falcon! Peregrine Falcons seem to have stagnated at 17, still well above the average of 11, but overall we seem to be having an incredible year for our low-count falcon species.
On a more somber note, the American Kestrel has been absent from our count for four days in a row, and our season total is still almost 200 birds below the season average of 684, a 29% decrease compared to the average and a 16% decrease from last year’s season total, which was already below average.
In happier news, the eagles have arrived! Our first Golden Eagle flew past observation on Monday, starting off a great week during which we had one eagle almost every day, and even two Bald Eagles on Sunday!
These massive birds are always exciting to spot, even at great distances! Although our totals of 3 Golden and 6 Bald are still well below their respective averages of 7 and 18, we hope to see this trend continue through the end of the count!
Well, there are only a couple of weeks left in the season and the Commissary Ridge HawkWatch crew still hasn't submitted a blog post. Fortunately, this is easy enough to fix. We've had a pretty good count so far. We have had above-average counts on most of the species we count, and for the amount of birds in general. We've seen Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles fighting in the skies, Bald Eagles and Ravens feasting on a deer carcass, a dark morph Broad-winged Hawk, several adult male Northern Harriers, and more. So it's been a great season, and I'm personally a bit sad that it's winding down.
The crew at Commissary is pretty varied in a few ways. We come from all over the country, have different interests outside of birds, and have different backgrounds.
Will Britton is from Arkansas and graduated from a private school in his hometown with a biology degree a couple of years ago. He's worked at a hawkwatch in Belize and has done some wetlands survey work in Missouri. Will is an avid birder and an ardent fan of the Denver Broncos, the Arkansas Razorbacks, and the Texas Rangers.
Frank Simeone is from New Jersey and graduated from Humboldt State University last December. He's worked quite a bit as a professional cook, but from what I gather this is his first biology job outside of some very in-depth coursework. Frank used to play in a metal band and is an extremely dedicated skier.
Dan Green is from western Washington and graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in wildlife biology last December. He's done lab work in bioacoustics with chickadee alarm calls and field work on a behavioral ecology study in China. Dan enjoys running, weightlifting, and playing with toy soldiers when he isn't on a field job.
It's not too late to visit this season and experience migration. We hope you'll join us!
What a whirlwind of three weeks it’s been at the Bonney Butte HawkWatch! Since we last blogged, Jerry Ligouri along with fellow HawkWatch International staff and veterans visited the site on one of busiest weekends yet. With all the extra eyes in the sky, we spotted a total of 355 migratory birds on Saturday, September 24th and 219 migratory birds on the 25th. Also our first of three Northern Harriers was captured for the season on this bright sunny weekend – an immature male with a beautiful pumpkin plumage! Homemade tacos by the SLC HWI staff and fun chats around the fire made this weekend a memorable one.
Since the SLC staff has left us, we’ve had our busiest day of the season on October 8th with 384 migratory birds and a total of 32 captured birds in a single day! A highlight of that day was the rare gray ghost (adult male Northern Harrier) that was captured by our expert crew members. What an exquisite bird to see up close! With its piercing yellow eyes and owl-like facial disk, the gray ghost is one of the most exciting birds we’re going to catch this season. Competing for first place in the captures though is an adult male Northern Goshawk. As the fiercest and largest species of North American accipiters, this adult 'Gos' was one fascinating bird! The juxtaposition of his bold white “eyebrow” over his reddish eyes accentuated his beauty.
Sharp-shinned Hawks continue to be the most prevalent in the sky. Sharpies broke the 1,000th mark on the 12th with a count of 1,005 migrating past us thus far. Recently, there’s been a near continuous flow of eagles with 75 migratory Bald Eagles and 54 Golden Eagles. A few have graciously soared right past the ridge to allow an up close look!
The current totals for the season are, 2,675 migrating birds and 180 captures. With two more weeks to go, hopefully the numbers will continue to rise!