Keeping eyes on the sky in Corpus Christi.
By Rob McCorkle
First-time visitors to the Hawk Watch Platform at Corpus Christi’s Hazel Bazemore Park during fall migration will have a tough time diverting their attention from the controlled chaos swirling around them to glance toward the winged action unfolding above.
On a chilly morning last Oct. 8, I watched a handful of observers scurry about, pausing at the railings to point binoculars toward the heavens. Several sat in folding chairs, scanning overhead, while others stood sentinel at strategically placed spotting scopes aimed at different parts of the sky. Most clutched hand-held counters, clicking away as they spotted migrating hawks, turkey vultures, kites and other raptors.
Occasionally, an observer slipped over to a metal table to record on a spreadsheet their numbers, the different species seen, the altitude at which the birds were flying and a plethora of weather-related data required by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.
“I’ve got something over the water works,” one calls out, swinging binoculars to the east.
“There’s a little kettle of accipiters here now,” another one says. “Who’s counting those?”
“That’s what Bob’s on,” comes the answer.
“Celia, do you have that kettle in the east?” asks lead observer Dane Ferrell. “Your kettle is back to the left of the wind turbines.”
And so it went throughout the overcast fall day at the most active hawk-watch platform in North America. By the end of a nine-hour day, the observers — a few, such as Spain’s Celia Benitez, sponsored by HawkWatch International, and the rest volunteers — tallied more than 25,000 raptors from the hillside platform overlooking coastal prairie 18 miles west of downtown.
The Hawk Watch Platform at a county park in Corpus Christi is the most active raptor-counting spot in the nation.
Corpus Christi Hawkwatch sits atop the nation’s more than 200 hawk-watch organizations in the United States when it comes to raptor-counting sites. During its 16-year existence, it has racked up a mind-boggling tally of more than 10 million raptors, averaging more than 700,000 a year. And, during one remarkable season, Corpus observers logged more than a million raptors.
In such an esoteric, exacting avocation, weather (especially the speed and direction of the wind) drives the daily count by pushing some raptors over the viewing stand and others eastward toward the coast. Thermals — those swirling columns of heated air that allow raptors to climb upward and soar effortlessly — play a major role, too. Propelled by the favorable air currents, soaring birds often travel 25 to 200 miles in an eight-hour day.
Last year, observers lamented a down year in the count, with a much lower broad-winged hawk count due to strong west winds that pushed many of the plentiful raptors to the coast several miles away. Nonetheless, of the 23 species recorded, broad-winged hawks dominated the tally that as of Oct. 4 stood at 281,271. But sometimes even a low count of infrequently seen raptors, such as swallow-tailed kites, is cause for celebration. The Corpus Christi group went on to chalk up a total of 390,051 raptors by the Nov. 16 season’s end.
Joel Simon is generally recognized as the godfather of the local hawk-watch organization. He worked for 11 years to solicit donations and garner the support of the Nueces County Parks and Recreation Department to erect the Hawk Watch Platform.
So why do a hawk watch?
“My analogy,” says Simon, “is that migratory raptors are the ‘canary in the gold mine’ because they provide insight into our nation’s environmental health.”
The longtime birder explains that raptors live in a wide range of habitats encompassing all of North and South America’s ecosystems — from the plains and forests to mountains and water. Because hawks and other raptors feed at the top of the food chain and are sensitive to environmental contamination and human disturbance, they serve as an indicator species of ecosystem health.
“When it was first hypothesized decades ago that DDT was responsible for killing bald eagles and other birds in large numbers, lawmakers asked for proof,” Simon says. “Hawk watches proved scientifically that bald eagles were in a rapid decline, peregrine falcons were almost gone, and ospreys were going down the tubes. Not long after the chemical was banned in the 1970s, peregrines were moved off the endangered list, and bald eagles have just been taken off. Brown pelicans that were affected are now thriving.”
Those once-endangered species have been replaced today, according to Simon, by several raptor species of concern, the tiny kestrel leading the pack. He believes long-term collection of scientific data related to kestrels by the widespread HawkWatch International network will one day provide a solution to their decline.
Local hawk-watch captain Ferrell, whose love affair with the big birds began in his early years, concurs.
“If raptors are doing well, the ecosystem is fine,” he says. “If they aren’t doing well, there’s a major flaw somewhere that needs attention.”
Just as I was driving away, Simon rapped on the side of my truck, motioned for me to step outside the cab and handed me his binoculars.
Overhead I saw a swirl of dark dots moving south high overhead – spread out for miles like a necklace of black pearls strung across a gossamer sky. It was a super-kettle of thousands of turkey vultures and Swainson’s and Cooper’s hawks, providing a National Geographic moment in the Texas Coastal Bend.
Note: A skilled birder is on hand at the Hawk Watch Platform every day from Aug. 15 through Nov. 15. In addition, the public is invited to the park’s annual Celebration of Flight, featuring raptor programs and more, Sept. 27–29.