A question that I have heard many times in the past made me think about doing a post on counting hawks. The question is: how many birds do you think you miss? It is an interesting question. Of course, people are curious to know how many hawks the hawk counter thinks they actually see on any given day vs. how many they think go by undetected. Well, I guess the real answer (and it sounds sarcastic but isn't meant to be) is: if you could know how many you missed or what % you missed, there would be no need to do a count. But, the actual answer changes from day to day due to many factors. On certain days when the birds are high against a blue sky, certainly more birds are missed than on days where they are lower, or when there is cloud cover. I've heard clouds referred to as a hawk watcher's "happy little helpers," and they really do aid in making birds more visible and the sky easy on the eyes. No matter what, birds will always be missed, even on perfect conditions for spotting birds, including days when most birds are close-up or "naked eye." Even though birds will get lost against a camouflaged background along a ridge, or stay below a tree line at any given site, individual bias is a more significant factor regarding how many hawks a person sees. Everybody has their own way of doing things, and skill level when it comes to finding and identifying birds. Regardless, the most important thing about watching hawks is having fun and educating people about birds!
There are many factors involved in counting hawks from day to day or from site to site, and it would require a book to cover all these aspects, so I just thought a few hints would be fun to read. I think scanning technique is the most important aspect of finding and counting hawks (image #1). The most efficient way to scan is to start directly to your left (or right of forward) and scan slowly up, over one field of view, and slowly down, repeating this until you have reached straight ahead. Do the same for the opposite side, and when completed, scan straight overhead (naked eye with clouds, using binoculars without clouds) working towards the horizon. Then start the process over again. Scanning towards the direction the birds are coming from makes it easy to keep track of what you see and catch birds as they approach. It is necessary to scan VERY slowly in a blue sky. If you scan too quickly (especially with a blue sky and high birds), you will pass over most of the birds. It takes patience to scan very slowly, but you will be surprised at how many birds you see as a result. I use binoculars with the widest field of view available (Zeiss 7x - image #2) because it helps me spot birds, but that is a personal preference. I prefer not to use a scope when counting, but scopes are an excellent addition to binoculars for birders in general, especially on cloudy days when there are references to point to in the sky. On blue sky days it is more difficult to find birds with a scope. If a bird is too far away to identify, I'd rather leave it unidentified than spend time staring at it through a scope as other birds pass by unknowingly.
It is more efficient to count birds as they pass by or move along a certain flight line than to stare at "specks" on the horizon. Watching specks for long periods is a sure way to miss closer birds or overhead passerbys. It's easy to get caught up in the fun of trying to put a name to a speck, but it can be quite distracting. On days with a blue sky, it is sometimes helpful to cover the sun with your hand and look naked eye around the ring of the sun. It is easy to pick up birds this way as opposed to staring into the deep blue part of the sky. But, some days hawks cover the entire sky, such as on a day with a massive Broad-winged Hawk flight. Have you ever wondered how hawk watchers count large kettles of hawks (i.e. Broad-winged Hawks - image #3)? It can be a difficult task, of course, but there is a method to counting large kettles. It can be utterly confusing and impossible to try and accurately count a large group of birds spinning and whirling together in the sky. So, hawk watchers wait until the birds break from the kettle and begin to glide in uniform to count, moving from kettle to kettle as they stream and glide past.
This post is just a snippet of what was on my mind, and I'd love to hear some thoughts or tips from others! Also, I am going to lead hawk ID workshops/field trips (image #4) for HawkWatch this fall and I would love for people to sign up, so keep checking the calendar for event/workshop updates! Also, sign-up for their monthly email (top right of page) for event listings.