Meditations: migrants look different in flight... birds with a purpose. They don’t hang around

Kristen Lindquist: On watching hawks

Sat, 04/27/2013 - 8:15am

As I drove down the coast from Camden to Pownal, I finally had to shut off the radio. Boston was in full lock-down mode as police tracked down the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect, a profoundly surreal and disturbing situation. Radio reporters offered up endless speculation about the suspects and recounted the week’s horrors over and over. It was too much.

A thick fog shrouded the landscape, adding to the disorienting quality of the drive. Not till Brunswick did a hint of brightness start to burn through the clouds. There was hope. I was headed for the Spring Hawk Watch atop Bradbury Mountain in Bradbury Mountain State Park, an activity for which visibility is key. I was hoping that up on that rocky knoll, I could regain some perspective on the world.

The Bradbury Mountain Hawk Watch was initiated in 2007 by Derek and Jeannette Lovitch, birders, biologists, and owners of Freeport Wild Bird Supply. They wanted to put some numbers to the northbound hawk migration, which they felt, based on anecdotal evidence and personal observation, could be significant and noteworthy. To get the data they wanted, they hired an official hawk counter for a two-month stint, from March 15 to May 15, every day in almost all weather. The first two years the hawk watch was supported out of their own pockets; Nikon Sport Optics have sponsored it for the past four years. Site host Bradbury Mountain State Park allowed them to establish a daily hawk watching “station” on the summit so they could share their observations with the public.

At 485 feet, Bradbury Mountain is lower in elevation than Mount Battie in Camden Hills State Park, but the exposed, south-facing summit offers a perfect vantage point from which to observe birds migrating northward up the coastal plain. Lingering fog hovered on the horizon through the morning, obscuring the surrounding topography. But slowly, surely, birds began to emerge from the clouds into patches of sunlit sky: a kestrel, some Ospreys, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, then a few Broad-winged Hawks....

Spending a day at a hawk watch is a bit like immersing oneself in a foreign language. At first, I struggled to even find the black specks on the horizon. On a previous visit, on Easter Sunday, I’d been given an orientation to the landmarks the observers use to help each other get on a bird, from the Brunswick communication tower on the far left of the visible horizon, to various other cell and water towers, church steeples, islands, ridgelines, jutting stacks of the Cousins Island power plant, the distant city of Portland, and in the foreground, “downtown” Pownal, and closer still, the jutting branch of a pine referred to as “the pine arm” and a west-facing opening in the trees called “the gap.” I had the lay of the land. But even so, trying to find, let alone identify, a bird “flying right to left over the South Freeport water tower, just above the horizon” many miles distant was an initial challenge.

Once I began to actually see the birds being pointed out with patience and care by Derek and this year’s official hawk counter, Katrina Fenton, it took me the rest of the day to begin to grasp the visual language of hawks in flight. The first step—the ABCs, as it were—was learning to distinguish accipiters from buteos. Accipters, which include Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks and Northern Goshawk, have longer tails and generally shorter, rounded wings, well-adapted for chasing prey through the woods. Buteos, which include Red-tailed, Broad-winged, and Red-shouldered Hawks, have shorter tails and broader wings with wingtips splayed like fingers. And then there are falcons—American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon—streamlined birds with slim, pointed wings built to fly fast. Other migrant raptors might include Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, or Osprey. Rarities seen over the past five years include Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, and Swallow-tailed Kite. And that’s just the hawks. Non-raptor migrants, such as Double-crested Cormorant, which returns north in V’s of multiple birds, and the occasional Sandhill Crane, are also noted.

Such continual, engrossing observation took me completely out of my head for those hours I stood on the mountaintop. A harrier glided by overhead, and I watched it until I lost it in the fog still clinging to the horizon. I silently wished it a safe flight to its nesting grounds. Perhaps I’d see it hovering over the fields of Beech Hill one day soon. Small kettles of Broad-wings—four, five at a time, came circling past in swirls. Often the Broad-wings would be accompanied by Sharpies or Red-tails, which made it easier to learn how to distinguish one from the other. Shape, size, and how the bird flies are all important in figuring out what you’re looking at: a small hawk with a long tail alternately flapping and then gliding is probably an accipiter; a small hawk in direct flight, with a narrower tail, sharply pointed wings, and vigorous wing beats is most likely a falcon.

While I ate a warm, homemade donut from Edna & Lucy’s in Pownal, a stream of kestrels flew past one at a time, some low enough that I could look down on their red backs and tails. The combination of an amazing donut and seeing so many of one of my favorite birds lifted my mood even higher. A migrant Osprey flew by carrying a fish, “packing a lunch” in hawk watch lingo. Derek said that an Osprey will carry a fish for miles until it decides to take time out from its northbound flight to enjoy a meal. A cluster of nine Turkey Vultures circled low over the summit ledges. Hordes of children and their overseers swarmed around us, admiring the view, hardly noticing the large, dark birds. One boy, however, asked me if a vulture would land near him if he played dead by lying on the ground with his shirt off. He seemed disappointed when I explained that the vulture had such a good sense of smell, it would be able to tell he wasn’t really dead.

A main component of the hawk watch is outreach, trying to interest park visitors in the amazing natural phenomenon of migration taking place over their own heads. For that purpose, the tally of Maine’s 15 raptor species, updated each hour, is displayed on a dry-erase board. Most people have no idea there are that many raptors in Maine. But even without the benefit of binoculars, visitors appreciated the thrill of so many migrating hawks passing overhead. One group especially enjoyed an obliging eagle that sailed past at eye-level, sunlight shining on its white head and tail, a poster child for post-bombing patriotism.

Consistently, the most common question people asked was, “How do you know you aren’t counting the same bird twice?”

A good question. After spending some time watching the hawks, I could see for myself that migrants look different in flight. They’re birds with a purpose. They don’t hang around. They’re moving through, south to north, and they aren’t coming back. A local bird, however, might fly north to south, or repeatedly appear in the same place, perhaps even chasing other birds to defend the airspace over its breeding territory. Turkey Vultures, for example, aren’t usually counted after April 15 because by then the bulk of them have moved through, and any seen after that point are much more likely to be on a food run than migrating.

The watch grew hectic as more and more birds flew past, coming from all directions. Katrina used a hand-held clicker to keep track of Broad-wings, easily the most numerous bird of the day. By day’s end, she tallied 128 of them, followed closely by 104 Sharpies and 98 kestrels. Impossible as it was, I found myself wanting to follow each of them on its arc over the mountain and beyond, but I couldn’t keep track of them all. Eventually I stopped trying and just enjoyed the numbers, picking one passing bird at a time to focus on and try to identify on my own. Later I learned this had been one of the best days so far this season, with a total of 401 birds counted.

By the time I left in late afternoon, I felt I’d gotten what I came for: restored peace of mind and an improved knowledge of hawks in flight. And for the rest of the day I caught myself looking hopefully to the sky, wondering what was going to appear next over the horizon.


For more information about the Bradbury Mountain Hawk Watch, sponsored by Nikon Sport Optics and Freeport Wild Bird Supply, and hosted by Bradbury Mountain State Park, please visit The Spring Hawk Watch continues daily through May 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. All are welcome.


Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who works for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in her hometown of Camden.


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