Since the listservs have been crackling with reports of migrating birds of prey this past week, I thought it might be fun to check in with Joel Simon. Joel is the watch coordinator and official observer at the Corpus Christi Hawk Watch at Hazel Bazemore Park in Texas as well as an author and frequent speaker about raptors. He wrote a fascinating article about the Corpus Christi Hawk Watch for our October 2008 issue, which is on newsstands now. I asked him how this year's count was going, what birds had been seen so far, and about the effects of Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricane Gustav. His answers follow. --C.H.
In your article, you wrote that the first three weeks of the season, in August and early September, are traditionally "kite time." Has this again been the case so far this year?
Yes. Using last year's total of 20,966 and this year's total of 15,349 through August 28 (Thursday), the percentage of kites to total raptors for August is 99%. The Broad-winged Hawk takes over during September, of course; it accounts for about 94% of that month's flight.
How have this year's early results compared with those from previous years?
Swallow-tailed Kite has already shown a significant increase with 328 against last year's total season of 168. For all of August last year, the total Mississippi Kite count was 20,833 against this year's count of 15,349, but there are still two good weeks left, so it is still too early to tell.
According to your article, you're fast approaching the one-year anniversary of the day on which you saw 12,261 Mississippi Kites (August 31), the most you had ever seen in a single day. What are the chances you'll see as many tomorrow?
If there's one thing I have learned (the hard way), it's never to try to predict the movement of raptors. Already this season, we had single days of 4,712 and 5,166 on August 24 and 25. We are only 4,200 behind last year, and it would only take one good day to catch up.
How is the new platform working out? (See photos of the dedication and ribbon cutting.)
Half the answer is easy, and the other half is a real poser.
For the counters and guests who visit Hazel, the new platform has been great. It is a little higher and definitely picks up the breezes better. And since it gets observers up out of the grass, the mosquitos have been tolerable, and best of all, there are no fire ants! Those things really hurt and can ruin your day. The view is much better, too, and there is no bad spot on the entire platform.
Now the poser: Will moving the site just 150 feet to the north and raising it about 5 feet make a difference in the count? If so, by how much? Consistency is key to a long-term study. In the first month, I can say without hesitation it is easier, but during the past 11 years, all counters worked extra hard to overcome the site's shortcomings.
At present, we have about a five-degree better view to the west. In the past, we had to walk out about 20 feet to get this view. Although we did this consistently, now it is just there all the time. We will have to make a determination of the new platform's effect of the count in our report for this season.
Have any unexpected birds been seen at the hawk watch this year? Any Wood Storks? Are White-tailed Hawks again nesting near the watch site?
Probably the best raptor sighting this season was a white-morph Short-tailed Hawk. The past three seasons, we have had 1-3 sightings. Our resident White-tailed Hawks successfully raised two young this year. They are early nesters, and the juveniles have already fledged by the first of August. They are seen nearly every day. Wood Storks are a common sight at the watch during August. Generally a dozen to up to 50 are seen most days flying back and forth from their roost to feeding sites.
What role did Tropical Storm Fay play on what's been seen? What effect might Gustav have on the count?
Weather has always been the determining factor in the path that raptors take during migration. Fay had little or no effect on our numbers but may have played a part in the timing of their migration. The way Fay entered Florida and moved across their Panhandle, it would have provided a push for any migrating kites.
Back in 2005, the year of Katrina and Rita, hurricanes near the peak of Broad-winged Hawk migration pushed most of the flight to the west of our site. It resulted in our lowest season ever -- only 297,375. The year before was our largest and the only one over a million -- 1,030,849. Weather makes a difference!
What are you planning for this year's Celebration of Flight festival?
This is the 11th year for our peak-of-the-season event, held this year September 25-28. As always, it is open to the public free of charge. There will be live raptor programs, informal talks on site about raptors and hawk migration, early-morning birdwalks... but mostly we watch hawks. They are the true stars. The complete schedule is on our website.