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Nature Watch: Hawks are soaring in springtime ritual

Encouraged by the number of readers who followed my recommendation and were able to watch the short-eared owls and harriers along Posson Road in Shelby, I offer in this column a similar recommendation.

Pick a pleasant, rain-free day in April or May with winds of 10 to 15 miles per hour out of the south or southwest and head for the Hamburg Hawk Watch site. Days following bad weather and the passage of a cold front can be especially good; the front may have blocked the raptors’ northward migration, effectively damming up a crowd of birds.

Happily, hawk watching is one kind of birding that does not require you to get up at dawn. Flights increase from about 10 a.m. This hawk watch is at Lakeside Memorial Park, about 10 miles southwest of Buffalo on Camp Road in Hamburg. It is between Lake Erie and the Hamburg Thruway Exit 57. The watch is normally conducted halfway between the entrance on the west side of Camp Road and the woods.

When you turn onto the cemetery road, you’ll see cars parked with watchers scanning the skies. You will find there an official counter, a volunteer who will be recording the number of birds. Jim Landau is overall site manager. Tim Baird, Bruce Chilton, Bill Watson and Mike Zebehazy are among the other expert counters who take responsibility for individual days. You will find these hawk-spotters very accommodating, willing to point out individual species and offering identification suggestions.

It is important to realize, however, that their main responsibility is to compile accurate information that is gathered at this and more than 300 similar sites across North and Central America; New York State alone has 24 such sites. Others near Buffalo are in Ripley, at Braddock Bay near Rochester and on the Niagara Escarpment near Grimsby, Ont.

What should you expect to see? Consider Scott Meier’s and my hour at the site one afternoon in early April. Already there were Landau and Lewis Crowell. Just as we arrived a spiral (called by birders a kettle) of a dozen turkey vultures drifted slowly over us. More of these vultures, so common they are referred to as TVs, followed together with many red-tailed hawks and individual red-shouldered and rough-legged hawks. We also saw two kestrels, several sharp-shinned hawks and a single Cooper’s hawk. Landau saw a far-off osprey neither Scott nor I could pick out.

Landau also told us about seeing two majestic bald eagles earlier in the day. Land birds were moving as well; he had seen two meadowlarks and a group of bluebirds. We all could hear a nearby killdeer calling.

Sixteen raptor species are recorded at Hamburg most years. The commonest by far are those turkey vultures. The population of these scavengers has increased markedly over the past 20 years, and more than 10,000 now pass this site annually. On just one day, April 1, 2010, 3,164 were counted.

Their migration begins in late February and lasts until early June. Unattractive close up with their bare red heads, they are majestic fliers easily identified by the way they carry their wings in flight.

At the opposite extreme are species like black vulture and golden eagle, which are rarely reported but are now appearing once or twice almost every year. On May 2, 2012, a swallow-tailed kite was recorded, a first for the 30-plus years this count has been monitored – in the early years by birders like Bob Andrle, Harold Axtell, Roberta MacDonald and Fran Rew.

You can gain more information about the Hamburg Hawk Watch at the Hawk Migration Association of North America website, This site also provides data from hundreds of other sites across North America. One of its interesting features is a “Migration Timing” graphic displaying when the numbers of different species peak. For example, red-shouldered hawk numbers peak in late March and early April, declining significantly from there, whereas broad-winged hawks rarely appear until late April, when their daily counts are second only to those of turkey vultures. On April 26, 2011, the maximum count of 2,421 broad-wings was recorded.

You should find witnessing this annual springtime rite a rewarding experience.