Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch

 
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2012 MIGRATION SUMMARY

 

by John Stevens

 

At its most recent meeting the Ontario Bird Records Committee decided that they would not review any post-2011 reports of Black Vulture sightings in southern Ontario.  This decision was taken on April 1st, no fooling, by which time two had been seen at Beamer, passing the watch together on March 22nd.  By the end of the season, four more had been sighted although only three appear on the counts as one of the two birds seen on April 12th headed back east.  The count of five birds for the season, in comparison with the total from the previous 36 years of seven birds, clearly indicates the acumen of the committee’s decision that Black Vultures have arrived.  They become the sixteenth species that we see at Beamer on an annual basis, this being the third year in succession and fourth year in the last five that at least one was counted. 

 

Black Vultures are a rather sedentary species and most of the birds that we see passing may reflect a range expansion rather than a seasonal movement.  If they begin residing in Niagara, we may start to see them moving back and forth as we do with the resident Turkey Vultures.  It has been exciting to document the appearance of a new species.  Let us hope that they are better behaved than the Turkey Vultures and don’t start flying around in circles and confusing the counters.

 

Certainly Black Vulture was the species of the year but the prize bird of the year was a Mississippi Kite seen in the final hour on the last day of the count season by Mike Street.  It appeared with an immature Red-tailed Hawk, circled allowing for clear identification and passed through as the third bird of its species that we’ve ever had.  All three have appeared in the very narrow time period of May 11-15.

 

Following last year’s record count, hopes were high that another record could be set since so many species had poor counts in 2011.  It was not to be as the season total of 14,432 was the lowest since 2007 and below the short- (5-year) and long-term averages.  The number of hours of coverage at 488.5 was the second lowest since full coverage began in 1980, ahead of only 1996 when an inordinate amount of precipitation resulted in only 454.5 hours.  This year the problem was not the result of inclement weather but a lack of people willing to count in May when eight days had no counter.  That may also account for some of the lower count total since the flight in May when we had coverage was very good this year as was the weather.

 

The Season

 

The first half of 2012 has been the warmest year on record in the Niagara area and this was most apparent in March when the average temperature was almost seven degrees above normal.  The temperature at Beamer reached 25ºC on March 22nd, a level that was not exceeded until April 16th and only topped on four days all season.  By contrast, precipitation was slightly below normal in March but well below in April and the first half of May.  Rain, snow and fog seriously impeded counting on two days in March and five days in April but none in May.  The result was that we had the second most productive March on record, 5,849 birds, trailing only the record total in 2011.

 

For the second year in succession, a major wind storm occurred, this time on March 3rd.  This brought down several trees including another one blocking the entrance road.  Winds were almost as strong on March 8th and again on April 16th.  Unfortunately for the Beamer count, the southwesterly wind on the latter date took almost all the Broad-winged Hawks to the east giving the Braddock Bay site near Rochester a massive count of 34,243 while we had only 44.

 

The first 20 days of April were also warm but the last ten days were cool and wet.  Thus the prime period for Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned Hawks had decidedly poor counts with the exception of the day of the annual meeting when 1,583 birds were counted, easily the most productive day of the year.  Overall April’s total of 7,298 birds was the lowest since 2000 and well below the long term average of 9,185 for the month. 

 

Likely the low counts in the latter part of April were responsible for good flights during the early part of May.  The monthly total of 1,280 was the third highest in the last 20 years despite having over half of the days without coverage.  It is a shame that nobody counted between May 4-6 when the weather was good and birds appeared to be moving.

 

The prize for best variety went to George Naylor on April 17th when 13 species were recorded, followed closely by April 12th that had 12 species.  While not another species, a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk spiced up the action on April 9th.  Apparently at least four similar birds wintered in southern Ontario this year, which Jean Iron (Dark Morph Red-tailed Hawks: calurus or abieticola? TOC Newsletter Feb. 2012) reckons are not displaced western birds but part of the boreal forest population that migrates through Beamer.  It would be wonderful if these become a regular migrant like the dark morph Rough-legged Hawks are.

 

Species Accounts

 

In contrast to the rise in the Black Vulture count, the number of Turkey Vultures passing was the lowest in the last five years and saw the greatest percentage drop since 1995.  Nevertheless they were once again our most commonly observed species.

 

A good news story was the increased count of Osprey in 2012.  The 64 birds recorded equalled the fourth highest count for the species.  It is probably the Osprey whose count benefits the most from our tower since so many of them are seen cruising along just above the edge of the escarpment, often unseen from the ground.

 

The Golden Eagle count of 12, although small was also above both the 5-year and long-term averages for this site.  At the Hawk Cliff fall site on Lake Erie, the annual number of Golden Eagles has now surpassed the number of Bald Eagles, a combination of a rising number of the former and a falling number of the latter.  Because we see so few Goldens, it is unlikely that will happen at Beamer anytime soon.  Our count of 57 Bald Eagles in 2012 also declined, marking the third consecutive year this has occurred.  Two new Bald Eagle nesting sites were established in Niagara in 2012 so in the future we may have to decide whether a Bald Eagle is a “local” or a migrant.  It would seem that the lower migration counts of this species do not reflect anything untoward about its population.

 

There is rather bad news about the Northern Harrier this year as the count of 83 was the lowest since 1980 when we first began full seasonal coverage.  It represents just 58% of the long-term average and is the fourth consecutive year of decline for this species.  The lack of counters in May might have hurt as Harriers represent a greater proportion of our May migrants than they do earlier in the season.

 

The accipiter counts all increased in 2012 relative to last year, which is good but record or near-record low counts had been tallied in 2011.  The Sharp-shinned Hawk total was below its 5-year average and only 56% of its long-term average.  Our best day was in May, just before three days without a counter so this total may be much lower than it could have been.  Both Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawk counts were above their 5-year averages but well under the long-term averages.  It has now been 18 seasons since we had a real irruption year number of Goshawks and this fall or next should see a bigger flight heading south.  Beamer missed out on the bigger flights that occurred about ten years ago for this species.  Could this be yet another manifestation of a warming climate wherein this species doesn’t have to go as far south during irruption years as in the past?

 

All the Buteo counts were below both 5-year and long-term averages.  The Red-shouldered Hawk total was steady relative to last year but the Broad-winged Hawk total of 3,473 was less than half of the record count in 2011.  As previously discussed, the warm winds on April 16th that produced a big migration at other locales could account for our low total.  The 35 Rough-legged Hawks counted is the fourth lowest total on record and is just 45% of their long-term average.  It should be remembered that this species is quite irregular as a migrant and was almost absent from Niagara last winter so seeing any on migration was a bonus for the locals.

 

The Red-tailed Hawk count was the second lowest on record and only 70% of the long-term average.  I could suggest that the warm winter season can explain this lower number of migrants but the previous winter was much colder and it produced the record low total.  I believe it may be reflecting a decrease in the population for whatever reason because our counts have been trending downward for years as the Raptor Population Index (RPI) analysis revealed.  It seems that the rate of the decline may be increasing.

 

The American Kestrel count of 55 was tied for the third lowest in our history, up slightly from last year’s record low count of 44 but only 55% of the long-term average.  This is the one raptor species that the RPI analysis has flagged as experiencing a significant decline in population.  It was encouraging to see much greater counts than normal for this species at Hawk Cliff and Holiday Beach last fall but it seems they did not come back our way this year and I notice that other spring counts in the region were actually down this year.  It would appear that the decline is continuing.  The 18 Merlins counted was comparable to what we’ve had in recent years as was the total of 5 Peregrines.

 

I continue to be amazed by how few unidentified birds are recorded at our site; this year only 44.  Knowing how difficult it can be to identify some birds, either because they are very far away or gliding past quickly, I wonder if birds are not being recorded if they’re not identified.  Our two biggest flights this year included not a single unidentified of any kind in spite of flight heights of 3 or greater.

 

Finally, thanks for the help provided by all the “official” counters who this year consisted of Bouwe Bergsma, John Black, Bob Curry, Sandy Darling, Chris Escott, Tim Foran, George Holland, Sandra Horvath, Marcie Jacklin, Cody Law, Bruce MacKenzie, Brian Mishell, George Naylor, Dave Sked, John Stevens, Mike Street, Tom Thomas and Phil Waggett.  Thanks also to those people who assisted with spotting, identification, counting, and generally providing company and conversation, particularly during those hours when seeing even one hawk can be challenging.

 

2012 NIAGARA PENINSULA HAWKWATCH MONTHLY COUNTS

 

 

 

 

 

 

Species

FEB

MAR

APR

MAY

TOTAL

Black Vulture

0

2

3

0

5

Turkey Vulture

0

3400

2542

44

5986

Osprey

0

4

53

7

64

Am. Swallow-tailed Kite

0

0

0

0

0

Mississippi Kite

0

0

0

1

1

Bald Eagle

0

35

19

3

57

Northern Harrier

0

22

53

8

83

Sharp-shinned Hawk

0

333

1053

462

1848

Cooper's Hawk

0

61

72

12

145

Northern Goshawk

0

2

3

2

7

Red-shouldered Hawk

0

567

24

1

592

Broad-winged Hawk

0

0

2771

702

3473

Swainson's Hawk

0

0

0

0

0

Red-tailed Hawk

4

1348

620

30

2002

Ferruginous Hawk

0

0

0

0

0

Rough-legged Hawk

1

23

11

0

35

Golden Eagle

0

4

7

1

12

American Kestrel

0

16

37

2

55

Merlin

0

8

7

3

18

Peregrine Falcon

0

2

2

1

5

Gyrfalcon

0

0

0

0

0

Prairie Falcon

0

0

0

0

0

Unidentified Accipiter

0

2

3

0

5

Unidentified Buteo

0

13

12

0

25

Unidentified Falcon

0

0

1

1

2

Unidentified Eagle

0

0

0

0

0

Unidentified Raptor

0

7

5

0

12

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total Raptors

5

5849

7298

1280

14432

Hours Counted

5.5

222

207.75

53.25

488.5

Raptors/Hour

0.9

26.3

35.1

24.0

29.5

 

 
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