The morning of April 19 did not look promising. The day was met by dense fog which had the appearance of sticking around for a while. I was a little slower in getting my act together and speeding up to the summit. Looking at the day's forecast also didn't inspire much hope. Overcast skies, pop-up showers and strong wind gusts were still on the menu. The only saving grace really, was the predicted wind direction, from the southwest, which acts like a tailwind for these birds, helping them to conserve energy on their way north. Hoping for a few periods of counting between the rain showers, I thought we might have an okay day given the fact that it's mid April, which is generally regarded as peak migration,when we see the largest influx of birds coming through the area.
Around 9:30am the sun suddenly broke through and I made my way up the Summit Trail and opened the watch at 9:45am. The slight elevation of the mountain put the summit just into the low cloud ceiling which diminished visibility. A few minutes in and the fog began to recede, halting its retreat out towards the coast and hanging tight for much of the day. Distant local landmarks would come and go from sight throughout the day. The overall forecast didn't play out as expected and in turn made for a great day, and in fact, the cloud cover that did stick around most likely helped in achieving such big numbers as it provided spotters with some contrast for there eyes, helping to highlight birds and provide landmarks to help others zero in. Had this been a blue sky day I'm guessing many birds would have found more thermals taking them high overhead and disappearing into the wild blue yonder.
A few birds began to take flight early on, similar to any other day we've had in the past week. After the first seventy five minutes of counting we had accumulated a total of fifteen migrant raptors. Not a bad start considering the current conditions. It wasn't until 11:00am that everything changed, abruptly and without warning. It was as if all birds of prey were part of an alert system and they had just received a notification saying, move!, move!, move!. It should also be noted that at this time I had just recorded a slight uptick in wind speeds from the southwest.
The sky went from being shades of grey to shades of grey with a stippling of birds, mostly Broad-wings. At first birds remained low and were coming in, danger close. Quite a show to get the party started. It was apparent I would need to switch my tallying from a #2 Ticonderoga to a mechanical clicker. It would have been too time consuming to run back and forth to check-off birds on my data sheet. The time blew by and we finished the hour with 250 more birds. From there things really picked up as conditions improved a little more. The sun made a cameo a few times, which aided in thermal production and birds started to be spotted higher and higher. Almost no matter where you set your gaze, you were bound to land on a bird.
Despite the positive yet somewhat unexpected nature of the day and the shear volume of birds that passed by, one of the personal highlights of the day that I find interesting and fascinating was witnessing and utilizing the behavior and innate ability of the song birds to alert us of an approaching predatory bird. Black-capped Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos are a common occurrence at the summit, so much so that our official mascot for the site is a Dark-eyed Junco who has kept many a hawkcounter company at this site. Also known as HJ for Hawkwatch Junco. I had witnessed this in the passed but this day it happened multiple times.
Myself and others would be scanning the surrounding land with our eyes and binoculars when suddenly the Chickadees would let out their series of high pitched see, see, see alarm calls and the Juncos would sound off by giving a series of fast, high pitched twittering notes. Immediately I would check the surrounding airspace and sure enough I found a raptor which had come in close, detected first by the small song birds hiding out in the bushes. It brought a smile/smirk to my face every time.
The fun continued right through the afternoon as more and more birds piled in. There was a nice mix of species to be seen, many of them passing by very close, such as a few Merlins who often appear as a shadowy dart as they zip by in point to point powered flight. A few Merlins today paused nearby to catch a small thermal, setting their wings and spiraling around as they effortlessly climbed up in a pocket of warm air, showing off their dark, streaky, and distinctive Falcon shape.
The time passed very quickly today, and before I knew it we had reach the official end of the day at 5:00pm, but birds were still on the move. A few of us stuck around and enjoyed and kind of celebrated the day we had just witnessed as we continued to spot birds until about 6:00pm when the skies began to thin out a little more.
After crunching the final numbers, we had finished the 36th day of the 2019 season with 1550 birds of prey. A new high day count.
Overall I was very excited about how the day turned out. Even though this was a busy and epic day it went very smoothly and had a sort of relaxed feel to it compared to some of the other high day counts. Often times the excitement can be a little overwhelming for some and it can be distracting or confusing as people start counting aloud the number of birds in a kettle or multiple people shouting about the same bird which is being viewed from multiple angles, however I felt that there wasn't a lot of that taking place. I had some good help up there and people were relatively calm, pointing things out or keeping eyes on a bird until I had the chance to take a look at it. Just due to sheer numbers, there were birds that went by undetected. I was aware at times, as I was sorting through kettles, identifying and counting birds, something was disappearing behind me. I would have had far fewer birds without the others who joined me.The day really felt like a solid team effort.
I have made some new friends over the past couple of seasons who are eager to learn and have been enjoying their time on the mountain, a few of them putting in many hours helping me search the skies, sticking it out through some cold and blustery days, and I was pleased to see their time and effort paid off by getting the opportunity to make it up, and to bear witness to this amazing phenomenon that is Spring Raptor migration.
Thanks to Derek and Jeannette Lovitch from From Freeport Wild Bird Supply who are the sponsors for the site and who provided me with the opportunity to take charge of the site.
Thanks to Bradbury Mountain State Park for hosting the project.
Zane Baker 2019 Bradbury Mountain Hawk Counter.