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Pete Dunne’s Raptor Watching Tips

After spending much of my life removing distant birds of prey from the ozone, or “point watching” as Ms. Linda calls it, I thought I’d give readers the sum of my knowledge (i.e., a crash course on how to detect) soaring birds of prey).

Many bird watchers, rooted in the tradition of observing birds with the naked eye and then examining their subject with binoculars, are ill-equipped to step into the hawk-watching arena, where most birds are spotted or even identified before getting up close are enough to be seen without optics.

Posture pointer

So start with good optics that offer relaxing long-term viewing. I find magnification isn’t a critical determinant, although some hawk watchers swear by 10x. I usually use 7x or 8x and find them easier on my eyes. Ergonomics is the key. A glass that you can hold still without lifting your elbows will reduce image distortion. I find it useful to keep an elbow close to my body and place the binoculars on my fingertips to turn my non-focusing arm into a monopod. Then scan by rotating from the waist.

Scanning means finding hawks, scoping means finding wading birds. Start early in the day, before the heat generation literally lifts the birds of prey into the sky, at a 90-degree angle to the left of your body, with the bottom of your field of view just touching the horizon and most of the field filled with sky. From the waist, twist to the right until you have covered the entire lower part of the sky in front of you. With the horizon in view, you can’t pan so fast that you look right past a hawk before your eyes can catch on to it.

After that first scan, raise your binoculars one field and trace your way back. Scan the sky above your first scan. Three sweeps are generally enough to map the sky. When you find a hawk, write down its trajectory and move your glass around a square or two to see if it is following another bird. If you can’t find one, relocate your bellwether bird and look on its way back to pick up followers. Mark the location of this first contact and concentrate your search efforts there. Conditions that attract one hawk (a strong thermal or favorable updraft) draw another and create a trajectory.

Later in the day, when the thermal has sent falcons high up, it is productive to scan the cloud base. Not only do clouds give your eyes something to focus on, but fair-weather cumulus clouds attract wandering hawks. You are the final stage of a thermal, these soaring bubble hawks are trying to lift slightly. But any cloud base can silhouette hawks – cirrus clouds or even jet contrails.

Ants crawl on clouds

Once, while doing a Spring Hawk census in northern New Jersey, I was training my binoculars on a cumulus kick and found ants crawling all over the ground. As I watched, a line (-) went through the ants. Translation: A cauldron of wandering broad-winged buzzards had grown together under the cloud, and an adult bald eagle slipped by. More often, it is the presence of large, dark, towering birds of prey that alert hawk watchers to the presence of smaller, paler birds of prey. It’s always worth training your binoculars on vultures. They are your bellwether birds. Where they find buoyancy, other raptors will too.

One final trick I used is to lie on my back and hold my hand over the sun. In this way I have selected raptors that are silhouetted in the bright light of the sun without binoculars. Yes, I wear exceptional sunglasses, and so should you. A brim cap or visor is also helpful.

Some birds of prey migrate late. Even if the flight appears to end at 5pm, you can still find ospreys, harriers, and merlins moving until it’s almost too dark to see them. Conversely, harriers are often the first bird to be spotted by hawk watchers arriving early. The fel harrier is able to find elevator where other raptors can’t and can trap heat build-up over warmer lakes and swamps on cold mornings. Paul Kerlinger and I once saw a basin with 70 Harriers forming over Pond Creek on a cool November morning. The birds simply poured in from all directions to get the elevator up before heading out across Delaware Bay. The 12 miles of open water are not for a harrier.

18 places to watch falcons

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