Once again, the raptor migration monitoring project based at Curry Hammock – in the Florida Keys – documents more Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) during a single season than anywhere else on Earth.
The Florida Keys Hawkwatch surpassed its own world record by the end of count-day on October 22, 2013 after tallying 3,840 migrating Peregrine Falcons for the season. The count continues through the first days of November, and there is no telling what the final total for the species will be. As it stands, the “PEFA” tally is at 3,956 (end of Oct 26 count-day)!
If you think you have heard this story before, it is because the Florida Keys Hawkwatch broke the documented world record during the 2012 season, when the project tallied a total of 3,836 Peregrines, surpassing the then-highest seasonal total of 3,219 from Costa Rica (Kekoldi, 2004). During 2012, FKH also tallied the highest daily count ever recorded for the species, with 651 on October 10, 2012. While no daily record was reached this year, Peregrines started moving through in high numbers earlier than average. On September 27 this season, we tallied 429, the fourth highest daily count since 1999. Above, a young Peregrine Falcon photographed by Kerry Ross; below, photo by Rachel Smith – both were taken from the count site this season.
As the video above illustrates, Peregrine Falcons are not the easiest birds to count, since they can move through at great velocities and at very high altitudes. It requires a lot of work and coordination to detect, identify and tally them before they are long past the count site. This season has been dictated primarily by winds out of the south and the east, and we have experienced many flights by raptors pushed far towards Florida Bay, northwest from the count side. The Middle Keys are renowned for offering plenty of opportunities at seeing perched falcon in the fall, especially during the mornings and late afternoons. Below, left, is a photo by Jeff Bouton of a young falcon perched on a bare snag; to the right, is a capture by Susan Sorensen of a Peregrine migrating low along the coast.
At top left, an adult male Peregrine perched on a snag along the ocean side at Long Key State Park during early morning. This bird was quite a small “tiercel” compared to some of the large females that were flying by that morning, trying to knock it off its perch. The bird did its best at standing tall, puffing out its chest and flaring its “sideburns.” Top right, a migrating adult Peregrine photographed by Eran Brusilow during this year’s Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival. Bottom left, a young falcon by Rachel Smith, photographed at Curry Hammock during this season’s hawkwatch. Bottom right, a young “PEFA” perched along the coast, by Rafael Galvez / Leica V-Lux 4.
The 2013 Peregrine Falcon “high-count” would not have been possible without tremendous commitment from several individuals. Rachel Smith and Kerry Ross are doing an incredible job day after day at the hawkwatch; we could not be more thrilled about having their talents once again as part of this project. Charles and Colleen Caudill – we could not have done it without their invaluable help; Tedor Whitman is an enduring ally; Jennifer and Gabe Cenker came down to share the excitement of another record breaking (and perfect timing!); and my personal gratitude to Michelle Davis for helping me out with the prolonged flights of October 22.
Still, the count continues!
Above is a chart that includes all seasonal Peregrine Falcon totals from raptor migration counts at Curry Hammock State Park since the fall of 1999. The current season’s total (2013) is featured as a red-colored bar. With more than two weeks left of counts, it is difficult to predict what our final Peregrine tally will be. Regardless, this has been a stellar season for the species. Even if we saw no more Peregrines (virtually impossible), this year’s current total of 3,604 would rank among the top 2 counts in the project’s history – and anywhere in the world!
Raptor count totals to date:
Turkey Vulture – 341
Osprey – 1428
Bald Eagle – 8
Northern Harrier – 242
Sharp-shinned Hawk – 1268
Cooper’s Hawk – 442
Red-shouldered Hawk – 8
Broad-winged Hawk – 3573
Swainson’s Hawk – 1
Short-tailed Hawk – 25
Mississippi Kite – 86
Swallow-tailed Kite – 14
American Kestrel – 1449
Merlin – 325
Peregrine Falcon – 3604
Unknown Accipiter – 8
Unknown Buteo – 7
Unknown Falcon – 5
Unknown Raptor – 13
The following are count totals for the Florida Keys Hawkwatch through end-of-count-day, October 10, 2013. The count season will continue through the first week of November. For a breakdown of daily counts, visit HawkCount.org.
Big flights of passerines were documented from Curry Hammock State Park during the Oct. 8 count as part of the 2013 hawkwatch. Between 2:15 pm and 2:50 pm, an estimated total of 1320 passerines and other non-raptor “landbirds” were tallied flying overhead during an impressive turn of events in the Middle Keys.
There were birds of several species including warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles, kingbirds, and buntings, in addition to many indeterminate detected birds observed flying from the NW towards the SE, in general direction towards Cuba at great altitudes. Many of the warblers were only detectable through telescope! After the flights dissipated, and rain dropped for 15 minutes, there were many songbirds all over the ocean-side of Curry Hammock SP.
The shift of winds throughout the day played a major role in this event. Up until 1:45 pm this day, we were having a rather slow day at the watch, with frustratingly little movement of birds other than solid numbers of swallows. By that time, our readings at the ground surface from the Curry Hammock site gave us winds out of the S and SE, up to 13 km/h. By 2 pm, winds had shifted, coming out of the WSW. The entirety of the sky suddenly seemed to change. A dense and continuous belt of cumulus clouds that loomed over the Middle Keys along the bay side for much of the day was suddenly broken, reforming along a pronounced SW to NE axis. Bands of rain were visible towards the NE. Falcons, and hundreds of songbirds were suddenly visible at high altitudes. We tallied 114 Peregrine Falcons that hour.
THE BACK STORY
I was one hour into my transect count at Long Key SP, when I received a text message from Angel and Mariel Abreu of the Badbirdz blog saying the following:
7:39 am: Hey bud. Not sure if these targets will choose to drop down, but they aren’t flying too high and there is way more north along the west coast. Heads up!
The message included the following attachments:
I answered their message by saying that I hoped they were right, but that the movements of birds were slow this morning compared to previous experiences.
Winds have been shifting… weak SW right now recorded by Marathon Airport and more westerly at Sombrero Key. Good luck.
However, later the Badbirdz duo added:
10:49 am: Winds at Sombrero Key and Marathon Airport are registering SSW at 5-12, but these targets are moving SE at 15-20kts. My gut tells me these are birds. They could be tired and decide to land.
I did not think I would have much to respond, since often the radar predicts apparently interesting flights, but we have trouble finding birds from the ground. But as we approached 2 pm, the winds really did shift – and suddenly. We first noticed high flying Chimney Swifts at the turn of the hour – a species not often recorded from FKH in high numbers – about 112 of them. Cliff Swallows below moved in packs of 20 to 25. Peregrine Falcons started moving in greater frequency. We suddenly noticed high flying “flocks” of birds well above the path of the Peregrines, all of them moving towards the SSE. When I rushed to put the scope on the first group, I was surprised to find several Eastern Kingbirds on the move. Many warblers could be seen moving through. I picked out the wing pattern of a few American Redstarts, but most were just silhouetted specks against the menacing cloud formations, which had shifted direction with the wind. Sheets of rain could be seen towards the north. I picked out Summer Tanagers moving high through the scope.
By the end of that hour, between 2:15 and 2:50 we had tallied the following:
1320 high flying kingbirds, warblers, tanagers, and other passerines
112 Chimney Swifts
293 Magnificent Frigatebirds – all flying towards the SW
114 Peregrine Falcons
and much more.
At 2:38 pm I texted back to the Badbirdz folks: IT JUST HAPPENNED!!!!
HOW MANY BIRDS UNDER ONE TREE?
Soon afterward, we were pacing the buttonwoods adjacent to the hawkwatch. “Big Bob” – the large Buttonwood visible from the count site and used as a key landmark, was covered in warblers. Within the 1-acre parcel of habitat surrounding “Big Bob,” we found excellent birding:
Tennessee Warbler 14
Nashville Warbler 2
Blackburnian Warbler 3
Chestnut-sided Warbler 3
Black-throated Green Warbler 3
Yellow-throated Warbler 2
Palm Warbler 20
Northern Parula 4
Magnolia Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 4
Prairie Warbler 1
American Redstart 4
Worm-eating Warbler 1
Hooded Warbler 1
Yellow Warbler 1
Red-eyed Vireo 3
White-eyed Vireo 2
Eastern Wood-Pewee 1
Indigo Bunting 12
Blue Grosbeak 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 1
Baltimore Oriole 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 3
Northern Cardinal 5
And this was just one tree and its surrounding plot!
The Badbirdz duo added-in more text messages into the afternoon:
2:38 pm. Birds moving 15-26 kts, NW – SW. They have got to be flying 800 ft +.
Later that evening, Angel and I spoke over the phone, excited about how the radar forewarned our experience at the ground level. The Badbirdz duo sent me the following message:
For years, Mariel and I have been watching radar loops of targets we have always presumed to be birds flying along the west coast of FL during October. After a few years of sending Rafael Galvez of Florida Keys Hawkwatch radar images and calls on the phone, we finally hit pay dirt today!
Long Keys State Park (LKSP) is not unusual in the Keys, in that it contains a number of distinct ecosystems within a relatively small area. What is great about LKSP is that it offers foot-access to all its habitats, including mangrove communities, coastal berm and transitional areas, upland hardwood hammocks, and the xeric landscape of an interior salt pan.
The FKH team conducts thorough transect counts in all habitats each morning by collecting species counts, habitat use and behavior data for each avian detection – an arduous task when migration is “on.” The tall snags surrounding the salt pan of LKSP are an quick way of seeing what species are using the area any given morning. It is not unusual to see Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, other raptors and several species of birds perched atop the leaf-less trunks of long-dead mangroves and Buttonwoods.
Raptors use these snags to rest from their long migratory journeys, and as lookout points to scan for potential prey and competitors. The forests of the Middle Keys have relatively low canopies. Tropical storms and hurricanes keep the growth of many trees stunted, affected by strong winds and tides. Additionally, it is an area characterized by little soil, and plants are often growing in hypersaline environments, giving the area a barren appearance. Below, some snags at a distance give warning of perched Merlins, Mississippi Kites and Peregrine Falcons in the area.
Some days, you can see as many as 10 Peregrines perched atop the snags surrounding the salt pan. But raptors are not the only ones using these snags. It is not unusual to see wading birds and passerines of all kinds using these perches. Below, a White Ibis and an Eastern Wood-Pewee are on the lookout. Bottom photo: A Reddish Egret and a Double-crested Cormorant perch on the petrified trunk of a toppled mangrove succumbed to the tides.
Flycatchers of many kinds seem quite fond of these perches. At this time of the year – early October – we are at the tail-end of Gray and Eastern Kingbird movement (below). Although they will continue moving through into November in lesser numbers, we run the chances of seeing Western Kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers later in the fall.
Other raptor species that can often be seen using the bare snags for perches include Osprey, Bald Eagle and American Kestrel. However, a number of other raptors rest within this park’s forests during migration, preferring concealment in the fully-leafed trees of the hammocks. Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks tend to prefer lesser exposed perches, but every now and then one may catch glimpses of a Short-tail out on the salt pan snags. Below – young dark Short-tailed Hawks digibinned through a Leica Ultravid 8×32 and iPhone 4.
In the darker canopy of Gumbo Limbo trees, it is not uncommon to find Broad-winged Hawks perched at first light (above, adult at left, young at right). These birds can be quite shy, receding further back into the hammock if discovered, where they will wait until later in the day to resume their migrations. Atop these lush trees, one may find White-crowned Pigeons looking for fruit. Photo below of an adult (left) and young (right) White-crowned Pigeon digiscoped with Leica APO Televid 65 / Adapter / D-Lux 5 camera.
Below is a photo of the shell-covered floor of the Long Key salt pan tract. Below that is a satellite image showing this xeric zone surrounded by mangroves and upland hammocks, shown as a white wash amid greenery. The pan is essentially a wetland which becomes a dry lagoon bed seasonally. During the wet months of summer, rains flood these pans. Tides and wind also affect the area, which may be flooded one day, with fish swimming through the sparse vegetation, and may be a desert the next. Few plants can tolerate these conditions; the rapid changes in salinity are too extreme and result in extensive barren areas.
Above left, the salt pan during high tide. Right, the salt pan during low tide. Although it may be at times difficult to find birds in this area due to the flooding, thick underbrush and exposure to the sun, it is a fantastic place to observe the flights of birds arriving into the Keys. Make sure to visit this park during migration!
For years, birders in South Florida have reported occasional birds resembling the Caribbean race, “Ridgway’s” Osprey (Pandion haliaetus ridgwayi). However, a major problem with confirmation is that “Ridgway’s” Osprey characteristics are not well understood or described in the popular literature. Plus, the academic community has never been able to ascertain any undeniable evidence such as a specimen or DNA from one of these birds to prove definitively that this subspecies occurs. As such, without this precedent the professional/academic community remains cautiously skeptical.
In the definitive work “Birds of North America Online” Osprey species account authors Alan Poole, Rob Bierregaard, and Mark Martell write, “Caribbean breeders noticeably paler on crown and breast than their North American counterparts, appearing almost white-headed and white-breasted and showing little difference between male and female. Occasionally paler individuals, like Caribbean breeders, found breeding in s. Florida… suggest, perhaps not surprisingly, possibility of limited interchange between Caribbean and North American populations…” Link: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna
Again from the BNA account the subspecific description of “Ridgway’s” Osprey reads:
“P. h. ridgwayi - Maynard, 1887; type locality Andros I. Resident in Caribbean from Bahamas and Cuba south to coast of se. Mexico and Belize; not currently found breeding south of s. Belize and Cuba. Under wing primary-coverts mostly white with pale brown restricted to distal two-thirds of outer web; head largely white (dark markings reduced on crown and sides of head); breast markings reduced or lacking on both sexes; relatively small (averaging smaller than P. h. carolinensis). Often paler brown dorsally (perhaps sun bleaching).”
Despite the reservations of some, here I summarize three individual, independent sightings of a bird (or birds) that fit the bill for a Ridgway’s Osprey from the middle Keys near Marathon, FL in 2013 – all with supporting images. The first report was from a Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) trip led by Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis on 30 April 2013. The bird was perched on the concrete edge of the Seven Mile Bridge just south of Marathon on Route 1. Stopping here is impossible, but tour participant Jeff Haller managed the image below which was included in an eBird report here: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14015903
In the notes for this sighting, O’Brien writes that this was the 3rd sighting of this bird (twice in this exact spot); and as you can see from the report, he lists this as “Osprey (Caribbean).” In the photo above, one can get a sense of the greatly reduced, dark eye line – appearing as only a comma-shaped mark starting behind the eye and on the auriculars. Also a sun-bleached appearance is evident.
Last week during the Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival, FKH director Rafael Galvez and David Simpson (Birding with David Simpson tours) spotted an Osprey flying over with a nearly full white head during the “Morning Flights” field trip at Long Key State Park on Thursday, September 26th. They described it as having just a tiny smudge of dark in the auriculars. Participant Eran Brusilow with Disney’s Animals, Science, & Environment managed to capture the image below as it streamed by. Rafael told me about it on the phone as I was driving toward the keys Thursday afternoon. Being a bit of a raptor plumage nut, I was disappointed to have missed this bird so narrowly, but was still excited to see the images. So upon arriving in the Keys I tracked down Rafael, David, Eran and Tricia Emrich, and was shown the image below.
While it was hard to assess the extent of dark on the face given the angle, I was immediately struck by the amount of light buffy markings through the carpal patch (dark mark at wrist on underwing). Unlike the typically solid, dark block that I’m used to seeing on the local Florida birds, this bird showed a real checkered pattern with a much interspersed buff that seemed immediately outside the range of typical variation of the Ospreys I see daily (P. h. carolinensis).
In looking at photos online of Osprey photographed in the Caribbean, it does appear this mottled, “salt and pepper” carpal patch is not uncommon for “Ridgway’s” Osprey, so this may be a trait to look for also, as we continue to learn more about these birds.
I spent the rest of the weekend in the central Keys enjoying the incredible 429 Peregrine Falcon day on September 27th (a marvelous spectacle) and as always had a great time soaking in the fabulous fall migration. As all good things though, my time here came to an end. So near 2 PM on Sunday afternoon, I bid a final adieu to Kerry and Rachel, Rafael and the marvelous volunteers and visitors at the watch and began my trek northward. Ten minutes later, shortly after passing Long Key State Park I saw what appeared to be an adult Bald Eagle on the radio tower in the little town of Layton. As I sped by I realized I was dead wrong. So I quickly spun around and parked on the side of the road. I quickly mounted my spotting scope on a window mount and began digiscoping another or the same light-headed Osprey. In total this was roughly 25 miles north of the April sighting and a mere 1 – 1.5 mile north of the bird seen 4 days earlier by the FKH crew.
The photo above is a bit soft but it is a similar pose to the April image allowing better comparison of the shape & extent of the dark head markings. The second image below is sharper and more in full profile, allowing one to better appreciate the extent of the facial markings. Note the light area between the rear of the eye and the beginning of the dark “swoosh.”
Compare with a typical Osprey below also photographed in the Florida Keys in October 2012. Note the width and extent of the dark eye stripe and the dark through the center of the crown as examples.
Elated to have NOT missed a chance to see a probable “Ridgway’s” Osprey after all, I continued home with my buddy Travis, getting him some additional life birds along the way – of course that’s another story! ;p
At 1485 Peregrine Falcons tallied for the 2013 season, we have counted more than half of the species’ yearly average by now. Peregrine Falcons average 2144 birds each fall season from the Curry Hammock count site. The following are “southbound-only” numbers (2013 still counting through early Nov.):
The 2012 count was remarkable for achieving the highest count of Peregrines documented during an entire season anywhere in the world (3836) and for a single day (651 on Oct. 10). Interestingly, the chart above at a glance demonstrates a rather steady increase of Peregrines from 2005 to 2013, interrupted by 2009, when no count was conducted and 2010 – a count that ended prematurely and was covered by only 70% of the average seasonal count hours.
Who’s to know what the 2013 season will bring? Since September 26, we have tallied 5 three-digit Peregrine counts, including Sept. 27′s stellar 429 – the fourth highest count in FKH history, and Sept. 30′s 227 – another top count.
Last year, by the first of October (2012), we had tallied 958 Peregrines. This year we are ahead by 527 birds. If flights continue steady into mid-October, we could wind-up with another memorable count season!
Photo by Rafael Galvez. Leica V-Lux 4.