Saturday, October 6, 2018

10,000th Raptor

The CVWO staff and our platform visitors are still enjoying the peak of fall raptor migration.

October 3rd started off slow and with a clear blue sky. It wasn't until the afternoon that a few clouds and great number of raptors rolled in. It was an amazing day for American Kestrels in particular. 305 of them flew by, which accounted for a large portion of the 796 total raptor count of the day.

American Kestrel on a post close to the platform (Julia Magill)

We were also treated to a good look at a brilliant adult male Northern Harrier, AKA a "gray ghost". Adult female and immature Northern Harriers are brown-backed (Immatures can be distinguished by their rich orange chests with less streaking), so gray ghosts are less frequently seen.

Adult male Northern Harrier (Julia Magill)

As of October 4th Anna has counted over 10,000 migrating raptors so far this season! Lucky number 10,000 was determined to be a Cooper's hawk. There were many low flying birds that day, and we were so glad to have many visitors enjoying the views with us.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk (Julia Magill)

Visitors to the HawkWatch enjoying the raptors (Julia Magill)

October 5th was a great day for Peregrine Falcons, Cooper's Hawks, and Ospreys. 121 Peregrines passed over, many of which flew low and wowed the crowd. The majority of Peregrines we have observed this season have been adults, which is interesting considering about 90% of the other migrating raptors that pass through Kiptopeke are juveniles.

Adult Peregrine Falcon (Julia Magill)


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Hello Hawktober

September 29th was Outdoor Exploration day here at Kiptopeke State Park. It was a fun day of festivities, and we enjoyed having visitors of all ages stop by the platform to learn about CVWO's raptor research and look for hawks with us.

Julia showing the identifying characteristics of the American Kestrel to a visiting school group (Brian Taber)

There was an amazing Northern Flicker flight on September 29th and 30th. 1,284 flew south on Saturday and 1,403 on Sunday, often flying in quick succession one after another over the observatory. It gave the passed around role of "Flicker Clicker" a run for their money. 36 Bald Eagles were counted on September 29th, which tied the observatory's second highest record (the highest was 38).

Northern Flicker (Steve Thornhill)

Bald Eagle (Julia Magill)

October 1st saw good numbers of high flying Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and Peregrines, as well as 3 Red-Shouldered hawks. Light winds from the South on October 2nd led to a relatively slow raptor day for Kiptopeke. We did see a wonderful kettle of 50 Broad-Wing Hawks however.

Broad-wing Hawk (Julia Magill)

The Tuesday lull gave us the opportunity to observe other interesting sights around the platform. We observed a gorgeous Long-tailed Skipper at the CVWO butterfly garden...

Long-tailed Skipper (Julia Magill)

Praying Mantis predation...

Praying Mantis eating a grasshopper (Julia Magill)

and Yellow-billed Cuckoos feasting on Tent Caterpillars 

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Julia Magill)

A cold front will be passing through on Friday, which is a good predictor of a good flight day. We hope to see you at the observatory!


Monday, September 24, 2018

Kiptopeke Challenge

Fall migration is continuing to bring many raptors, visitors, and interesting sights to the CVWO Hawkwatch observatory.

On Saturday we partipated in the Kiptopeke challenge. A few teams stopped by the platform in the morning hours to utilize our raptor hot spot. It was a quiet day for much needed passerines to add to our species list, but we enjoyed the high raptor diversity. Also diverse were the many visitors who came from near and far to experience the day's raptor flight. 

The highlight of the challenge was the amazing Great Blue Heron flight towards the end of the day. 105 of them were spotted moving south, including one flock of 22 and another of 37! Seeing flocks of that size is uncommon at Kiptopeke, so it was an exciting sight.

Kettling flock of Great Blue Herons

Sunday brought a stream of Ospreys over the platform. 315 flew south, some carrying fish between their talons to snack on during their long journey. Falcon numbers were high as well; with Merlins, Kestrels, and Peregrines often flying overhead close to the platform.
Osprey with fish

American Kestrel harassing a Peregrine Falcon

A favorite among visitors are Merlins. Fierce and fast hunters, their prey barely have time to register an attack before becoming meals for the small falcon. We got a first hand look at their predatory prowess when a Yellow-billed Cuckoo lost some tail feathers to a swooping Merlin. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew away after the attack, but we didn't see it again.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo tail feathers collected by a visitor

Friday, September 21, 2018

Kettles and Kestrels

Hello, I'm Julia Magill, the CVWO's newest Hawkwatch Educator. I graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Wildlife Conservation, and have been travelling around the east coast ever since working on various bird research projects. I'm so excited to join the Hawkwatch migration count this season!

We were amazed by the number of American Kestrels we saw yesterday, a whopping 515 of them were spotted heading south over our platform. This is far and away the highest of the season yet, and a personal best for our hawk counter Anna. We expect many more of these small falcons as the season continues.

American Kestrel (Steve Thornhill)

Many times over the past two days, large kettles of Broad-winged hawks have appeared in the sky seemingly out of nowhere. "Another kettle!" was often exclaimed and a finger pointed in the direction of 40-60 broad-wings, where seconds ago there had been only clear blue sky.

Broad-wing kettle (Steve Thornhill)

We have also gotten good looks at Bald Eagles, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons thanks to low clouds bringing these raptors close to the ground.

Merlin (Steve Thornhill)
Immature Bald Eagle (Julia Magill)

This Saturday is the Kiptopeke Challenge, a fundraising event for which we will aim to record as many bird species as we can from the Hawkwatch platform. Other teams will be competing along the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Wish us luck!

If you want to get in on this migration action then please stop by our hawk watch platform. We are always eager for skilled eyes and birding beginners alike. There are picnic benches and many fun trails close by to our platform.


Friday, September 7, 2018

A New Season Begins, and Rarities are on a Roll!

The fall hawkwatch season is off to a good start here at Kiptopeke, and I (Anna Stunkel) am so glad to be back! So far, Ospreys have been migrating in decent numbers, and other species such as American Kestrels are starting to move along. The weather has been hot, with stagnant high pressure. However, a cool front tonight and a shift to northeasterly winds should bring in a lot of passerines tonight, and hopefully some good raptor flights if there isn't too much rain this weekend.

Several rarities have been causing excitement on the platform during the past few days. First, a Wood Stork showed up on September 4, and was seen on and off throughout the day. The bird often circled among vultures, and eventually headed southwards.

Wood Stork; photo by Steve Thornhill

On that same day, a Lark Sparrow showed up near the hawkwatch parking lot. The dapper sparrow was hanging around and feeding amidst a flock of Chipping Sparrows.

Lark Sparrow; photo by Steve Thornhill

On September 5, an Anhinga was seen, and two Anhingas flew northwards over the platform on the following day. The birds were flying too high to obtain photographs, but hopefully they might make an appearance again.

If this season plays out similarly to recent years, Osprey and small falcon movement should pick up considerably within the next week or so. We hope to see you on the platform soon, so you can experience the thrill of migration with us!


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Color-flagged Sandpiper

This Semi-palmated Sandpiper, with a color-flag, was recently found among thousands of other unflagged ones, by the Observatory's Waterbird Team on a survey in Portsmouth, VA. The number was reported to the banding lab, so that the researcher will know where the bird was on that date. This kind of travel information is valuable in ongoing conservation efforts. The Observatory should find out soon where the bird was originally banded. Brian Taber

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sandhill Cranes

Three Sandhill Cranes, rare migrants to this area, flew over the College Creek Hawkwatch, in James City County, this morning.
Brian Taber

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Creole Pearly-eye Study

The Observatory recently discovered a rare butterfly, Creole Pearly-eye, near Jamestown Island and is beginning a study, in partnership with the National Park Service and James River Association, to learn more about this population and protect it. It is at the northern limit of its range. The Observatory just donated a display about the species to the James River Association. Pictured is Emily Cope, who operates the education center. Educators will use the display as they carry out their activities with students and other visitors.

Monday, February 26, 2018

College Creek Hawkwatch

This close-up, immature Bald Eagle, photographed by George Reiske yesterday, made an exciting pass right overhead at the College Creek Hawkwatch, along the James River, near Williamsburg, thrilling the several observers there.
Brian Taber

Monday, December 25, 2017

Black-throated Gray Warbler in James City County

This far western warbler, a very rare visitor to Virginia, bathed and preened briefly today, Christmas Day, in my yard near Williamsburg.
Brian Taber

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Baywatch Waterbird Survey

The Observatory conducted its 5th annual Baywatch Waterbird Survey from October 1 through November. Waterbirds face issues of pollution, sea level rise, development, commercial fishing and other disturbances and their activity needs documentation to insure protection. Observatory Advisor and world-class birder, Ned Brinkley, of Cape
Charles conducted the daily count. The photo is from Pickett's Harbor Natural Area Preserve, just north of Kiptopeke, not open to the public, where the first four years of surveys were conducted,  but due to noisy house construction adjacent to the site, Ned did most of the surveys from a little farther north at the Cape Charles Coastal Habitat Natural Area Preserve, which is open to the public. Both sites allow great views of the lower Chesapeake Bay, so that waterbird activity could be recorded. In addition to Ned's report, which will appear in the Observatory's Annual Field Research Report, observations were sent to eBird.

Ned found 59 species of waterbirds for a total of more than 128,000 detections, though this is a duplicated count, as some birds were present on more than one day. Some birds were clearly migrating, others were feeding and resting in the area. The survey shows the great diversity and abundance of birdlife in the lower Bay. Ned was able to document an unprecedented jaeger movement, among many other highlights. The data will be analyzed and shared with our conservation partners.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Season's End

During the last few days of the hawkwatch season, we enjoyed some fun sightings. On 11/27, another Golden Eagle passed, and Brian Taber spotted a Yellow-headed Blackbird flying over the platform. On 11/29, another likely Northern Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis abieticola) passed us. Steve Thornhill managed to capture a photo of the bird. Notice the dark throat and boldly marked underparts, which are characteristics of the Northern race. Take a look at this informative blogpost from Hawkwatch International about Northern red-tails.

Photo by Steve Thornhill
It was nice to see a flock of about 180 distant Snow Geese on the last day of the season. Amazingly, due to the warm weather, Monarchs were flying right up until the end, with counts of ~20-60 Monarchs per day during the last week! Other butterfly species were also around, including Buckeyes and various sulphur species. During the last few days of the season, we enjoyed several visits from a juvenile Cooper's Hawk, who perched on the nearby t-pole to survey his surroundings. 

Photo by Steve Thornhill

Down at the Kiptopeke pier, two Snow Buntings have been continuing to hang around, although I did not see them during a visit yesterday. Take a look at this beautiful, classy-looking character.

Photo by Steve Thornhill

A banded Brown Pelican was also recently seen down at the pier, but it was not close enough to read the band number.

Photo by Steve Thornhill

It has been another wonderful season here at Kiptopeke, with a multitude of interesting sightings. Notable highlights included:

  • 1 Swallow-tailed Kite on 9/12, which spent time around the platform (oftentimes very nearby) for four days! 
  • 478 American Kestrels on 9/21
  • 365 Ospreys on 9/23
  • 152 Peregrine Falcons on 10/7, which was the day of the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival
  • 444 Bald Eagles this season, which is the second highest fall count at Kiptopeke
  • 1,197 Broad-winged Hawks this season
  • 4 Rough-legged Hawks this season, including a dark morph and a light morph flying together on 10/21
  • 12 Golden Eagles this season, including three count days in which multiple (2 to 3) birds were seen
  • 2 Wood Stork sightings- one on 9/17, and another on 9/22
  • 1 Roseate Spoonbill on 10/1
  • 2 Wilson's Phalaropes on 10/3
  • 1 White-winged Dove on 11/4
  • 327 Tundra Swans on 11/20
  • 1 Yellow-headed Blackbird on 11/27
What an amazing fall it has been. 

Although it is unfortunate that Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers were much lower than usual (with only 2,273 sharpies seen this fall), the low counts this year provide useful data. Eastern North American sites have been reporting a recent decline in sharpie numbers, which could be related to declining prey populations. It is also likely that weather patterns resulted in many of these birds moving inland and over the barrier islands.  

Thank you to the many old and new friends who helped to make this season so memorable. Your sharp eyes and good company were so helpful, and I enjoyed spending time with you all. Also, thanks to the many visitors of all ages who stopped by to ask questions and enjoy the migration. 

As the temperatures drop and fall becomes winter, some raptors and other birds will continue to be on the move. Please stop by the platform, pier, and trails to see what you might find. No matter the day, there is always something special to see at Kiptopeke. I will sign out with a photo of this spunky little Winter Wren, a bird who seems forever cheerful and active on even the chilliest of days.

Happy birding to all!


Saturday, November 25, 2017

November Surprises

November is always an interesting month here at the hawkwatch. Although there are very slow days at times, things always stay interesting because species diversity is high, and unexpected surprises can suddenly appear. For example, on 11/18, another dark morph Rough-legged Hawk was a wonderful highlight of an otherwise slow day. Golden Eagles are continuing to move through, and our total has now increased to 11 Golden Eagles for the season. This is higher than any fall season at Kiptopeke since 2004. Yesterday, I enjoyed a very nice movement of Bald Eagles, with 25 individuals seen going south. It was also interesting to see a late Broad-winged Hawk yesterday.

Adult Bald Eagle; photo by Steve Thornhill

In recent times, I have been observing Red-shouldered Hawks hunting for grubs on the lawn just beyond the bathrooms. It is very interesting (and a bit comical) to watch a red-shoulder scurry across the grass, pounce on a grub, and then enjoy its meal. The grubs are quite large, and American Crows have also been enjoying them. One day, I also observed crows pestering an adult red-shoulder. Several times, one crow even dared to pull the red-shoulder's tail. This is a common behavior in corvids, and is thought to be a distraction tactic so that the perpetrator can move in and steal a meal. For more information, take a look at this blog post:

Don't even think about it, this Red-shouldered Hawk seems to be thinking...

Tail pulling about to commence

It is always a joy to see (and hear) large flights of Tundra Swans. So far, our biggest count occurred on 11/20, in which 327 birds passed. During the last week of the hawkwatch, hopefully some Snow Geese will also be on the move. I saw the first Snow Geese of the season (both of which were blue geese) yesterday.

Tundra Swan flock flying low over the platform

A Sandhill Crane was seen on 11/17 and 11/19, flying among vultures. It's possible that this was the same bird both times.

Two very late hummingbirds have been frequenting the feeders for the past week. They appear to be Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, although Black-chinned Hummingbird is another possibility, especially at this time of year. The two species can be very difficult to tell apart, and it is also hard to say for certain whether I have obtained photos and good looks at both of these birds. It's possible that one has been guarding the feeders and chasing the other off. Due to the relatively straight bill, pointed wings, and greenish blue luster on the back which can be seen on at least one of these birds, I believe that it is a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  

Five days remain in the season, which still leaves plenty of time for more interesting birds to show up! I hope to see you on the platform soon.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Farewell from the 2017 Hawkwatch Educator

From the early mornings on the hawkwatch platform to the crimson sunsets over the Chesapeake Bay, I have enjoyed each day working at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch this season. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory educating people of all ages about raptor migration. 

Early morning on the hawkwatch platform, and Anna is on the lookout for raptors.  Photo by Katie Garst.

I always had fun talking with people on the hawkwatch platform. From the long-time hawkwatch volunteers to the people who had only just developed an interest in raptors in the short time since they walked onto the platform, I enjoyed sharing my enthusiasm for birds with everyone on the hawkwatch platform. Visitors' excitement when they got to see a migrating raptor helped to make my time on the hawkwatch platform pass by quickly. Nothing can compare to helping a young visitor see a Peregrine Falcon for the first time or to assisting visitors in spotting a Golden Eagle flying high over the platform.

The Kiptopeke Hawkwatch is not only a special place because of all of the migrating birds and Monarch Butterflies passing through. It is also special because of the people involved. The CVWO board members and Hawk Counter, the hawkwatch volunteers, and the Kiptopeke State Park staff were wonderful people to work with and learn from during my time at the hawkwatch. As I leave Kiptopeke in search of my next adventure, I hope to return to the Eastern Shore of Virginia to visit the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch in future seasons.  Until then, I will enjoy reading Anna's daily reports of the migrating raptors seen at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch through the end of November on

Anna (center right) and hawkwatch volunteers enjoying the sunset after spending the day counting migrating raptors.  Photo by Steve Thornhill.

Thank you all for a wonderful season!


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Golden Eagles Galore

After seeing the first Golden Eagle of the 2017 season on November 1st, we have had a few good days with multiple Golden Eagles being counted at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch. Two Golden Eagles were seen on November 10th, and three were seen on November 11th and November 14th. The Golden Eagles passing by the hawkwatch platform have mostly been high above us or off in the distance to the east of the platform, but a few have come just close enough for a picture. 

An immature Golden Eagle flying over the hawkwatch platform.  Photo by Steve Thornhill.

Golden Eagles tend to migrate over inland ridges, and few stray to the Eastern Shore. There are typically only five to ten Golden Eagles seen in the fall migration season at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch. To see more than one Golden Eagle in a day is a treat.

Another immature Golden Eagle passing over the hawkwatch platform.  Photo by Steve Thornhill.

We have had some very late migrating birds turning up around the hawkwatch platform over the past week. On November 11th, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was seen perched in the trees just north of the hawkwatch platform. A Red-eyed Vireo was spotted foraging in a bush next to the platform on November 12th. In addition to late birds, we have also seen a few late Monarch Butterflies migrating over the hawkwatch platform on the warmer days in the past week.

Just to the west of the hawkwatch platform, three Snow Buntings have been seen around the Kiptopeke State Park fishing pier. Snow Buntings are uncommon wintering birds along the coast of Virginia. The Snow Buntings at Kiptopeke posed for a nice picture on the railing of the fishing pier.

Snow Buntings perched on the Kiptopeke State Park fishing pier.  Photo by Brian Taber.

Friday, November 10, 2017

An Owl, a Squirrel, and a Cooper's Hawk

We spend quite a few early-morning hours on the hawkwatch platform. Because we spend so much time up there, we are able to see some interesting bird behavior. This time, we got pictures of it too. A Great Horned Owl flew past the platform, and it was carrying an unfortunate Eastern Gray Squirrel. Anna was able to get her camera in time to capture the events that followed.

A Great Horned Owl carrying a squirrel past the hawkwatch platform.  Photo by Anna Stunkel.

Suddenly, we saw a Cooper's Hawk swoop in from behind the Great Horned Owl!

A Cooper's Hawk (left) chasing the Great Horned Owl.  Photo by Anna Stunkel.

The Cooper's Hawk was calling as it chased the owl, and it dived at the owl several times.

The Cooper's Hawk diving on the Great Horned Owl. Photo by Anna Stunkel.
The hawk continued to chase the owl into the forest behind the hawkwatch platform, and we heard the hawk calling for a few minutes after the birds had gone out of view. We don't know if the owl stole the squirrel from the Cooper's Hawk, or if the hawk was attempting to steal the squirrel from the owl. No matter what was going on, it was interesting raptor behavior to observe from the platform, and we are glad we have pictures of the event to share on the blog.

The Cooper's Hawk (top) chasing the Great Horned Owl as it flew into the forest behind the hawkwatch platform.  Photo by Anna Stunkel.

We have had an unusually high number of Ospreys flying over the hawkwatch platform for the month of November. On November 5th, forty-one migrating Ospreys were counted at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch. That number exceeds the total number of Ospreys counted in the month of November at Kiptopeke in some previous years. 

There have also been days with good numbers of other migrating species.  There were nineteen Bald Eagles seen migrating over the hawkwatch platform on November 5th. On November 9th, we had a large flight of Northern Harriers. A total of forty-six Northern Harriers were counted from the hawkwatch platform on that day.

An adult Bald Eagle (left) and an Osprey flying over the hawkwatch platform.  Photo by Steve Thornhill.
Some notable birds that were seen from the platform recently are the first Golden Eagle of the 2017 season on November 1st, a White-winged Dove being pursued by a Cooper's Hawk on November 4th, thousands of migrating American Robins on the morning of November 7th, and the first Tundra Swan flocks of the 2017 season on November 9th. As is often the case, these birds escaped our cameras. (The White-winged Dove also escaped the Cooper's Hawk.)  However, Yellow-rumped Warblers are currently very abundant at Kiptopeke, and we are able to get pictures of them when they visit us on the hawkwatch platform.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler perched on the hawkwatch platform.  Photo by Katie Garst.

A notable person that stopped by the hawkwatch platform on November 7th was Scott McConnell. Scott was the CVWO Official Hawk Counter at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch in 2006. We thank him for his visit to the hawkwatch platform.