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.


Sunday, November 5, 2017


In addition to counting migrating raptors, we also count the Monarch Butterflies we see migrating past the hawkwatch platform on their way to Mexico. If you visited the platform this season, you probably heard volunteers shout “Monarch!” throughout the day to alert Anna to migrating Monarch Butterflies passing overhead.

A migrating Monarch Butterfly flying over the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch platform.  Photo by Steve Thornhill.
During late September and October, we would often count 100 to 300 migrating Monarch Butterflies from the hawkwatch platform in a single day. On several days, there were so many Monarchs that Anna could not continue counting them because it would have taken too much time away from counting migrating raptors. On a few of those days, we estimate over 600 migrating Monarch Butterflies passed the hawkwatch platform. The total number of migrating Monarch Butterflies seen at the hawkwatch platform so far this year is over 5,000. That number is likely lower than the actual number of Monarchs passing over the platform, since we only count the Monarchs we notice while looking for migrating raptors.
Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory's Monarch Biologist, Clay Buffkin, was busy tagging migrating Monarch Butterflies from mid-September through the end of October. Clay had a record year for the number of Monarchs tagged by CVWO's Monarch Biologist. He tagged 1,485 migrating Monarch Butterflies! He stopped tagging Monarchs only when he could no longer obtain additional Monarch tags. On October 22nd, he tagged 174 Monarchs, his highest number of Monarchs tagged in a day this year.

Clay searching for migrating Monarch Butterflies to capture, tag, and release.  Photo by Brian Taber.

When he was not out in the field capturing Monarchs, Clay also educated visitors and groups about Monarch Butterflies and their migration to Mexico. While visitors observed him, he demonstrated the process used to tag Monarchs and explained the data he collected from each Monarch he tagged.

Clay in the butterfly garden next to the hawkwatch platform demonstrating how he captures Monarch Butterflies.  Photo by Katie Garst.

A Monarch Butterfly tagged at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch being held by Katie for a picture.  Photo by Bob Anderson.

While searching for Monarchs to tag, Clay was able to see some amazing Monarch Butterfly roosts as the butterflies stopped migrating for the day and rested on vegetation before nightfall. Clay took a video of one of those Monarch Butterfly roosts, and it shows a spectacular group of Monarchs preparing to roost for the night.

Clay has completed his 2017 season at Kiptopeke, and we thank him for his effort that resulted in nearly 1,500 tagged Monarch Butterflies.  As the weather turns cooler, fewer Monarch Butterflies are being seen from the hawkwatch platform.  Now, we must wait for several long months to see if any of the Monarchs Clay tagged at Kiptopeke will be recovered in Mexico in the spring.