Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is this a good season?

We still have about 250-300 hours (or a little less than a month) of counting to do here in Veracruz, but with 2/3rd of the season and nearly 4 million raptors behind us, we have a fair idea how the majority of species did this year. (Please refer to for exact numbers.)

Turkey Vultures for example, currently dominating the flights and clearly not done yet, are fairly numerous this year. We've already counted more TV's than last year and we're almost on a par with the 2006 total. We're now at 1.3 million. Some years the count reaches 2 million, exceptionally more (2.7 mil in 2002).

For Osprey, also still passing through although tapering off, 2009 is already the best of the last 8 years of counting.

Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites are early migrants; the last SK was seen on the 29th of September. The last Mississippi's are still passing, but in very low numbers now. The Swallow-tailed Kite had a fairly low season, while the season for Mississippi Kite was a little better than average. The current total of 135 Hook-billed Kites seems about average. Last year's total of 200 was the highest on record. For Northern Harrier this is a low year, although some may still pass. The accipiters also are having a low year, while 6 Common Black Hawks is about average for that species.

A Harris' Hawk was seen yesterday, the third for the season, which is still on the low side. Seen two days ago were 4 Red-shouldered Hawks - all in the same line and passing within 10 minutes of each other - and this makes their total 12, which is a good seasonal total. Numbers of Broad-winged Hawks this season are low, but not dramatically so, as last year. Bad weather in the last 10 days of September probably depressed the count results for that species. For Swainson's Hawk (pictured at top), however, this year is already the best year since 2005, and we're not done yet - they too are still moving through in good numbers. Another buteo that is doing well this season is Zone-tailed Hawk; this is already the second best year on record (only 2007 was better). For Red-tailed Hawk it is still too early to say anything.

This is one of more than 1.4 million broadwings counted this year. This is a juvenile bird.

The falcons were late this year, but we're catching up. We've had some good kestrel flights recently and the seasonal total for American Kestrel is getting there, although still on the low side. For Merlin the season is about average, while for Peregrine Falcon this is already the second best year on record.

In the unusual raptor department, there were of course the birds I wrote about in the previous blog entry. We've now also had a couple of White-tailed Kites in the lines that we presumed were migrants, and a couple of days ago a White-tailed Hawk. Last year we saw resident White-tailed Hawks occasionally from both count sites, and they were a common sight near the raptor banding station. This year they are curiously absent: the bird on the count was the only one seen this year anywhere in central Veracruz that I know of. Last year we would occasionally see resident Crane Hawks, but they too are absent this year. Resident raptors here this year are Short-tailed Hawk, Roadside Hawk and Gray Hawk (all three common), and Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Crested Caracara, Snail Kite and White-tailed Kite (less common).

Yesterday, we also had the following raptor at the Chichicaxtle count site (see photo below). For those of you keen on sharpening their raptor ID skills, I'll discuss it first before telling you what it is. (As always on this blog, clicking on any photo will enlarge it for you.)

The bird was not close, yet close enough to observe various details regarding shape and even plumage in this photo. If you know upon just a glance what this is, you know your hawks pretty well. The counter who saw it first said "John, take a look at this, I have no idea what this is" and when I showed the photo last evening to other counters, they too were puzzled. I actually did know almost immediately what it was, and I'm tapping myself on the back here to make up for an earlier identification blunder yesterday, about which more later.

Well, what is striking about this raptor? The fact that it has short, paddle-shaped wings and a long, banded tail. This bird does not look like any of the raptors found in the US, and indeed it is a tropical raptor. In the field, my co-counter suggested Laughing Falcon, but this bird was bigger than that species, and this bird did not have a facial mask. Instead - and this is not visible in the photo but was visible in the field - the bird had a white collar around the neck. It's a Collared Forest-Falcon. Normally a secretive species that "does not soar" according to Howell and Webb, but there it was in the open, and of course soaring. Every once in a while, a bird will do something outside its normal behavioral repertoire.

So yeah, I was reasonably pleased with myself for knowing right away which raptor this was, especially a species you would not expect to see under those conditions. Earlier that day, though, I was alerted to a group of distant waterbirds, that were provisionally identified as Wood Storks. "Well," I said, intending to sound authoritative, "I think they're [American White] pelicans. Look at how they are kettling, all stacked on top of each other. Wood Storks are usually more level with one another in a kettle." I thought I had made a pretty strong case, and then when they streamed out in a line of long bows, I felt certain these were indeed pelicans, not storks. But as they got closer, they somehow morphed into Wood Storks! I felt like an idiot, for we have seen thousands and thousands of both species now - more Wood Storks than American White Pelicans, but still - and I should know how to tell one from the other. Up close they are very different; from a distance they can appear deceptively similar.

Here's a kettle of Wood Storks - ahem, no, I mean American White Pelicans of course, photographed a few days ago in Cardel...

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