Saturday, October 31, 2009

Winding down

The hawk counting season here in Veracruz is nearing its end, and the raptor flight this late into the season is dominated by the two species illustrated above: Turkey Vulture and Swainson's Hawk. We're still getting a few broadwing stragglers; Mississippi Kites have all gone through. Yesterday, an immature Zone-tailed Hawk was a late migrant, for most of them have passed too. Late in the season, we can still expect modest numbers of redtails, and probably some more Turkey Vultures. Migration of Swainson's Hawks will soon be over. Currently, the season total stands at almost 4.5 million birds, a sizeable improvement over last year when the count stalled at 3.3 million. An interesting sighting for me personally was a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk which sailed high over Cardel recently. A striking bird: a long-winged buteo with whitish flight feathers in the wings and tail, contrasting with dark brown body feathers and underwing coverts.

This is a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a primarily South American species that is known to wander widely and will sometimes show up in the United States. Here in Veracruz, it is fairly common in cattle pastures near the dunes.

I'm looking forward to another Golden-cheeked Warbler field season in Central America, only three weeks away, and was pleased to note yesterday that the Micheletti administration in Honduras struck a deal with the ousted Honduran president Zelaya. Elections are scheduled for November 29, in which neither Zelaya nor Micheletti will be candidates. As the country returns to political stability after a coup last summer, it should be safe enough for us to do field work there.

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...

Friday, October 16, 2009


So much to write about, so little time.

Today a short update on some of the more notable recent sightings from the Veracruz River of Raptor counts in Cardel and Chichicaxtle.

Perhaps the weirdest sighting, and still controversial, was that of a Northern Goshawk on the 4th of October. The bird was in a line, fairly low, that I was counting overhead in Cardel. Irving was scanning this line a little farther ahead, and suddenly came over to me all excited saying "John! John! Take a look at this bird!" At that moment, the bird was directly overhead and for about 2 seconds, I got to look at it, before it disappeared behind the top structure of the hotel. It was obviously a very large accipiter. When I lowered my binoculars, I looked at Irving and said "Goshawk??" That's what it looked like to me, and evidently that was also what it looked like to him. But that's a bird so unlikely to show up here that I remained incredulous for a while. We both saw the bird well, and although the lighting conditions were not sufficient to note plumage details, the shape and the sheer size of the bird - much bigger than any Cooper's Hawk I've ever seen - seemed to point to that species. Of course there are no photos of this bird, and for this reason it will probably remain controversial. Fact is that two competent observers saw this bird not very far and both independently reached the same conclusion. On the other hand, supportive plumage details would have been a lot better. It's a sighting that I personally am not very happy with - it went by too fast to be 100% sure.

I also got to see a Ferruginous Hawk, further away but visible for a longer time. It was in a line I was counting and I almost immediately knew what it was, even though I had never seen one before. I called Rigo, one of the other counters, who looked at the bird through the scope and confirmed the identification. This was on October 7. Another one was seen on October 13.

A couple of Jabirus were seen recently, I don't remember exactly which date. Wish I had seen them; there was one last year and I missed that one. It's a species I have yet to see for the first time.

And only a few days ago, on October 13, a probable Rough-legged Hawk was seen and in fact photographed in Cardel. Two photos were taken of the bird, neither one of very high quality. The photos have been reviewed by various experts and nobody seems to be able to flat out call it a unquestionable Rough-legged Hawk, although most reviewers tend to lean towards that species. I wasn't there so I never saw the bird, I've only seen the photos. The bird in the photos shows carpal patches, but lacks a belly shield - unusual for a Rough-legged Hawk.

Anyway. The photos today are of completely different species. The bird at the top, flying near the moon, is a Hook-billed Kite, while the second photo in today's entry is of a dark morph Broad-winged Hawk. We see them every day and every once in a while, one is low enough to get a decent photo of.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Raptor banding again

Thursday, on one of my days off, I went with Yani to the raptor banding site at Cansaburro, in the dunes 20 km north of Cardel. I had visited this site last year and thought I knew where it was, but we actually got off the bus about 500 m too soon, and then got lost for a while in the cane fields. It was hot and as we crossed cow pastures and ran into local farmers, I felt like an idiot for getting us lost, especially since I had repeatedly and confidently stated that I knew exactly where the banding site was. More than an hour later than planned we did eventually get there, where Gustavo and Lynn were banding that day. A British photographer, Iain, was also there on assignment for National Audubon’s magazine. We had missed a Zone-tailed Hawk and a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and for a while it was slow going in the blind. The atmosphere was relaxed and we enjoyed the conversation. Slightly hung-over from the night before and on very little sleep, I actually did OK considering. I had made armadillo sandwiches from leftover armadillo (roasted at the party the night before), which Yani, Lynn and Gustavo enjoyed but which Iain politely declined. Later in the afternoon, almost as soon as he left to catch his flight to Los Angeles, we started getting birds: two Merlins, two more sharpies, and a Cooper’s Hawk.

One the Merlins (top photo) had just eaten, with bits of passerine and a drop of blood still on the beak and throat.

Merlins are so aggressive, they will even come in on pigeons as lure, even though the pigeon is actually bigger than the Merlin.

Here I am in the blind holding a Merlin.

And after it was banded I got to release it.

A juvenile Northern Harrier also showed an interest, but you don’t catch them with pigeons.

A few days ago, while I was counting in Cardel on the rooftop of Hotel Bienvenidos, I was correctly identified by none other than Steve Howell, one of the world’s top birders, and author of the definitive bird guide to Mexico and Central America. There currently is an American Birding Association convention going on here in Veracruz, and Steve Howell is one of the leaders on their field trips. He was at our count site for about 5 seconds, during which he asked co-counter Rigo about the flight. Rigo told him the flight had moved inland, and that Chichicaxtle would now be the better observation site. He then said “thank you Rigo, thank you John” and left, and I thought: how does he know my name? He never introduced himself. (I was busy counting.) Well, he probably made his identification based on behavior and plumage. I was one of only two people on that roof using clickers – a strong clue for me being a counter. Also I was wearing an official Pronatura t-shirt worn only by counters and assistant counters – another clue. He probably then focused in on a plumage detail: the small name tag I happened to be wearing.

I also met Bill Clark, author of several North American raptor field guides, with whom I talked for quite a bit today. This was again in Cardel, where as usual the flight had moved inland in the afternoon. Thus we had ample opportunity to observe our winter resident Peregrine chase off other Peregrines crossing its air space, and discuss some finer details of raptor identification. Our pleasant conversation ended abruptly when the construction crew – there’s still construction going on at the roof of the hotel – started blasting reggaeton through the speakers they were about to install.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Higher numbers continue

Good hawk flights continue here in Veracruz, with daily totals of at least 70,000 raptors for four consecutive days.

Broadwings and, to a lesser extent, Turkey Vultures dominate the flight this part of the season, while Swainson's Hawks are seen daily in low numbers.

We also had a good Wood Stork flight yesterday, with 3,110 migrants counted. After a long day of travel, these three were looking for a place to spend the night.