Monday, November 28, 2011

Veracruz season wrap-up

Broad-winged Hawks, Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawks disappearing into a cloud
The Veracruz River of Raptors 2011 season ended 20 November. The total number of raptors counted - nearly 4.5 million - was about average, but that figure hides several surprises this season. Mississippi Kite (324,488), Northern Harrier (872), Peregrine Falcon (1,011) and American Kestrel (5,326) all had their best season ever, as did the two accipiters, Sharp-shinned (3,958) and Cooper's Hawk (2,693). The Red-shouldered Hawk with a season's total of 15 tied with 2009's total for best ever. The Hook-billed Kite count on the other hand ended up as the lowest of the last nine years.

Eagles were again seen this season, and surprisingly early: a Bald Eagle on the first of September, and a Golden Eagle on the 13th of September, followed by another Golden 6 days later. Not surprisingly, I did not see any of these eagles. This was my third year in this project and I am one of the very few if not only counters who has never seen an eagle in Veracruz. I did pick up a Ferruginous Hawk, though.

Of the four bulk species that together make up 99.9% of the flight,  i.e. Mississippi Kite, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk and Turkey Vulture, only the first did well. The other three had average years - the Swainson's Hawk actually a little below average.

The Zone-tailed Hawk flight was early this year, and was well under way by September, with good flights on September 7 (20), Sep 18 (22) and Sep 23 (12). October, however, was disappointing, with only 44 zonetails counted.

Count-wise, a couple of things were different this year. In Cardel, we counted from the roof of Hotel Estación - not from the famous Bienvenido, which had construction going on this fall. Another difference with previous years perhaps was the lack of tour groups visiting the count. Recent media reports of drug violence in the state of Veracruz kept away virtually all visitors from the US. Instead, we had international visitors from Holland, some of whom (Leo, Dick) diligently scoped through the lines and helped us find birds for nearly a month. They were great company, and everyone in the group enjoyed their company. Was their presence beneficial to the count? Quite possibly.

Still, the high counts to me seem real, not a product of increased observer effort. The Mississippi Kite flight for example was more or less counted by the time Leo and Dick showed up. The exceptional Northern Harrier count also was real, as evidenced by extraordinary numbers caught by the Pronatura VRR banding operation, not far from the count site. They caught nearly forty harriers, when only one or two is normal for a season's worth of banding. The nearest hawk count site, the Corpus Christi count site in southern Texas, had their second best harrier season ever. They also had their best and second-best seasons for Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks respectively. Like us, they counted more American Kestrels this year than any other year. Their Peregrine Falcon numbers, however, were not any higher than usual.

Non raptorial highlights this year included a Sandhill Crane on October 4 in Chichicaxtle, a Chihuahuan Raven on October 27 in Cardel, and a couple of Yellow-headed Blackbirds on November 4 in Chichicaxtle. A group of birders from the project led by Irving Chavez Dominguez found a Common Loon on nearby lagoon La Mancha on November 13, a bird that was still present at least 5 days later.

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