2017-05-04 / Front Page

Hawk Watch, Bird Count Scanning Skies, Lakes at Straits

Near-albino Hawks, High Numbers of Loons Among Notable Sights
By Erich T. Doerr


Josh Jaeger of San Diego, California, is the counter for this year’s Mackinac Straits Waterbird Count taking place right now on the shores of Lake Michigan at McGulpin Point in Mackinaw City. Here Mr. Jaeger is pictured at his spotting location inside a waterfront gazebo Friday morning, April 28, with the Mackinac Bridge and Mackinac Island visible in the distance. Josh Jaeger of San Diego, California, is the counter for this year’s Mackinac Straits Waterbird Count taking place right now on the shores of Lake Michigan at McGulpin Point in Mackinaw City. Here Mr. Jaeger is pictured at his spotting location inside a waterfront gazebo Friday morning, April 28, with the Mackinac Bridge and Mackinac Island visible in the distance. The skies above the Straits of Mackinac are filled with migrating birds right now, and both the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch and Mackinac Straits Waterbird Count are working to count all the birds as they move through the region at its natural bottleneck in Mackinaw City. This is the second year the watches have been conducted side by side after the waterbird count began in 2016. Both watches are open for the public to visit and observe.

“A lot of people have attended the watch and observed the hawks in migration,” said Raptor Watch Chairperson Ed Pike. “You can sometimes see hundreds of birds in the air at one time.”


A pair of common merganser ducks, a male (right) and a female, fly just above the waves on Lake Michigan near the Mackinaw City shoreline Friday, April 28. Mergansers are some of the more common sights at the count this year, with both the common and red-breasted varieties being regulars in the area. A third type of merganser, the hooded merganser, is rare here. A pair of common merganser ducks, a male (right) and a female, fly just above the waves on Lake Michigan near the Mackinaw City shoreline Friday, April 28. Mergansers are some of the more common sights at the count this year, with both the common and red-breasted varieties being regulars in the area. A third type of merganser, the hooded merganser, is rare here. Both the hawk watch and water bird count are underway daily in Mackinaw City. The waterbird count takes place on the shore of Lake Michigan at McGulpin Point, starting each morning at sunrise and running for eight hours. The hawk watch, on most days, takes place behind the Mackinaw City Recreation Complex at 507 West Central Avenue. Its start time is affected by weather conditions, but most days see the watch beginning sometime between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. then continuing throughout the day until about 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Bulletin boards behind the recreation center feature updated statistics on how the watch has gone this year. Waterbirds like ducks will fly in most kinds of weather, but raptors prefer only good weather. The raptor watch occasionally moves west to the storage area at Darrow Brothers Excavating gravel pit if strong easterly winds move through the area and reroute the birds.


Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch counter Jason Newton of Aurora, Illinois, uses a piece of equipment to measure weather conditions, including temperature, wind speed, and atmospheric pressure during the watch Friday afternoon, April 28. This year’s raptor watch typically counts migrating birds of prey behind the Mackinaw City Recreation Complex on West Central Avenue. Updated information on the watch’s statistics this season is posted daily on the bulletin boards visible here behind Mr. Newton. The watch will continue through June 5. Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch counter Jason Newton of Aurora, Illinois, uses a piece of equipment to measure weather conditions, including temperature, wind speed, and atmospheric pressure during the watch Friday afternoon, April 28. This year’s raptor watch typically counts migrating birds of prey behind the Mackinaw City Recreation Complex on West Central Avenue. Updated information on the watch’s statistics this season is posted daily on the bulletin boards visible here behind Mr. Newton. The watch will continue through June 5. Jason Newton of Aurora, Illinois, is handling the raptor watch after doing the waterbird count last year. Josh Jaeger of San Diego, California is the new waterbird counter.

The hawk watch started March 5 and will continue through June 5. Overall, the 2017 count has seen lower numbers than recent years, with the sightings of red-tailed hawks and golden eagles down from their record-setting totals of recent years. Totals will be taken at the end of the season.

“Despite the lower numbers, we are doing well,” Mr. Newton said. “It’s important to document all these trends and this data over the years. It gives us insight into the population sizes and how they fluctuate.”

There is no way to know for sure what is causing the lower migration numbers this year, he said. One possibility is that the change is caused by weather, with systems possibly altering migration flight patterns as storms direct birds onto different routes. Mr. Pike said changes like this are a good reason to monitor migrations and collect the data so trends may be developed using the data in the years to come.

Broad-winged hawks and redtailed hawks are the most common species being spotted in Mackinaw City right now. While the red tail numbers are slowing, the broad winged migration is picking up, with 200 to 400 hawks a day coming through the area. Other birds seen in large numbers this year include sharp-shinned hawks, golden eagles, and bald eagles. The broad-winged hawks have the latest migration of area raptors and their numbers are expected to pick up in the coming weeks, with some days of more than 1,000 birds expected, before it tails off in mid-May. The migration is not yet to the midpoint of the broad wing season, with the peak of their migration still approaching.

Most of the eagles that migrate through the Straits have already gone north, especially the older birds heading to their nesting grounds. There are still a few eagles coming through the area, especially more immature golden eagles and other young birds surveying to find suitable areas for future nesting.

The watch has drawn up to 15 visitors a day on weekends with a few more coming by on weekdays.

“There are quite a few people attending to learn about the raptors in migration,” Mr. Pike said.

The watch has spotted an unusually high number of leucistic red-tail hawks, a white almost albino variant of the species, this year. So far in 2017, the watch has spotted between eight and 10 of the birds, while past years normally recorded two or three.

The hawk watch spotted one new type of bird this year when it documented its first Harlan’s red-tailed hawk earlier this spring. Harlan’s red-tails usually nest in northwestern North America, in Alaska and northern portions of Canada, and winter in the Great Plains area of the central United States. Michigan is far away from the species’ normal migration routes, but some do winter in the Midwest, providing the likely source of the Straits visitor. There have been only five accepted, documented sightings ever of a Harlan’s red-tailed hawk in Michigan.

“He took a wrong turn, you might say,” Mr. Pike said of the bird.

The waterbird count began March 26 and will continue through May 16. Its start date was delayed six days this year by late winter conditions in the Straits area, as the count could only began after the ice along the shoreline broke up.

Mr. Jaeger said the waterbird count is his first time working this far north, although his prior experience has taken him around the world, including working in Costa Rica and Japan. He’s previously worked in a wide variety of biologyrelated endeavors, including field research, marine biology, animal husbandry, and public outreach efforts. He took the position with the waterbird count to expand his studies and gain experience in advance of graduate school. A good number of people have come by to talk with him and learn about the migration.

“We’ve been going well,” Mr. Jaeger said. “This has been a new experience for me… It is very independent.”

Like the raptor watch, the waterbird count has also seen some unexpected variation in its migration figures this year, with some species being seen more often. The watch has been recording 30 to 60 loon sightings each day, compared to 15 to 30 last year. The number of whitewinged scoter, a solid black variety of large sea duck, has also been exceptional this year, although their sightings are slowing. Earlier this year, as many as 50 of the birds could be seen each day with the numbers now around 30 a day. Mr. Jaeger said he expected to see more long-tailed ducks. Up to 500 of those sea ducks could be seen a day last year, but this year the figure has usually been about 100 or 200 a day, instead.

The current waterbirds migrating through the area include horned grebe, red-necked grebe, greater scaup, and Bonaparte’s gull. Mr. Jaeger is expecting the number of Bonaparte’s gulls to pick up more in the coming weeks. The most common species being seen at the watch right now include red-breasted mergansers, long-tailed ducks, common loons, white-winged scoters, horned grebes, and double-crested cormorants. Earlier in the year, the redbreasted mergansers were still common, along with common mergansers, common goldeneyes, and Canada geese.

Mr. Jaeger has seen several new species of bird this year that weren’t sighted during last year’s inaugural count, including Caspian terns and snow geese, at one point sighting a flock of 20 of the latter. Red-throated loons have also been seen; they are rare for the spring migration, but more common in the fall. A few great egrets have also been seen this year, an unusual occurrence since that species prefers marshy areas, making them rare in the Straits’ waters.

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