2017-10-26 / Front Page

Raptor Watch Scans Skies at St. Ignace

By Erich T. Doerr


The Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch is conducting a volunteerrun fall raptor migration count right now at Point LaBarbe in St. Ignace to track the number of birds of prey flying through the area to see if it justifies a full count with a paid counter in the future. Here are Raptor Watch volunteer Bruce Seeger (left) and chairman Ed Pike during a brief pause in the action, with the Straits of Mackinac and the Lower Peninsula visible behind them. Mr. Seeger brought his camera hoping to photograph some of the birds, and he’s pleased with the wide variety he’s seen so far. The Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch is conducting a volunteerrun fall raptor migration count right now at Point LaBarbe in St. Ignace to track the number of birds of prey flying through the area to see if it justifies a full count with a paid counter in the future. Here are Raptor Watch volunteer Bruce Seeger (left) and chairman Ed Pike during a brief pause in the action, with the Straits of Mackinac and the Lower Peninsula visible behind them. Mr. Seeger brought his camera hoping to photograph some of the birds, and he’s pleased with the wide variety he’s seen so far. The Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch has been becoming something of a tradition in the Straits area in recent years, monitoring the annual northern migration for birds of prey each spring. Many of those same birds come back through the Straits area in the fall on their way south and that has prompted the hawk watch to launch a volunteer-run fall bird count right now as an experiment to see if the count’s numbers justify a full count with a paid counter in the future.

The fall count is operating right now in St. Ignace at Point La Barbe, the first hawk count to be operated from the northern side of the Straits, instead of Mackinaw City.

“I enjoy being here,” Raptor Watch Chairperson Ed Pike said. “This is interesting research. No one has ever tracked the fall migration before.”

The St. Ignace watch began in earnest September 1 after some early examination in August. Mr. Pike, one of the watch’s primary volunteer spotters, said it is expected that the watch will continue through about mid-November depending on the number of birds flying through the area.

The hawk watch has no prior data on when the fall migration begins and ends, leading to some experimentation this year in timing as participants look at the viability of a full count. The count is open for the public to visit and staffed at Point La Barbe most days from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., depending on the weather.

Raptors tend not to fly in rainy conditions or if winds exceed 15 miles per hour. A team of five counters is handling most of the work this fall, including Mr. Pike, Raptor Watch committee member Steve Baker, and volunteer Bruce Seeger.

Mr. Seeger joined Mr. Pike in handling the spotting duties Friday, October 13, and brought along his camera for photographing the birds when possible. The watch has started to get more visitors in recent weeks as word is starting to get out that it is taking place.

“The more eyes (watching) the better,” Mr. Pike said.

“This is a lot of fun and very educational,”

Mr. Seeger said. “There aren’t many places you can see raptors in the numbers we do here.”

The counters keep track of the birds they spot using a tablet computer. Their findings then are posted daily on the raptor watch’s website, mackinacraptorwatch.org. During the watch’s early weeks, the most common bird sighted has been the sharp-shinned hawk. There have also been fair numbers spotted for a variety of hawk and eagle species, plus turkey vultures.

Mr. Pike said, so far, the numbers the count has recorded have been good. It is likely the hawk watch will go ahead with a full count in the future if the funding needed to operate it is available.

“I think it has potential,” Mr. Pike said.

Mr. Pike said he believes the peak of the migration is now approaching, He expects more red-tailed hawks in the coming weeks and that roughlegged hawks will come later in the season. He also hopes to see increases in the number of golden eagles coming through the area. Rough-legged hawks and golden eagles nest further north than some of the other birds, so their southern migrations may take longer.

It is not uncommon to see birds rising above the Straits area in kettles, large groups all flying together on a rising thermal of hot air, but they have not been as regular a sight as they are in the spring. Some birds have proved hard to spot as many are often flying high in the sky.

Mr. Pike is interested to see, once all the numbers are in for the fall migration, if the order of species is reversed or not from the spring count. While establishing trends requires years of data, so far, there have been early indications that there are some differences between the spring and fall migrations.

The number of sharp-shinned hawks counted, so far, is higher for the fall migration. Broad-winged hawks are most common bird of prey in the spring, with counts usually totaling between 10,000 to 15,000 birds, but their fall numbers aren’t as high in the Straits area. With their migration likely almost over, higher numbers this year have been spotted near Escanaba, implying the birds are flying west though Wisconsin on their way south, instead of coming through the Straits.

Mr. Seeger said the most enjoyable aspect of the watch is identifying the various birds of prey. He loves the variety of color the Straits migration is offering; red-tailed hawks with color variations from much whiter to much darker than normal have both been spotted this fall.

The southern migration destinations of the birds vary by species. Red-tailed hawks, for instance, usually stay in the United States, but broad -winged hawks often fly as far south as Central and South America. Mr. Pike said most birds would only fly far enough south that their food becomes easily locatable before settling in for the winter.

Mr. Pike noted the fall watch is the first time he’s conducted a hawk count on the Upper Peninsula side of the Straits of Mackinac, although he has taken part in owl research campaigns here. Point La Barbe was selected as the spotting site for the watch because its position at the St. Ignace mainland’s southernmost tip makes it natural funnel for birds flying over.

Mr. Pike likes the location, since it also offers the counters a wide view of the horizon, giving them a clear view to determine whether birds flying up to the Straits proceed across the water or reroute in another direction. Friday, 65 turkey vultures gathered at the Straits, but flew off to the west, rather than cross.

The highest count achieved for the watchers so far this fall was recorded Wednesday, October 11, as almost 800 birds flew through the area, nearly half of which were turkey vultures.

The others seen that day included red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, sharp-shinned hawks, and a single red-shouldered hawk.

The rarest bird spotted so far has been a frigatebird, a species usually found in Florida and Texas. The spotting might be the first ever for the species in the Upper Peninsula and just the sixth in Michigan history. Mr. Pike believed the bird was likely blown north by the recent hurricanes down south.

The Mackinac Straits Waterbird Count’s fall migration count is also active right now, running from August 20 to November 10 at McGulpin Point in Mackinaw City. Aspen Ellis is serving as its official counter. Like the hawk watch, the waterbird count is open to the public. This year’s waterbird count is the second official count: the fall count there originated as an experiment in the fall of 2015 and is similar to the current hawk count.

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