The Bradbury Mtn. Hawkwatch Gets Started with a Bang!

Photos and text by Derek Lovitch

Winter still holds Maine in its icy grip, but at Bradbury Mountain, spring hawk migration is well underway,

Winter still holds Maine in its icy grip, but at Bradbury Mountain, spring hawk migration is well underway



Hawkwatches that have operated for decades learn something about hawk migration almost every day. Our hawkwatch, the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch in Pownal, Maine is still in its infancy – this is our 8th season, made possible thanks to the support of Leica Sport Optics – and therefore we have much to learn about how, why, when, how many, and which raptors move past our site.

And the way things are going in the first week of the project this year, we clearly have a lot to learn! If “conventional wisdom” can become established in a mere 7 seasons, then we might be turning conventional wisdom on its head.

As with much of eastern North America, spring has been slow to, well, spring here in Maine. Deep snowcover and persistent cold have conspired to set the season – including its bird migration – at least 2-3 weeks behind schedule. The good news for our hawkwatch is that we were unlikely to miss many of the earliest migrants: Bald Eagles, Turkey Vultures, and Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks that often move before the start of our count on March 15th.

And as it so happens, those species have been on pace to set records already. In fact, today we set a new single-day record of 35 Red-shoulders and 75 Red-tails. While we will readily admit that these numbers pale in comparison to spring count sites around the Great Lakes, for the Eastern Seaboard – and based on our latitude and longitude – our overall numbers (an average of about 4,200 birds per two-month season) continue to surpass our expectations. In fact, we’ve already turned the pre-hawkwatch conventional wisdom on its head for a lot of things. For example, no one had any idea that there were this many Red-shouldered Hawks (our season average is 73, which shockingly has already been eclipsed as of yesterday) north of here! We’re also at the leading edge of the increasing ranges of species such as Turkey Vultures and Cooper’s Hawks, making our data especially useful in helping to gauge the expansion of these birds’ populations.

Perched Red-shouldered Hawk

Perched Red-shouldered Hawk © Jeff Bouton


But back to yesterday.  179 total birds, including those aforementioned records. Not bad, especially on a mostly cloudy day with stiff northwesterly winds. I was glad to be able to spend a few hours on the summit today – a few hours that I was not expecting to be so fruitful. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on going up the hill today.

After my plans to take part in the gluttonous sugar-high that is Maine Maple Sunday fell apart at the last minute, I lacked motivation when that alarm when off in the morning. I thought about where to go birding, but not having anything exciting come to mind, I may have rolled over…for the next hour and a half. Oops. Then, my wife Jeannette, feeling sorry for my failed attempt at overdosing on liquid gold, whipped up a batch of pancakes – which I proceeded to douse with an unreasonable amount of syrup, as is tradition on this glorious day.

Fueled by the sugar, I finally motivated to walk the dog. That’s when Katrina called, “You might want to come up today after all.” Winds were still out of the southwest aloft, which really got birds moving, but even after a shift to a chilly northwest, the parade continued.  As I arrived at the summit, I joked, “I’m only up here for a Rough-leg,” but of course I was happy to marvel in this most unexpected, record-breaking flight.

With pancake power running low, it was time for me to depart and head into the store for the afternoon. As the skies cleared, Jeannette decided to spend a little time at the hawkwatch today as well.  And that Rough-legged Hawk I was asking for? Yup, it came cruising over shortly after she arrived.   (We only average less than one a year; unlike Red-shoulders, this was far fewer than we hypothesized before the project started). I probably deserved that as punishment for my lethargy to start the day. Lesson learned: this is not the season to assume we know what to expect (or not) at the hawkwatch on a given day.

In other words, have some pancakes, douse them with maple syrup, and then head up to your favorite hawkwatch!  There’s much to be learned, and that knowledge is not going to come by lying around the house resting on preconceived notions. Besides, is there really such thing as a “bad day” of hawkwatching?