Braddock Bay Hawkwatch: Tales from the platform

Unlike our sister hawkwatch at Bradbury Mountain, Braddock Bay Hawkwatch, New York has a long and storied history as a watch. In fact the area has long been known as a site where raptors congregate, and older members of the birding community sadly still remember people using migrant hawks for target practice. Though already known as a site where raptors could be viewed, the watch really kicked off when two local birders, influenced by the 1960’s and 1970’s boom in hawkwatching, started collecting data from the site.

Braddock Bay Hawkwatch © Luke Tiller

Braddock Bay Hawkwatch © Luke Tiller

The genesis from a personal project of Neil and Laura Moon to full time professional watch was completed by the creation of Braddock Bay Raptor Research in 1986. Jeff Dodge, founder of BBRR decided that he wanted the best watcher out there and hired a young but incredibly skilled hawkwatcher who was counting in Cape May: Frank Nicoletti. Apparently Frank wasn’t the only thing BBRR borrowed from Cape May with the hawkwatch platform based on the designs for the original platform at Cape May.

I personally started at the watch after Pete Gustas, a good friend and hawkwatching mentor, mentioned that they were looking for a new counter at Braddock Bay and would I be interested in applying for it. After he told me a little detail about the size of the usual flights (an average of over 50,000 raptors) I immediately said sure, obviously completely ignoring the warnings he gave me about the cold (funny how good birds will make you ignore any possible down sides to a situation).

Red-tailed Hawk © Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk © Luke Tiller

As well as a storied history as a watch, the site also has a storied history of watchers. Past BBRR watchers have included Jerry Liguori, Brian Sullivan and Frank Nicoletti, you just might have heard of them ;) The others involved at BBRR reads like a who’s who of raptor experts and birding world doyens including Leica’s own Jeff Bouton. No pressure then, I thought, as I headed out for my first day at the watch.

In my first year counting we incredibly managed to log the largest recorded Spring single day count in the US and Canada that the Hawk Migration Association of North America has on record. That day saw 39,417 Broad-winged Hawks alone pass the site and 42,235 raptors in total. You can read more about that day on my personal blog (here). As someone who often has optics glued to their eyes for eight to ten hours straight I can tell you that I appreciate the need for quality optics in order to keep your eyes free from the stresses and strains that poor ones can cause.

Like Bradbury, our count has seen the spread of the Turkey Vultures northwards, with early 1980’s counts tracking as few as two thousand birds. This compares to the latest counts which have seen ten times that number. Since 2010 we are perhaps seeing the start of a similar expansion of their southern cousin the Black Vulture. Braddock is also long running enough to have clocked the bounce back of the Bald Eagle. Recent late season flights of eagles, mainly recently hatched birds from southern states, can be incredible here. On our best day for ‘Southern Bald Eagle’ flights we clocked 94 of them (May 29th 2011), more than we tallied in our first five full time seasons of the watch (more on ‘Southern Balds here).

As well as the scientific research, the other most important part of the watch is education. It was a careful and important choice to have the watch located in a public park so that we could interact with visitors and tell them what we’re up to. Importantly we get to show the public hawks and eagles, and with all due respect to birders who love picking through the intricacies of gull identification, nothing tends to grab a not-yet-a-birders attention as much as being shown a passing Bald Eagle. Watches also work well as it doesn’t ruin the birding if the kids want to run around and shout and get excited when they see something cool! As part of our education work BBRR also runs the only raptor banding station that the public can just walk up and visit without a prior appointment.

Merlin © Luke Tiller

Merlin © Luke Tiller

As a hawkwatcher, one of the things I like most is that we get to share a couple of environmental success stories with people. Often being involved in conservation means sharing a stream of tales of woe, but with raptors you get to share success stories about birds like the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon and importantly show that where there is a will there can be a way for us to make a positive contribution towards our environment. A little sugar can be a great thing in my opinion.

We are really excited to have Leica as a supporter of the watch. Braddock Bay has always been known to those that really love hawkwatching and to local birders but it’s a place so special that Daena Ford and Anne Schnell (joint heads of BBRR), our incredible volunteers and myself are determined to share with an ever wider audience. Thanks to Leica for enabling us to do that. Come join us just north of Rochester, NY on this little strip of paradise called Braddock Bay.