Leica Birding Team: Luke Tiller

Leica Birding Team member Tom Johnson puts questions to fellow team member Luke Tiller. Originally from London England, Luke transplanted to the United States in 2003. Surrounded by wildlife he found his love of birds reignited. Employed as a hawkwatcher, his passion, experience and knowledge saw him recently added to the Hawk Migration Association of North America board. He currently counts hawks at Braddock Bay, NY, leads birding tours for Sunrise Birding and HMANA and writes for a number of publications on both sides of ‘The Pond’.

Luke Tiller - on a boat for a change.

Luke Tiller – on a boat for a change.

1. You’re from the UK, but I understand that you really fell head over heels for birds and birding once you moved to the United States. How did you come to see the light?

I always liked birds, though my dad seems to be convinced that most of the time we went birding together as a kid I spent the majority of it complaining. What I really loved was reading my dad’s field guides, though I also loved reading my parent’s cocktail making guide too and for my college years one came in handier than the other. That said I always had an interest, it just wasn’t quite so…focused.

2. The obvious follow-up question – what is it about North American birds that makes them so superior to English birds?

Don’t tell any British birders, but their birds just aren’t that exciting. ;) I suggest American readers take a cursory perusal of a few plates of Eurasian warblers and the reason so many British birders can be found in the United States will become self evident. In fact I always tell people how much I laughed when I saw the Peterson’s ‘confusing fall warblers’ page in my first US field guide. If these little gems were supposed to be confusing, I’d hate to imagine what the plates for Eurasian warblers would be described as. Actually the sad situation when I was growing up was that, mainly due to persecution by landowners and the hunting community, raptors were not at all common in my part of the UK, thankfully attitudes are mainly changing on that front.

Braddock Bay 2014 - Catherine Hamilton

Braddock Bay 2014 – Catherine Hamilton

3. In your current position as hawk counter at Braddock Bay in New York, you spend long hours in one spot watching and tallying migrants. Would you describe one of your favorite Braddock Bay flights for us?

I guess people always expect you to pick the biggest one when they ask about your favorite flight, but in reality on those days it’s sometimes more work than pleasure. I know people who turned down counting at Veracruz just because they thought it would be impossible to spend any time actually enjoying the flight.

I’ve had so many incredible days at Braddock Bay it is really hard to pick just the one: the time a Mississippi Kite flew in at treetop height just as I’d gotten out of the car, the time I’d been moving to and from our south lookout most of the morning only to arrive back at the park just in time to catch a slow and low light Swainson’s or the time that I turned up at the watch to find a Cattle Egret blocking my path to the platform?

As single days go though I think the one that really sticks out in my mind was May 24th 2012 as it produced an incredible run of birds. Pre-hawkwatching I’d already some nice warblers, but amongst my first couple of birds at the platform were a group of three doves, one of which flashed me distinct white commas as it passed the watch: White-winged Dove. From there we went on an awesome run with Mississippi Kite, Fish Crow, Black Vulture and American White Pelican rounding out an incredible run of excellent species at the watch. It was all mixed in with a nice late season flight of Broad-winged hawks and Bald Eagles, which kept the day interesting.

Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

4. Hawk counting requires patience, skill, and the will to ignore inhospitable weather. You’ve been counting hawks for 8 seasons – what keeps bringing you back?

I guess the thing I like about hawkwatching is that it allows you to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of migration. At Braddock Bay the lake creates an incredible buffer and funnel for all kinds of migration and to be honest I love the huge passerine and waterfowl flights as much as the raptors.

I also think this kind of birding is a great way to spark people’s interest in the natural world. I like discussing subspecific ID’s of juncos as much as anyone, but to grab people who haven’t thought about birds or birding before you need to show them something amazing and cool. In my experience the spectacle of migration and/or eagles, falcons and hawks turns on yet-to-be birders like nothing else.

The other thing that brings me back is the incredible people I’ve met at the places I’ve counted. At Braddock I have a great set of friends that I see intensively for three months of the year. Like a lot of birding it’s the social experience that makes it so special to me. The great thing about hawkwatching is that you can have thirty of your buddies all birding together and it doesn’t make a jot of difference to the birds, not quite the same if you are out looking for warblers.


5. In your work as a birding guide, you must have developed a few tricks to keep everyone happy throughout a trip. What’s the ideal birding/natural history tour like from your perspective as a leader?

I like to think a sense of humor goes a long way. Birding holidays can be tiring and it can often feel like you need another vacation at the end of them just to recover. I think keeping things light hearted is the best way to get through those mornings where you need a third coffee to clear the fog. Also just having a grasp of what participants want to get out of the trip helps, it’s no point racking up a wild list for the tour if most of the people there would have happily seen half the number of species but gotten much better views of and learned a little more about the ones you did see.

6. What else should the world know about you, Luke Tiller?

I have a degree in philosophy, and I find there is nothing to make one doubts one’s own existence more than a biting wind and a pale blue sky devoid of hawks.

iamahawkwatcher - Catherine Hamilton

iamahawkwatcher – Catherine Hamilton