Story by Kathy Bricker
If you visit southern Michigan these days, you may see hawks along the highway as they begin to head our direction. About 99% are large stocky birds identified as red-tailed hawks.
In just a few weeks, even with snow on the ground, these and other hawks will begin passing through the Straits of Mackinac, the funneling point leading to their nesting territories in the Upper Peninsula and northern Ontario.
In 2013, 7,578 red-tailed hawks were counted migrating over the Straits, more than any of the other 275hawk count sites in North America. Both diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey are protected by law, acknowledging their importance in the environment.
From lofty vantage points, the hawks scan open areas for small rodents. Travelers should watch for dark shapes that don’t seem to belong to the tree or fence post. Whether sitting or in the air, the red color of thetail is distinctive in adult red-tailed hawks, which are the first hawks to begin migration. Although coloration varies widely, all ages show dark markings, called patagial marks, on the forward leading edge(‘biceps’) of each wing as seen from below.
Awaiting these and other species of hawks at the Straits this year will be a paid, full-time hawk counter employed by the new organization, Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch (MSRW).
MSRW President Ed Pike says, “We are pleased to welcome our new hawk counter, Kevin Georg, coming from Pennsylvania to work here. He has identified and tallied diurnal birds of prey for more than 15 years. He learned to identify hawks at a distance along the Allegheny Front in Pennsylvania and applied those skills at a hawk counting job in Kiptopeke, Virginia. For the past four autumn seasons, he has tallied migrating hawks on the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Texas.”
Pike continues, “Kevin Georg’s experience in the Gulf is especially relevant to accurately counting at the Straits. Watchers in both places have to determine the difference between birds circling overhead as they wait for proper conditions from birds that are actually heading across the open water.”
Georg will conduct daily counts during days of the migration between March 15 to May 31, reporting the data to the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Their website allows free public access toinformation from all hawk counting sites from Panama into Canada. The data enables biologists to determine changes in the populations and movements of these birds. Volunteer naturalists will be on hand at the count site just west of Mackinaw City to help visitors observe and identify the hawks rising on thermals created by the warming ground.
Pike adds, “We wish to thank fifteen individuals, five Audubon groups, and one business for becoming founding members and thus enabling the spring hawk watch and public education. We especially recognize Katie Darrow, the Darrow Family, and Mackinaw City for allowing use of their open land as count sites, and to Emmet County. Support is still needed, as our fundraising focus shifts to the corollary survey of migrating owls, with a first-year budget of $15,420.
Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch is a project of U.S. Inc. Foundation, and donations are tax-deductible. In-kind gifts of bird books, binoculars, and spotting scopes are also appreciated. Questions can be directed to secretary-treasurer Kathy Bricker at 231-627-4830 or email@example.com.