Written by Kathy Bricker
Hawks migrating north through the Straits of Mackinac reached a record count this spring of 43,191 birds, including more than 800 eagles.
Since the 1960s, nature observers have realized that the Straits concentrates north-bound birds because the tapering shape of the lower peninsula funnels them to the narrowest place to cross the Great Lakes. In 2014, for the first time, their passage through Mackinaw City was tracked by a professional hawk counter, hired by the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch, a new organization devoted to research and public education about hawks and owls.
Its chair Ed Pike relays: “Between March 15 and June 4, Kevin Georg from Pennsylvania and local volunteer experts spent 481 hours tracking raptors. They identified sixteen species of raptors, including the first ever Ferruginous Hawk. This prairie species winters in California, Texas, and Mexico and breeds out west in brushy open country.” Pike added that while these hawks are rarely encountered in Michigan, one was identified along the south shore of Lake Superior a few days prior.
The number of birds as well as the observation time roughly doubled the previous high year of 2013 when volunteers counted for 246 hours and recorded 22,488 raptors. Data appears on the websites of Hawk Migration Association of North America and eBird, and is being archived by the University of Michigan Biological Station. More Red-tailed Hawks, 9,702, were counted than any of the other 270 hawk sites in the country. However, many people were surprised that no black vultures appeared, since a few of these southern species were seen during both of the last two years. Additional years of counting will indicate patterns useful to conservation biologists concerned with habitat protection.
Public education was another highlight this year. Increased on-line and print media coverage encouraged attendance at the hawk watch, with more than 350 visits recorded. Pike says “Although temperatures seldom reached 50 F. until mid-May and the late snowmelt and Great Lakes ice created high winds, many people still came to watch the hawks kettle (fly upward in spirals on rising air currents to conserve energy).”
Visitors came from nearly all Emmet and Cheboygan County communities as well as 29 other cities throughout Michigan (Alpena, Auburn Hills, Cadillac, Cedarville, Dewitt, Farmington Hills, Fenton, Flat Rock, Flint, Hancock, Kentwood, Kinross, Lansing, Lapeer, Lewiston, Luther, Manistique, Maple City, Maryville, Mason, National City, Oscoda, Pinckney, Rochester Hills, Rogers City, Tawas, Troy, Vulcan, and West Branch) and from the states of Delaware, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. Many children and two school groups were introduced to the migration phenomenon.
Pike reports that the hawk count cost slightly less than the $6,600 budgeted, due to erecting a wind break rather than an open observation platform. “Cash and in-kind contributors who enabled this success include Emmet County, U.S. Inc. and MPS Foundations, five Audubon societies (Straits Area, Petoskey Regional, Michigan, Kalamazoo, and Grand Traverse), seven businesses (Darrow Excavating, Deering Tree Service, Hamilton Inn Select, Maple Ridge Hardwoods, National Office Products and Printing, Screen Graphics, and Wolverine Camps), the Holiday Beach Conservation Area, and 23 families. We thank them for their belief and investment in the Raptor Watch, which paid off in both great scientific research and public education.”
The final count by species was:
Bald Eagle 649
Golden Eagle 164
Northern Harrier 82
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1836
Cooper’s Hawk 38
Northern Goshawk 5
Red-shouldered Hawk 58
Broad-winged Hawk 26709
Red-tailed Hawk 9702
Rough-legged Hawk 278
Ferruginous Hawk 1
Swainson’s Hawk 3
American Kestrel 37
Turkey Vulture 3467
unknown accipter 11
unknown buteo 3
The Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch (www.straitsraptorwatch.org) is now nearing the financial goal to conduct the 2014 fall owl migration survey and invites contributions for that effort. Owls will be surveyed on the north side of the Straits before they head south to wintering territories. Public viewing will be available for this study as well. To donate or for more information, contact Ed Pike at 231-758-3319.