Hawk Count-September 27th Through 30th and September Overview

Turkey Vultures moving ahead of the front

Raptors: 3 of the last 4 days of September had at least a drizzle throughout most of the count period. The expected amazing day, Saturday, September 28th, was very good, but more like a moderate version of what was hoped for/expected.

September 27th: Rain occurred from 11:45 throughout the rest of the count period. Most interesting was the 2nd highest Turkey Vulture day (88) of the season and a Merlin.

September 28th: The 2nd best day of the season, with 528 raptors comprised of 9 species. Turkey Vultures had by far their best day of the season, with 226 individuals. Of the 226 Vultures, 218 crossed the straits. Red-shouldered Hawk also had its best day of the season, with 2 adult birds. Bald Eagle (53) and Broad-winged Hawk (171) had their 2nd best day of the season. Sharp-shinned Hawks (63) had a very disappointing showing as did the falcons, with just 6 recorded. Red-tailed Hawks decided they didn’t want to start leaving just yet, with a measly 5 birds recorded. Sandhill Cranes (1,165) turned up, with their first 4-digit day, mainly occurring between 11 and 3. Canada Goose (370) had a decent, but smaller than expected, day.

September 29th: There was a drizzle, with the occasional light rain from 11:40 through the rest of the count period. This significantly hampered the count, with just 44 raptors recorded. Northern Harrier (3), American Kestrel (9), and Peregrine Falcon (1) were the most notable.

September 30th: Another day affected by weather, but very interesting nonetheless. Heavy rain, with the occasional thunderstorm, occurred from 11:00 through the rest of the count period. 153 raptors were recorded, comprised of Turkey Vulture (142) and Sharp-shinned Hawk (11). Upon arrival, it was rather dark, with very low clouds, indicative of the weather that was to come. That didn’t stop the vultures though. After only recording 2 vultures the day before, a day that had occasional light rain until 4:00, a large group of 104 vultures greeted me along the road upon arrival at the hawk watch (8:50). The winds were 10-12 mph, initially from the east and quickly switching to the southeast. The large vulture group frequently broke up into 3 or 4 groups, quickly re-grouped into one group, then broke up into smaller groups over the next few hours. One could really get a sense of urgency these vultures had to migrate before the approaching thunderstorms. Initially a group of 20 headed out over the straits with the remaining 84 still debating crossing the straits on essentially no thermals. While they debated making a bolt for it across the straits, the group soon grew to 122 individuals. Looking at the radar, large cells were quickly approaching from the west, and it was interesting that these vultures hadn’t yet put down for the day in St. Ignace. Most of the group soon headed out to Green Island, circling profusely, and faster than I’ve ever seen vultures do before. Clearly, they wanted to move before the weather, despite less than optimal conditions. As the cell started to approach, and a drizzle started to occur, 80 vultures started pumping across the straits, while the remaining 24 headed back to Pointe LaBarbe and quickly set down in the woods somewhere. I was very intrigued as to how the vultures were going to continue to fly across the straits through this upcoming rain/thunderstorm cell, but luckily for them, the cell only clipped Pointe LaBarbe, and completely missed the straits. I’ve never seen so many vultures migrating in such non-optimal conditions, barely missing such hazardous weather.

SEPTEMBER OVERVIEW: Although the fall hawk count at Pointe LaBarbe is still rather new, this felt like a top-tier September. It’s hard to imagine many scenarios that’ll produce significantly higher overall raptor totals in September in the years to come. The big, and seemingly only, exception to this are Broad-winged Hawks. Broad-winged Hawks are often variable in numbers from one season to the next at many hawk counting sites, and often make or break a September at many sites. Fortunately, there’s more than just Broad-wingeds to enjoy in September at Pointe LaBarbe, but their numbers are still hard to grasp in 2 full and 1 partial season of counting. In the partial season, 2017, a total of 185 Broad-winged Hawks were recorded in September. Last year, 553 Broad-winged Hawks were recorded in September. This year, 1,013 Broad-winged Hawks were recorded in September. It does seem like this was a very good to top tier Broad-winged season, but I could see some scenarios where 1,500-2,000 Broad-wingeds is the upper limit for a season at Pointe LaBarbe. There are always the perfect weather conditions that could always set-up Pointe LaBarbe for a few thousand Broad-wingeds in a day as well, but that feels like it’d be rather unlikely or very inconsistent at best in the seasons to come.

Having said that, it seems like 5,000 to 6,000 raptors is the upper limit for a September at Pointe LaBarbe, with any season above 5,200 likely only due to a large (for Pointe LaBarbe) Broad-winged September. Ignoring the possibility of more Broad-winged Hawks, there were only 2 additional possible things that could’ve made this September even more productive. 1) The first 13 days of September felt like they were slower than normal in an average season. Potentially several hundred more raptors could’ve been recorded during this period. 2) The last several days were impacted by rain and could’ve had several hundred more raptors, particularly vultures and potentially Red-tailed Hawks. However, the trade-off in gaining these hundreds of raptors in these two scenarios would rarely outweigh the seemingly hundreds to over a thousand more raptors than normal that occurred in the 2nd half of September this season.

It was an awesome 2nd half of September, with 6 of 15 days tallying at least 300 raptors. Last year, only 2 days exceeded 300 raptors in the 2nd half of September. Additionally, 3 days tallied over 500 raptors in September this year, while only 1 day (barely) exceeded 500 raptors last year. 3,672 raptors were recorded in the 2nd half of September this year compared to 2,645 raptors last season.

Nearly 1,000 more raptors were recorded in September this season (4,942) than last season (4,036). Species that were significantly HIGHER this September than last September include Osprey (30 vs. 18), Northern Harrier (37 vs. 25), Sharp-shinned Hawk (1,969 vs. 1,338), Broad-winged Hawk (1,013 vs. 416), and American Kestrel (196 vs. 161). Species that were significantly LOWER this September than last September include Turkey Vulture (1,151 vs. 1,511) and Peregrine Falcon (16 vs. 27). Bald Eagle (398), Cooper’s Hawk (19), Northern Goshawk (1), Red-shouldered Hawk (4), Red-tailed Hawk (91), and Merlin (11) had similar September totals this season compared to last season. Notably absent this September were the lack of any early Rough-legged Hawks or Golden Eagles; However, we tallied an early Northern Goshawk unlike any in September last season. These 3 species are sure to be variably recorded in September (particularly the last week) throughout the seasons to come.

Sharp-shinned Hawks were particularly impressive this September and it seems like this will be one of the highest Septembers in the years to come. 7 days tallied at least 100 Sharpies, with 4 of these days exceeding 200 Sharpies. Last year, only 2 days exceeded 100 Sharpies in September, with no days exceeding 200 Sharpies, let alone 130 Sharpies. However, last year sure seemed like a significantly slower than normal season for Sharpies, especially in September.

Cackling Geese (mixed in lower group)
This is the most consistent site I’ve ever been at for mixed Goose/Crane flocks, such as these 2 Sandhill Cranes leading 4 Canada Geese

Non-raptors: The best bird(s) of the period were 4 Cackling Geese on the 27th. Next best were large numbers of Rusty Blackbirds. 220 were recorded only 28th (along with 480 distant blackbirds which were probably mostly Rusties) and 320 were recorded on the 29th. Other highlights have included an increase in the numbers and frequency of waterfowl, including Mute Swans, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Redhead, and Red-breasted Mergansers, American Golden-Plovers, a Pectoral Sandpiper, 250 Blue Jays on the 28th, a Lapland Longspur, 15 Palm Warblers on the 28th, an Eastern Phoebe, and 120 Common Grackles on the 29th.

Hundreds of Rusty Blackbirds moved during the period
Waterfowl, like these Gadwall and American Wigeon, continue to increase
Palm Warblers were common near the count site on the 28th

Monarchs: 517 were tallied on the 28th. Only 1 individual was recorded in the other 3 days combined.

Best of the next 5 days: They truly are terrible at predicting the weather in the straits, particularly when it comes to raining or not on any given day. Having said that, Wednesday and Friday will be the best days if the forecasts remain true. Wednesday is harder to predict just how great it’ll be than Friday is, as the winds are stronger and there is a (supposed) higher chance (than Friday) of rain occurring. Nonetheless, it should be an excellent day, and could easily be one of the best of the season, particularly if the winds aren’t as strong as predicted, which frequently happens (currently steady 12-16 mph NE winds predicted). Current winds are coming all the way down from the Hudson Bay tomorrow, unlike Friday’s forecast, which may give Wednesday the edge, particularly for the first Rough-legged Hawk or Golden Eagle. If the current forecasts remain true for Friday (wind chill 35 degrees 9 AM, wind chill 47 degrees 2 PM, 7-8 mph north winds, 15-20% cloud cover all count period, 1% chance of rain, no fog, a similar forecast to the north of us in Sault Ste. Marie) then it is very very likely this day will tally over 1,000 raptors and be the best day or a top 3 day this season. Whether or not this is a huge day comes down to 3 raptor species-Turkey Vulture, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk. Turkey Vultures are the easiest to analyze and there shouldn’t be any worry that Friday will be an amazing day for them. Sharp-shinned Hawks were in much lower numbers than anticipated on Saturday, which gives some pause as to whether or not this day will produce several hundred of them. However, I still think that they will move in great numbers. Likewise, Red-tailed Hawks moved in much smaller numbers than expected on Saturday, but that shouldn’t be the case on Friday. The amount of Red-tailed Hawks moving tomorrow (Wednesday) will give some indication as to how many potentially will come through on Friday. If Broad-winged Hawks have any large (for Pointe LaBarbe) numbers left it should occur on Friday. The first Rough-legged Hawk and Golden Eagle of the season should occur on this day as well (if they aren’t tallied on Wednesday first). Canada Goose, Sandhill Crane, Blue Jay, Rusty Blackbird, and Common Grackles may have their seasonal peaks on this day as well. Hopefully this forecast will remain true, and we’ll be in for quite the spectacle.