HawkArtScience: Hawksaloft.com blog

(Archive: Counter Culture)

11 November 2009, Wednesday
Pete Dunne: The heretic years

Hawkwatching's Master of Ceremonies is still Pete Dunne, maybe we add emeritus now. But still.

In the '70s, Pete counted from a procured state park beach lifeguard's chair towering over all around him, looking out against the horizon through his 7x42 Hasselhoffs. Before Pete and a handful of other professional hawkwatchers: it was waiting for the big day(s), not watching every day. The establishment was getting its first challenge from the disestablishment. One well-known guy from some Broadwing Mt. came to the water's edge to put the Pete in his place, but got a rye smile for all his fighting words, and left without any satisfaction, beyond a little agida. Kids these days!

Pete and his pirate crew amassed big numbers without big buteo days, published Hawk Watch: A beginner's guide ("dedicated to the next generation of hawk watchers"), followed in the late '80s by the wonderful Hawks in Flight — both in black and white, then the official colors of hawkwatching and affordable publishing.

Way back when, Pete had a smile for everyone, pointed out everything with grace, and had a quip for aiding the visitor in retaining every key fieldmark. But it was, above all, about the hawks plus the host of other Cape May Point migrants, and the future, which meant donations and memberships too. While hawkwatching's bible belt — the hilltops of New England and ridgelines of Pennsylvania — was picnicking, the young heretic was advancing the science of hawk ID, along with others, and rethinking hawk migration... not abandoning the past mind you, just moving it forward from a new point of view.

The Old Testament of hawkwatching told a simple story of the hawk flight overhead and wasn't about to move off the old ways of telling Sharpies from Cooper's Hawks... flip a coin, at times it seemed that exacting. My favorite quick definition for the 'Old Testament' goes, "lots of rules and no sense of humor."

In the late seventies, Pete penned an article in the New Jersey Audubon newsletter about the problem he saw hawkwatchers having telling Kestrels from Sharpies, forget the old battlelines and traditional ratios of SS:CH. Let's get past the ideas of the (Broad-winged) hawk migration association with watching hawks and observe a bigger picture, PD seemed to be saying. The Counter Culture was underway.


17 November 2009, Tuesday
Climate change & hawk migration, briefly

My quick and first read of the 2008 State of North America's Birds of Prey a while back had a missing link: climate change and hawk migration. Maintaining levels of coverage at current sites, maybe more monitoring locations, and trimming the line of sight vegetation were covered, but no mention of the #1 world-changing issue of the day.

Late one 1970's night at the C-view Inn, Cape May NJ, on that all-important second pitcher of beer (where each bander, hawkwatcher, and others in the pirate crew had their own pitcher), Pete Dunne leaned in (involuntarily) and said, "The history of hawkwatching is about where the hawkwatchers are, not the hawks." Derby Hill's always clean and sober founder, Fritz Scheider, was often heard turning this phrase, "Hawks don't need the wind, hawkwatchers do." So decades ago I took this as an indictment of the established importance one should place on natural amusement park rides and doorstep weather... that is hilltops and ridgelines, rivers and lakes, and today's forecast — in the pursuit of hawk migration understanding.

What is really important? Big water and big weather effect hawk concentrations to the exclusion of everything else you've been told about what moves birds of prey, statistically speaking. Macroweather is quite capable of putting up temporal geography that moves hawks in both Spring and Fall, not just one or ten miles, but a hundred miles off the course they took last year/decade. Now certainly, after the above big ideas put the birds where they find themselves, doorstep weather and natural amusement park rides come into play.

The initial results of generalized, but also localized weather (climate change) studies are coming out at an accelerated clip these days. For Lake Superior, it looks like it's getting windier as the waters warm. Lake breezes and, along the ocean, sea breezes will likely increase and adjust the movements of hawks along big water. Formation and dissipation of clouds are in the science news too. It's no matter which way the clouds go or why for that matter, just be aware of the changes and know that changes the hawkwatching picture!

Whether these changes in weather are local, regional, continental, short-term or continuing in a singular and Gore-y direction, studies around the movements and concentrations of hawks need to follow the tenets of any other endeavor, in this order... information, awareness, action. I don't see hawk migration studies even approaching awareness, at this point.


3 December 2009, Thursday
abieticola among us

While the tourists were talking "western" for interesting eastern Redtails, the professional counters, banders, and ornithologists had already moved on to the quest for abieticola. That would be W.E.C. Todd's boreal Redtail subspecies idea he called, Buteo jamaicensis abieticola (1950, see yesterday's post for a starting point PDF). He declared its underparts "rufescent." He literally laid out rows of skinned, stuffed, preserved, and labelled examples of this well-marked bird whose range went all the way to the coast of Labrador.

In '87, an article appeared in New York State bird club journal, Kingbird (v37:57-64), listing additional specimens located in museum collections many "taken" outside of the "breeding range" (dated during migration and in Winter). The point here being to show that birds that looked western (B.j. calurus) to earlier curators were really something else, new and eastern in origin.

By then, the new Counter Culture was taking flight on Frank Nicoletti's watch, first at Cape May, migrating from there up to Braddock Bay. It's where the young bucks gathered in the early 90s, including Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. With much less attention than these three were garnering, and a decade plus before, Brian Wheeler and his partner in crime Jim Zipp were hawkwatchers and hawk banders in New Haven CT. They all came to hawk banding out of hawkwatching, with zero interest in the business of falconry. At this point, think hawks instead of skateboards and surfing, and you've got a scenario right out of Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) — the perfect storm — narration by Sean Penn, or Pete Dunne.

Back story: When Frank wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History to look at the hawks in their collection, we wrote a letter, but he was turned down flat: he was only seventeen and had no professional academic standing, so there's that. After we came back from the Fire Island hawk banding operation, I suggested that if he got good at the banding, he could handle more hawks in a season than they had in their whole museum... "living study skins," I coined! He had also made a study skin around this time from a roadkill Sharpie for his high school class in field biology. This was filleted on my dining room table... it's okay, we laid down some newspapers first. Fast forward to Braddock Bay, where Nicoletti and Ligouri banded a hundred Redtails in a day and, for their part, the quest for B.j.abieticola was on.

For me, I plugged the problem into my wave theory: if this beast was for real, it should come to me in waves. Big waves, small waves, road waves; on the move or hole up for the Winter. Wave infers region of origin, this begets population and pulls up along side taxonomic standing... this is "speciation 101." Whether in the Champlain Valley, at Derby Hill, or in between, always individuals, never waves. Where I'd have settled for a wave of three, no luck. Tens of thousands of Redtails over twenty plus years of wave-riding, that calculates in my mind to no justification for Bja. Living study skins trumps a mere drawer of them: it's a matter of sheer numbers... I heard that somewhere.

Again, Brian Wheeler (2003, pgs 253-4) sums up the state of this bit of hawk•art•science by gently setting abieticola aside, with his own field observations from across the East, that of many others, and discussions with one of the primaries on Redtail variants over the last several decades, Professor Dickerman himself. Until that DNA money comes along, from the surface of the thing, beauty abounds in the rich and variable plumage of our Red-tailed Hawk here in the northeast, and that's it.


17 December 2009, Thursday
Counter Culture: Brushstrokes

When art students finally get to see the originals they have admired in books... okay, via the online tour of the Louvre... they start their gaze from afar even as they enter into view of the great works. But then they rush forward, get as close as they can, and admire the brushstrokes. Therein lie the details, the depth of the work, of the artist too. Up close too, the style, the heritage and lineage of the master comes into focus. The passion is also in the details. Not the general details contained in books, online, or even in the gallery's own description, because there you are, seeing it for yourself.

The young bohemians, the beats of the buteos, wanted more than shadows on the wall, more than cave drawings even. They wanted detailed details and the passion of the beast. They're the ones who have added brushstrokes (fieldmarks), and color to your raptor field guide... otherwise we'd all still be doing it with silhouettes! And they did this through hawk banding operations. Once an act of numbers, became a place to examine and contemplate the brushstrokes. To see patterns, look for consistencies, catalog the variations, and through it all, better identify.

As a student, a connoisseur yourself, as you tour this art world, you needn't know all to appreciate the works. But a growing knowledge through the pursuit of the very specific details is a worthy act.

Make no mistake, the whole is not lost in the details. Anyone who would scoff at this is still talking in terms of big and small, light and dark, counting wingbeats and conjuring behaviors... VanGogh's Starry Night is just about drugs or dementia, because no one really sees that way.

Now to see these works of arts — these raptors — we start at the back of the room, as soon as the picture comes into view. The scan. For the backs, the upper/dorsal surface if you will, require you to start your observation farther out. For context. Artists, as well as curators, and us merelings all want to view the art/hawk at different angles and under various lighting. Something new might just jump out at us. A new point of appreciation... again, even if we have to ask what it means or does it have meaning to the expert's eye, just ours?

Select hawkwatches have banding operations that are either open to the public or regularly, in season, bring wild birds out for viewing prior to release. In the early 90s at Braddock Bay, I spent a sleety morning holed up with the banders and counters looking at good and bad slides of hawks in flight, for hours we did this and no one said much at all. So even the folks who handle the birds, like to look at (real) images... and this was a time when it cost real money to develop the slides! Nowadays, with digital imagery and the Internet, it takes only your time to see the brushstrokes. Now, we can have new and real conversations when the living works of art come into view.


5 January 2010, Tuesday
Discount hawkwatching

Sad to say, nothing is on sale here. No airfare breaks to exotic ports of prey either. Just a rant on making up rules for not counting, wait for it... Redtails. Redtails! To make it "official" though requires writing it down and calling it something official-sounding... like a protocol. First and foremost, protocols are in place at hawkwatches for ignoring two species, especially in Fall, and most especially in September. In addition to the problem with those pesky Redtails, there is the matter of those slow-flying Turkey Vultures, a volatu tardo.

I conducted a very un-official survey of Fall '09 sites that had at least 150 hours of September coverage — the Broadwing season — and/or had at least 2000 BWs (almost the same thing). This would be over twenty sites in New England, eastern NY, and PA (you can use hawkcount.org and pick your own sample sites). A dozen sites, essentially the NE hilltops reported between zero and ten RTs for the month of September, with one 11 and a 13 tossed in from eastern PA.

At the other end of this artificial spectrum: 67, 81, 99, 100, & 177 Sept Redtails were logged at sites that, interestingly, also record the most hours beyond September and therefore see the breadth and width of the autumn hawk flight. A transect of these sites, up into NY, is also the centerline between the eastern edge of the Great Lakes and Atlantic big water.... the Golden Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk flightline.

The problem is not really a scientific one, because recording no Redtails in September is human error that incorporates an old myth. It becomes science when sites write down everything they see... and, using a protocol that starts from that, is one worth utilizing.

Turkey Vultures, I think, are truly a matter of detection. In New England there are Turkey Vultures one day, not looking very migratory (no obvious streams of the beasts). And the next day, no Turkey Vultures to be quibbled over. So what's up with that?! There are a lot of TVs, after all. Go to the Great Lakes in the Fall (works in the Spring too), even to the very eastern edge of Lake Ontario: the vultures look and act like a perfectly fine migratory species, and there are plenty of them going by. Ignore them or call them locals at your peril.

For both Redtails and TVs, looking around to other sites at the close of the day, over a course of few days (or the season) that have been counting everything, will show movements by way of the expansion and contraction of these "local" birds (counted). Some sites will now see themselves in line and part of a detection process, others won't. Now that's a fact.

6 January 2010, Wednesday
The hawkwatcher's dichotomy

I guess I've never felt conflicted about what I see hawkwatching and what I think it means. For whatever reason I've never put any stock in the population trend of any species based on the season's or seasons' results at my hawkwatch... even starting up and out at a premiere count: Derby Hill. Before it was zen, I just let the birds and their flight flow over me.

Others aren't conflicted either, as they easily pose questions and provide answers based on their own numbers from their hawkwatch, some bolder than others. Are we all just following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell would ask?

There is a dichomy, whether it never existed for you or you are unaware of its existence. One doesn't need to solve it to be aware of it and what you do about it is up to you. As a botanist, I'm a dichotomous fellow: beaked or unbeaked, hirsute or hoary. Maybe you can dig Robert Frost where the roads diverge... pick one. But do think about it a little and make a thoughtful choice at least. Watch out for the false dichotomies, like: you've either for the Patriot Act or you're for the terrorists. The hawkwatcher false one would be: well, we've got all our numbers, so we either draw conclusions or we've wasted our time.

This is the seventh consecutive day here with snow, and a few more are in the forecast. So while I wait it out for a sunny day and the Ontario islands, I thinking: trends or details? Sticking with what I know to be true, I'll opt for seeing one more thing: holding the bird in your eye or thoughts for one more moment. Go for that.

"I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics."

No, wait. That's a different movie... One word for you, for tomorrow: Anteaters.

1 February 2010, Monday
At the Movies: Inglourious Basterds

While Quentin Tarantino might well have been referring to himself, as his band of Nazi-hunters in the title of his 2009 release Inglourious Basterds, the Counter Culture hawkwatcher-types easily identify with this label... want the shirt and the hat, in black (of course).

But first, the movie. Inglourious Basterds was the best film I saw in 2009! Ranks right up there on most critics' lists and is a certain Oscar best picture nominee (in the expanded field of ten). Combine that with the best film IMO of the decade just concluded: Q's Kill Bill Vols 1&2, and you get the picture. Basterds is a WWII film about these hunters that get the ultimate prey in their sights and make the kill.

Okay, he's rewritten a little history, but Tarantino does what moviemakers do all the time. Adjust things. As Roger Ebert says, the last thing you want see up front when a movies starts is, "Based on a true story." Read: "Well, we found out while making this film, the truth can be kind of dull, let us now show you just how uninteresting."

So... in this case he turns the large knob, but he's a great fan of cinema too, and I'm always down for whatever he'd got in mind... I remember seeing his Pulp Fiction in '94: as vivid a memory as if it were yesterday's Merlin.

Like Pulp Fiction, there is action, but there are also his abnormally long and intricate monologues and dialogues that are primo in this one (Q's both writer and director for his signature projects). Visually he knows movies, and knows how to honor the tried and true. In this one, he creates a situation where a number of the characters — good and bad — have all descended a narrow stairway into a cellar pub with no other way out, he has one of this lot comment, "Who would pick such a place, tactically, for a meeting... there's no way out," then he slows down the fuse time with some talk knowing this is a no-win... chaos and body count, to follow. I saw this in a theater, and while it should reappear, the DVD will work for you.

Just standing around at Cape May, with not much going (20 Peregrines, maybe 10 Merlins, and only fifty Cooper's Hawks, etc.), when up the stairs comes a civilian, a big fish from a small pond/hilltop, asking the basterds in the corner where they would go to watch hawks... anywhere he added, then on he goes some more attempting to answer his own question with Texas, Veracruz, exotic door number 3. Silence, with frosting. Then, like a temple bell, "Duluth" from the alpha (Ligouri), and the basterds went all low-tones and nodding while the tourist looked very very puzzled, wondering off.

See, the inglourious basterds want the other thing. Not to be different, necessarily, but out of a need for the thing. Let everyone else go for the warm moist zephyrs and a million hawks, we'll veer North, and find a nook, or better a cranny, and wait for it. Goshawk, adult; Golden on an updraft, close, too close to take the shot; maybe something in a dark morph.

12 February 2010, Friday
Behavior, self

In Californication, Hank Moody advises, "Check yourself, before you wreck yourself." (Showtime, David Duchovny). There's some irony there.

I can't remember the last time — but it's been a very long time — since I entered the Owl Woods on Amherst Island, off Kingston Ontario. I just don't go in there, even if I'm the only one around that end of the island. Can't do it.

An email to Ontario birders and others who check for info, might also be titled, "Horse gone somewhere, please close barn door now." This message is so old that it used to be the announcement on the KFN rare bird line, when birders got their information that way. Nobody got the message, apparently.

Subject: Amherst Island's-Owl Woods new rules
From: Chris Grooms
Date: Wed, 10 Feb 2010 08:08:51 -0800 (PST)

Dear ONTBIRDERs In accordance with the wishes of the landowners of Owl Woods, the Kingston Field Naturalists would like to state the following conditions for visiting this privately owned property.

Many of you have heard of and many of you have observed the disturbance to owls caused by large numbers of people visiting the Owl Woods on Amherst Island. This privately-owned nature reserve became popular a few decades ago when a small pine plantation was discovered to be a daytime roosting site for a number owl species. The owners of this property graciously allowed birders and interested people to enter their land to view and count the owls during their migration and the winter each year. Since then, many people have enjoyed the Owl Woods and benefitted from the unique, close-up contact with nature. It has been a great educational and inspiring experience for all.

These days, it is not uncommon to have well over 100 people visit the Woods on a weekend day. Somewhere along the way the drive to see an owl for a bird list or to snap that perfect picture has out-stripped the sense that this rare site and its inhabitants should be revered and respected. As has happened with many popular natural phenomena, people have begun to threaten the object of their affection.

The Kingston Field Naturalists have been aware of and concerned about these developments for some time, and with the property owners, are working towards solutions. The intention is to find ways to reduce the impact of people on the owls to a level that permits the Owl Woods to afford the owls the protection they need and continue to serve as a nature education experience for people. Failure to soon bring the situation under control may well mean that the owl woods could be closed to visitors by the owners.

You can help the situation in several ways. If you have been to Owl Woods in recent years, consider being satisfied with that experience and not visiting for a while. Don't come just to tick your year or winter list or get another photo of an owl. Because of the pressure on the owls, the landowners would like people to stop posting owl observations from Owl Woods on ONTBIRDS. Please respect this request; do not post reports from Owl Woods. If you do visit the Owl Woods follow these simple rules as set out by the landowners:

The reserve is open only from sunrise to one hour before sunset.
Do not spend more then two hours in the reserve per day.
Absolutely no dogs are allowed.
Keep a minimum distance of five metres from owls.
Be silent; speak in whispers.
Do not linger in front of an owl more than a couple of minutes.
If you cause an owl to fly, do not pursue it.
Do not bait owls with rodents.
No flash photography allowed.
No sound devices allowed.
Do not remove branches or vegetation.
Stay on the existing trails. Persons entering roped-off areas will be prosecuted.

Report harassment of owls to 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667).

Sincerely, Chris Grooms, President, Kingston Field Naturalists

And rules to live by, anywhere.

They've got the urge for going, and
they've got the wings so they can go.

— Joni Mitchell

Hawk•art•science blog
Truth and beauty. Art and science. Entries here will be on that flightline, although I will stray from the hawk-part on occasion, or will I? I aiming this beast at hawkheads and/or the young seasonal revolutionary biologists. It's for the flexible and young-at-heart too.
Comments, questions, excited utterances, and/or exasperated afterthoughts from you, dear reader, are welcome and will receive a reply. — Tom Carrolan
(Image above: "Recent self-portrait No.3, 2009")

Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
The Hawksaloft.com website was launched in 1997, following three years of printed handbills, plus numerous emails, all voicing my alt.hawkwatching ideas in New England. If you've been here before, the original site is archived in all its old-timey graphic glory. To navigate the old way, just click on Psychedelia the Hawk Owl and be transported back in time... trippy. Any bookmarks or links found anywhere online still work.

Not everything that counts can be counted and
not everything that can be counted counts.

— Albert Einstein