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15 December 2009, Tuesday
Bald Eagles, briefly

If you started hawkwatching in the 1960s, like I did, then seeing a Bald Eagle was a very big deal. I think it took me six years to get my first one. Now, both the northern and southern populations have increased to levels that only the very close birds get an oooo or ahhh... from those who put in the hours.

The Fall migration of the northern birds, is difficult to detect across much of the Northeast. In terms of September Bald Eagles, and certainly the adults seen during Broadwing season, these are essentially and nearly exclusively birds from the southern population — Florida and the Gulf Coast — headed back down after spending the Summer dispersed into eastern Canada and points just South. There appears to be another northerly dispersal from the Ohio River (over to the Delaware Bay) of Bald Eagles, all-juvs, that happens in July and August... who knows when these birds turn around and get counted at Fall sites in the Northeast?!

Wheeler (2003) summarizes the timing of Bald Eagle movements nicely... so check it out or recheck it. For a glimpse into the departure timing using satellite telemetry for a small, but interesting, set of juvenile BEs from Labrador, you can see the youngest birds from up there aren't around here until November. The youngest! Comparing movements at the biggest sites — Duluth and Iowa — we see adults push South in December, mostly. So this is the autumn timing for what is often referred to as "our birds."

There is a semi-recent article (not online: Wilson Journal of Ornithology 2008, 120(2): 304-310) showing the northbound dispersal of Florida via GPS, but you can start with this one on band recoveries. The article link is only an abstract, but your local university library should be able to get the full article. The adults hit the Northeast, either Derby Hill or MA coastal sites around May 1st annually, with the fresh, brown unworn-of-the-year trailing and continuing way into June.

Enjoy the new and higher than ever Bald Eagle records, just be aware, we're recording a lot of U-turn birds.


14 December 2009, Monday
Seinfeld Science: The English Penguin


Like Elaine Benes, in this Seinfeld episode, entitled "The English Patient" (1997), I hated the film of the same name, The English Patient (1996). Yes the Oscar-winner of the year. Funny thing, amongst a select section of movie-goers, Elaine and I were not alone, that's what this Seinfeld plays off of.

Elaine loses a boyfriend while discussing the movie, doesn't get a piece of pie because she hates the movie and says so, lies about not having seen the film already (in order to not have to tell her boss she didn't like it, a lot), but instead he drags her to see it again, now, she just cracks, and gets fired from the J.Peterman Company because of her theatrical outburst. Emotions run high on and off the screen.

I also hate-hate-hated March of the Penguins (2005), yet another Academy Award winning film, a family film, on and off the screen. I was reminded of this over the weekend as the IonTV network (eye on TV, get it) was running the thing, over and over. Once was long enough. At only an hour and twenty-six minutes in the theater, I had several film friends, non-birders, tell me it seemed about twenty minutes too long to them. On the other hand, some two hour movies play just right, or feel shorter (by comparison).

I'm one who doesn't watch Nature on television as a rule, when I do, I usually have the sound off (same rule with nationally-televised Red Sox games). I can see for myself, thank you very much. It must be said and said clearly, the footage of the Emperor Penguin, especially underwater, is spectacular and worthy of a major studio deal... sound off, music is nice... just no voiceover. But visually: kudos for March of the Penguins.

The film's premiere was 2005, so the filming and scripting would be a couple of years earlier, around the time of the family vs. village values dust up between Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY). He's a family-values guy and she wrote about how "it takes a village" to raise a child. And believe it or not, this is what we get in this penguin movie! Narration talking traditional family — father, mother, child, while the footage shows us a community, organized. There's a hint of the science vs. non-scientific borderline in the opening credits where the script is described as "based upon a story by Luc Jacquet." A story.

"This is a story about love," tones narrator Morgan Freeman right at the outset. While no one knows less about penguins than I do, one picture is worth a thousand words, even if the words are being spoken by Morgan Freeman! Referring to parent and chick, he actually says, "Mother and child." So, while I have no knowledge of penguins, I was surprised to quickly recognize the behaviors on the screen from my own work on Little Galloo Island, Lake Ontario.

In the early 70s I banded Ring-billed Gulls... a lot of gulls... 600/day, with my team of 4-5 banders, only nestlings as I timed the visit to coincide with the maximum number of birds still on the nest, but developed enough to hold a band; plus others — free-ranging, but flightless. The colony on this island, as I watched the movie, worked in many ways, just like the penguins. The gulls... early on, the chicks — more than one, of course, with the gulls — stayed close and were tended to by the parents. But as the nestlings became more mobile they too, like the penguins, moved into "daycare groups" looked after by non-breeding birds, as well as parents. The parent-adults came and went feeding the youngsters, finding their own by scent and call along the life-history line. But all the young got feed by all kinds of their species. In the film, footage of two adults with one chick, in cut into the rearing sequence, likely out of chronology, to maintain the family unit narration.

Like with all colonial nesting species, the seeming concentration of dead young is striking to the first-time visitor. The noise and everything else about life is just dense and all around you. As in colonies of other species too, the birds just are not all father-mother pairings. There are plenty of non-breeders, failed young breeders, and younger after hatch year birds in the colony... and going out to sea to feed and coming back to the colony to tend and even feed the young of the year. Every body pitches in.

In the theater when I saw this, the narration accompanying the exodus to the sea of the fledged young says 'they will not see their parents for four years.' A boy sitting several rows in front of me, literally called out loud, "Why?!" It's a combo of the family-themed message and guess what, he was right to see no sense in it, as the many adult-looking penguins in the colony are these birds. And like we know from studying other species, there is likely an affinity to those birds helping out at the nest of a penguin that they are related to. Ah, Darwin.

Does a film like this do more harm than good? Well, depends on your orientation — box office or science? On the other hand/wing, we did get Happy Feet (2006)... about as factual (unpublished).


11 December 2009, Friday
Science, Friday

Every freakin' thing we touch these days has its politics, most certainly when some talking head, elected or anointed, assures us their agenda is without. Whether art, history, science, you name it, it comes with politics. By politics, I mean ego and old ways. On the one hand conspiracies can be seen everywhere from the grassy knoll to climatologists' emails. The good news from my perch anyway, it gets messy for a while, then (to paraphrase Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report), facts have a well-known liberal bias and things work themselves out. Basically, scientists are not in cahoots, but are in an infinity loop of proving and disproving each other (themselves too, in order to avoid others doing it to them). It's an intellectually exciting shooting gallery.

I have gathered up a few nice climate change science article abstracts that might interest hawkwatchers, plus a couple of sane summaries of the email kerfuffle. That will come next week as Copenhagen winds down. These lead in...

In songbirds, Blackcap evolution is happening right before our "eyes" (where eyes are genetic markers); more Sahara Desert crossings by raptors (wearing GPS transmitters); and science that contradicts... oh, science we hardly knew ye (see, it's not a belief system, it's science).

Blackcaps, an old world warbler, have been in the science news as they're evolving right now, over the last few decades. Not forming new and reproductively isolated species quite yet, but keep watching, especially if you have a birdfeeder in England. The BBC reports poorly by over-interpreting the study. They asked someone not involved in the research for their interpretation, this is not verboten in reporting, but here, mere activity and evolutionary change got confused in a hurry... and that got reported. NPR's Science Friday covered it — just the study, without getting into the BBC report — and here's the podcast conversation with the lead author only. Finally over at Jerry Coyne's blog, all this is summarized... especially, whether a student of biology or not, you might need a summary of the evolutionary science particulars. What's not to like: read a little , listen some, maybe read some more.

Another team of scientists has tracked how raptors handle the great desert, Sahara. The NYTimes has a quick look into this project that involves several hawk species, adults and juveniles. As can be the case, the authors mined their results for a couple of papers. Here's the full journal article with GPS maps for the various species they followed (can't get enough of those dots). Then they pulled out the Eurasian Hobby's course work and focused on their adjustments to reach the best and remnant wintering grounds.

I find the similarities between desert and water crossing fascinating. To be sure, not the same thing... wait for it... on the surface, unless studies from the desert reinforces what we see in hawks crossing water. When I suggest to folks interested in ideas, that there are no new ideas, I mean that one idea is often, dare I say always, building off another that came before. Even if you do the opposite.

Who couldn't go for a little old penguin and dinosaur info over the weekend? And in both papers, offered for your scientific consideration: we got it wrong. Where the "science we" is our colleagues who have studied and published before us. This will be both supported and challenged by investigations to come. In a look at Penguin DNA:

Penguins that died 44,000 years ago in Antarctica have provided extraordinary frozen DNA samples that challenge the accuracy of traditional genetic aging measurements, and suggest those approaches have been routinely underestimating the age of many specimens by 200 to 600 percent.

In other words, a biological specimen determined by traditional DNA testing to be 100,000 years old may actually be 200,000 to 600,000 years old, researchers suggest in a new report in Trends in Genetics, a professional journal.

And there may be fewer dinosaur species than we thought! Been there, done that myself... well, when photographing Sonoran Desert lizards back in 80s and then trying to ID my images... there were fewer species than I hoped when I finished pouring over the field guides. This one just takes a taxonomist's eye and looks at the details too, old school:

"Juveniles and adults of these dinosaurs look very, very different from adults, and literally may resemble a different species," said dinosaur expert Mark B. Goodwin, assistant director of UC Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology. "But some scientists are confusing morphological differences at different growth stages with characteristics that are taxonomically important. The result is an inflated number of dinosaurs in the late Cretaceous."

If dinosaurs interest you or some young dino nut job spawn, as you read down the ScienceDaily.com digest, the full article with illustrations is published at the online journal, PLoS-ONE, the link is at end... DIY sci.

Previous science snippets along these lines are in a Hawk•art•science archive and pasted up here. The current list of archival topics is to the right, under the Redtails-in-cans image.


10 December 2009, Thursday
Raptor migration through Cuba: Part I

Where are the highest hawk migration numbers for Osprey in North America? The big days? The monster Osprey kettles? In the very short history of their hawk migration studies, in the World Series of Ospreys, Cuba takes home the gold medal. Bring on the other teams: Lighthouse Pt., Cape May, Kiptopeke, Veracruz... this new count sees 2x to 3x the numbers of any other NA location.

"Oh, we had 92 Osprey rise up one morning, circle above us; other groups, fifty birds," raptor biologist Freddy Rodriguez Santana observes in a very soft tone while speaking about the hawks over his island nation of Cuba. Big days have hit 600, with two to three hundred Osprey days recorded on this very new project... ten years old, but five years of serious data (he says... sounds like one of those good hawk counters we'd run into anywhere).

Freddy and fellow Cuban biologist Nicasio Vina Davila have been at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology — meeting everybody, working on their connections and talking like all involved, including the raptors, just don't care about the borders. But boundaries, like those hardened between the US and Cuba, are a big deal in this discussion. Shaking hands with these guys and talking birds of prey yesterday afternoon was, for me, a very big deal. The real work is not a public program, really, but the scientific, national, and international efforts. The prestigious MacArthur Foundation is banking on it too.

Hawks hit the island and either follow the land left or right. The Ospreys go East, while just about all "our" Swallow-tailed Kite head West. The San Antonio hawkwatch is the North American capital for the big kite! From there 66% — from their fledgling observations — just head right on their first attempt, crossing over to the Yucatan. While 24%, start out and return... sounds like a data tale that could be told by any hawkwatcher observing raptors near land's end. Through Freddy's HMANA-style counts at his three sites (so far), a few surprises — Swainson's Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk are new to the list, plus our Cooper's Hawk has been seen... an endemic and endangered species there, Gundlach's Hawk, is a dead ringer. Ah, fun with accipiters.

Starting a count anywhere, choosing a clear vista at the proper confluence, finding the routes on this wind or on the backside of that weather system... well, that's an international language learned through the intuition, experience, and long, happy days spent hawkwatching. In all languages and without borders, the sign reads: "Welcome. Hawk spoken here."


9 December 2009, Wednesday
Ninth Law of Birding: The element of surprise

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.
Third Law of Birding: The new the birder, the better the bird.
Fourth Law of Birding: Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself.
Fifth Law of Birding: The rule of 100
Sixth Law of Birding: The one-mile limit
Seventh Law of Birding: The UFO conjecture
Eighth Law of Birding: ID is not a democracy

Never "small, reddish brown with soft gray areas on the flanks," no. If a bird appears unexpectedly and close it's always, "large and dark."

Ever notice that? The stranger, the dog that chased us as kids, the car coming out of nowhere... the hit and run, the snatch and grab... always the same, "big and dark." That's just the way we're wired, neurologically speaking.

And yet, some don't see it that way — the professional athlete and elite birder manage to see clearly and in color. When others are surprised and throbbing, they are calm and collected making cogent judgments... "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few," Shunryu Suzuki from his work, and book: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1973).

So, training the mind through the body is the key. Of course we want to be surprised, but we don't want to black out at every new excitement. The key to this training is paying attention and testing/readying yourself. In the West we called it a feedback loop: as personal, honest and accurate as one can make it. In the East, it is called practice, again: personal, honest, aware. Laird Hamilton, big waver surfer, demonstrates the East-West meeting point.

In the Fall, after a couple of weeks of Broadwings, the first Redtails look like eagles. In the Spring, after adult Red-tailed Hawks push on by, the first young female Redtails get called Harriers, or Swainson's. Practice is ongoing; is-as life itself.

Another of the surprising surprises: take your skill set from an inland prominence with a treeline vista and go to the coast where the scale you judge things against is now dunes and Beach Plums (soaring upwards of ten feet into the air)... Sharp-shinned Hawks become Cooper's Hawks; Merlins graduate to Peregrine-class falcons. Your feedback loop has gone loopy. Conversely, after a week at Cape May, everything back on the mount looks tiny, dwarfed by the landscape, plus dark and dull after a week of harsh light overexposing every detail. Surprise! Jot it down. Keep a list.


8 December 2009, Tuesday
The Cove (2009)


The Cove is available on DVD today — Netflix, Redbox, Amazon, et.al. Along with Precious, The Cove won the Audience Award at Sundance... that's a big deal. With the buzz coming out of Sundance, I was watching and waiting for its run at the Cinemapolis theater in Ithaca this Fall.

This is one of those stories that tells itself, but still needs to be told: from the '60s TV show Flipper, to the Seaworld industry, to a small city in Japan with its hidden cove. Any story with a hidden cove has something to hide, here it's not a dirty little bay of secrets, but atrocities beneath the surface of our Disney world. Ric O'Barry, former dolphin trainer, feels guilty for setting these events in motion, and he could be right, so he's a man on a mission. Find it and see it soon. For a twin bill...

Darwin's Nightmare (2004) is a complexly woven documentary about a messy international situation on Tanzania's Lake Victoria and in order to make sense of this nightmare, the documentarians had to be better filmmakers than those who made The Cove. This one enters Errol Morris territory (The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War). A great documentary is better than any work of fiction... they are telling true stories where the main characters play themselves, unknowing and/or unwittingly, therein lies additional risk and reward. I saw this at the IFC Center in NYC and it's a depressing good time at the movies.

On an up note, Jared Diamond has an op-ed in the Sunday NYTimes. If you aren't familiar with him, here's a quick read for an introduction.


7 December 2009, Monday
"True Black"

"Introducing the newest color for the Herman Miller Aeron® Chair, True Black, a Sit4Less.com Exclusive."

I heard this radio ad a while back and thought about the designer discussions we used to have back in the day when I taught Pagemaker, QuarkXPress, Photoshop, Illustrator, and scanning at the Boston Computer Society. Was placing any adjective in front of the color "black" a valid point... to what end: more black, less black, truer black? Isn't it all a gray area? As it turns out it's an important point within the realm of manufacturing because it is difficult to get a rich, okay true, black when putting color onto different kinds of paper, wood, metal, glass, Tyvek, and other materials. A printshop adventure, for sure, at a time when getting your document out, hard copy-wise, was after all the point.

As an aside (skip to the next paragraph if you've nodding off) here, while RGB (red, green, blue) schemes are everywhere today on your computer, in your digital camera/phone and even some desktop printers, CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) is old school for printing/manufacturing and for the color professionals, sort of life before the electron-infusion that is our e-world. Another (quick) digression: various high-end processes that come in between our eye and some output devices, other than online, still work in the ether between RGB and CMYK. All this is to point the person who is still reading, to a fun little tech page which points out that using CMYK 0-0-0-100, is not the best way to print true black. And now black to our regularly schedule program.

In Nature, black is hard to come by too, and that's a really useful thing to know. With hawk-like birds, black is very rare. A lot of birds are dark, and some are really really dark, but not black black. In addition to the corvids — crows and ravens — only a few eastern raptors and species that move around like raptors, register as truly black: Black Vulture, the adult Bald Eagle, adult dark morph Roughlegs (the black form), and a couple of rarities (that most of us wouldn't expect flying around our everyday haunts, but I'll mention that adult dark morph Redtails come in black, a special order item in the East). In addition, the adult Black-backed Gull and Double-crested Cormorant fit as well. So not many things are black, and big as a hawk.

With practice, peculiar as this exercise might seem at first, it is a professional Counter Culture™ trick-of-the-trade to recognize black when you see it! Instantly. As with the "Rule of 100" (5th Law of Birding*), work on black on overcast days to get a feel for when your observation needs extra time to call "black."

Suzuki-roshi says, "Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity."

*Note: Today there's a new archival feature located underneath the Redtails-in-a-can image (right column). The Laws of Birding are there, ordered from the introductory entry, on down. The other categories are also oldest to newest, making them make (more) sense (or less, who knows).


4 December 2009, Friday
Seinfeld Science: "I stop short"


Jerry Stiller's Frank Costanza character is a man with a move. If you are under fifty years old, you might need some background: the front seat of the majority of cars used to be a couch (no bucket seats, as they were know in the day), seat belts weren't installed in most cars until the early '70s (not required to be worn until later), therefore movement was unrestricted in the automobile of Mr. Costanza's day (safe and sex were in another context back then). It was a common practice for men to protect both women and children from lurching forward as the driver stopped abruptly, by the extension of the right arm. But it was also a move on date night.

The Seinfeld Science theme, is clearly aimed at poking fun at worthy causes. I hadn't thought much about one silly idea in hawk migration studies until it lurched back onto the highway in a recent HMANA blog entry:

Is this due to there being fewer redtails, or as in the case of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, are more Red-tailed Hawks migrating shorter distances, wintering farther north, or even wintering on their breeding grounds now than in the past?

Short stopping entered the raptor lexicon as Hawk Mt.'s "move" when Cape May declared Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers were in "free-fall" according to the largest dataset of Sharpie numbers in the known universe.

After being, shall we say, rear-ended at the 1988 HMANA Conference at Cape May by Paul Kerlinger's presentation centered on a very simple, but striking, line graph showing the decade plus descent of Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers at Cape May Point, I remember the question (to which he already knew the answer) ... was Hawk Mt. seeing this at their station? Among us hawk folks at the time, this was high drama as the answer came slowly from the back of the room that they were not detecting a decline, but it might be the nature of the age classes — immature birds at the coast and adults on the ridges — causing a lag, and they would have to look into it. Kerlinger was well-known for poking those around him with the sharp stick of his intellect, and at this point, he was thoroughly enjoying his home field advantage.

The eventual Hawk Mt. article had enough hedges in it to be a movie location for a Jane Austen adaptation, and every single hawk counter, bander, and ornithologist, that I asked about it (granted, a sample of thinking biologists) gave the idea of short stopping its due, not for science, but for grand slicitude... it was a clever retort to say the problem was solved, by not actually being a problem, you see, there's no real decline going on.

The real stink eye though was cast their way for using Christmas Bird Count data to make the case. But also: add some small numbers to some even smaller numbers, regress the bejezus out of that mean, sell it with a set of steak knives, and it's still don't make your case. What, steak knives without a case... no sale.

The problem with using CBC data for Sharpies, in addition to the very small numbers compared to the loss of birds at Cape May, is the question of identification. If there is a sample group of birders less able to tell Sharpies from Cooper's Hawks than hawkwatchers, it would be Christmas counters, especially feeder watchers! I guess I have a problem with using CBC data for anything (for which you don't already have an answer through other means), but a hawk count conducted over a three-week period by observers looking out their kitchen windows, while others work out the ID of perched birds flushed around a corner, well, is just asking for it.

HMANA's Hawk Migration Studies published a very readable and straight to the point piece by Nick Bolgiano in 2005. Nick examined a hypothesis that had been in the wind for a couple of years. As many daily hawkwatch counts began on the downside of the 1970s spruce budworm infestation, it took some time for the events to also drag down the populations of the "budworm warblers" (Tennessee, Cape May, Bay-breasted), and with them the budworm warbler raptor — the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Nick guides us along the hawkwatch site numbers (mentioning that two graphs are used because of the 3x scale difference needed to accommodate the Cape May numbers). The CBC data is looked at, but the warbler numbers are graphed using Breeding Bird Survey data from eastern Quebec! Everything just overlays and syncs up, as he unfolds this story. Nick has provided this paper in a PDF for the first time, and you can read it here or save a copy for later.

While the spruce budworm hypothesis has been duly noted in all the Hawk Mt. work on the status of the Sharpie, including the venerable BNA species account, there's still this on their website today... haven't found those hedge clippers yet:

Sharp-shinned Hawk populations may have declined in eastern North America over the last 20-30 years, as suggested by declines in migration counts in the northeast and near the Gulf of Mexico (particularly the Florida Keys). Evidence from CBCs, however, suggests that the declining migration counts may be due, at least partially, to migratory short-stopping.


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.


2 December 2009, Wednesday
Wave Theory: Redtails, again

Getting the word out on new ideas happens in fits and starts, over simplifications are fashioned, and eventually there needs to be some fine tuning as the training wheels come off, and nuisance and complexity are added to the basic idea structure. In this case, I'm talking about western-like Redtails, originating in the East. It's just not that simple. Not just birds with heavy bellybands and dark throats, like the early work suggested, fit the bill.

In this light, any discussion you come across currently leading off with a term like, oh I don't know, like "western-type"... run, I say, run, quickly, quickly, and don't forget your belongings.

Again, I have something like twenty pages of Wintertails in the old format website, showing variations on the theme of wintering Redtails. Plus references to Brian Wheeler and Jerry Liguori articles in Birding magazine from the day, trying to lay down some basics. It's on those pages, peruse there.

For today, I have a few more birds here for your viewing enjoyment, and the info on the captions expands on this text. Work with the Red-tailed Hawk complex to-date has been old school — cladistics and common sense as the eye sees and measures. Size has been an important metric in the taxonomic literature for the Red-tailed Hawk. The only work anew — that makes any sense going forward — will involve molecular biology and DNA analysis to trace the movement of the birds through time and space... nothing that several hundred thousand dollars won't solve. Water colors and wooden easel aside; get out the BioPhotoshop. But in the meantime...

Wave theory for hawks works like traffic monitoring: you don't try and follow every vehicle to and from it's point of origin to note the ebb and flow, you can watch indirectly, from one vantage point, and think about events upstream. For cars and such, it's the three o'clock shift letting out, the high school dismissal bell, lunchtime, holiday rush... you can see this in the traffic. For hawks, you are placing yourself in the flow and paying attention to age class, region, and collect as much data/bird as possible to infer the seasonal numbers and trends for more than just one species name on the record sheet. And it makes the watching more pleasurable.

Being aware of dispersal flights in the Northeast is interesting stuff too. In traffic terms, dispersal numbers are those having a late lunch and then coincidentally returning to work while others are leaving it... it's an uptick in traffic but more than one thing is going on here. Careful. For hawk flights here, the September Redtails, juveniles by the way, are not just numbers to be chalked up as "locals." In terms of traffic monitoring, you don't decide what to count in the field, you count everything going in the direction you're interested in, and interpret the data late-ah.

While specimens of interesting eastern Redtails have been in museum collections for as long as the collections have existed (very long), I've been interested in the variations of Redtails for a long time too. Having been back and forth between upstate NY and New England, I've noted some distinct differences!

The impressively dark jobs are much more common in NY where they sweep through in waves. Certainly not in eastern MA, sure you can find them but no so much. It's a different story with the "blonde" birds, the white dwarf. I have encountered late Winter waves of these guys tee'd up along interstate corridors for a week or so (the ebb) and then they flow on North through New England. Same plumage is a here and there occurrence in upstate and my North Country ramblings. I find them, but never a sure thing.

My inference is the richly-colored birds are breeders more or less North of NY, while the blonde birds are working up to the Maritimes. Forest type and other factors blend and mix, varying the pattern. But it's my working hypothesis. My piece of the puzzle. We set as many pieces as we can side by side and see what picture we can see. A one-piece puzzle is no fun and solving a puzzle without bringing any pieces to the table isn't much of a science puzzle solving party. Puzzle pieces equal characteristics of the species like age, sex, plumage... noted, by eye or in hand.

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1 December 2009, Tuesday
Sons of Anarchy

Katey Sagal (Married with Children) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) star in the B-movie TV series, Sons of Anarchy, about everyday life in a small town motorcycle club. Think Sopranos, without dental.

As the second season crests the highway and roars onto FX tonight, I'm flashing on these biker-citizens of Charming CA, as Red-tail Hawks. High pair fidelity and shredding anyone that gets in their way. Last week's lead-up episode had a great monologue by Sagal's Gemma, as she counsels her alpha female-in-waiting. Tara's the local doc see, so she's a "healer," while Gemma sees her own calling as that of a "fierce mother." Redtail momma.

Last Friday through today, likely sliding in under and now socked-in under gray skies with some rain and now fine wet snow, I've watched the young Sons of Anarchy blow into town with now an even dozen juvenile Redtails... lowrider bellybands, wide black belts of fury, angling for a grip on smallish trees and mammals, like they're from some wild roadless area Up North, still, below the territory of another gang known as the Roughlegs (great name for an MC or some hawk banders kicking the ice and snow crust off the lines).

First, I had six of their punkasses along this local five-mile paved transect I cruise regularly through the Winter. Monday, most of these birds again, plus a bunch more on nearby roads — constituting a wave, in my notes.

Wave theory (tiny intro) in hawk migration and my winter counts, asks what (species), who (age, sex, plumage particulars), and works on the whereabouts (pt. of origin & matters of timing... groping around inside the black box of range and breeding season past). The latter is the critical conservation question... after forty years of hawkwatching in the modern era, some of us are seeking to add on to the old counts, big days, and season high record totals where a Redtail is a Redtail is a Redtail.

With new Euro-style photo field guides and hawkwatch sites backed by banding stations with their own brand of punkasses, where run and gun datasets provide a feedback loop to fine tune the next questions. Wave theory can't pass a purity test, like any other work in progress, there will be outliers within, but it is shocking how interesting the day gets — at the hawkwatch or off the grid — when you think in terms of punching out the checkbox and crossing over the one hawk per line solid centerline.

POV: Are you the hawk or the hawkwatcher?

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<<Future Present Past>>

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