Stephen P. Broker
Lighthouse Point Park is one of most important hawk migration spots in the Northeast. Each September through November more than 30,000 raptors are counted migrating over New Haven’s Lighthouse Point as they fly south to wintering grounds. Migrant raptors include vultures, Osprey, eagles, harriers, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Broadwings, Red-tails, kestrels, merlins, and Peregrine Falcon. Hawk watch activity begins at around 5:30 A.M. and continues through Noontime. Hawk numbers are recorded during half hour intervals.
Take students to Lighthouse Park for two or three morning hours of observation. Prior to the trip, review handout materials relating to diurnal raptor identification and migration patterns. Review field marks for birds flying overhead, such as dihedral wing shape and dark and light patterns on vulture wings, dihedral wings and white upper tail coverts for harrier, bull-headed appearance and rounded tail tip of “Coops”, smaller head and square tail tip of Sharpies. At Lighthouse, record species and numbers of birds seen every 30 minute interval. Check results against records made by the Lighthouse Hawk Watch experts. Record wind direction and speed, condition of sky, and overall flight patterns of birds as they pass over the Morris Creek marshes and Lighthouse Park. Special attention should be given to use of binoculars, several pairs of which would be very useful for the group.
Binoculars should not be used to search the skies for birds. Rather, make a sighting with the naked eye, and then try to locate the bird with binoculars. If the bird is not found within the first 4-5 seconds of looking with binoculars, take the binoculars down and relocate the bird with the naked eye. Then, try again with the binoculars. Useful landmarks such as trees on the horizon or clouds in the sky can help tremendously in locating the hawks, which are usually seen as small specks in the sky by experienced hawk watch observers. Locate the large tree or cloud with the naked eye, put binoculars up to the eyes and find the reference point, then move the appropriate direction and distance to where the bird is believed to be. Such field skills as power of observation, recognition of field marks, and recognition of bird behavior can be sharpened on the trip.
As monthly data are obtained from the hawk watch group, large and small flight days should be matched against weather systems of Connecticut from weather reports collected from the newspaper. Weather conditions suitable for flight southward should be noted. Hawks fly south when weather systems permit. Strong winds from the southwest prevent all but the strongest fliers, Osprey and Peregrine Falcon, from passing overhead at Lighthouse Park.