Birdwatching at two Connecticut hawkwatches: Lighthouse Point and Quaker Ridge
The hawkwatches at Lighthouse Point and Quaker Ridge, Connecticut, are two of the best in New England
Published: September 1, 2003
|A fine early October morning dawned clear and cold with a stiff breeze from the northwest. Rain had fallen heavily the night before here in New Haven, Connecticut, but now only wisps of high white clouds quickly slid across the deep blue fall sky. The 30 people at the Lighthouse Point Park hawkwatch were slightly chilled by the cool breeze, but warmed by the prospects of what was to be ferried toward them by those same rivers of air. Streaks of red, orange, and yellow had begun penetrating the surrounding maple trees, completing the palette for a perfect fall hawkwatching day.|
The “gray ghost” of hawks, a male Northern Harrier, dramatically cut low above a field, then swept above the trees before crossing New Haven harbor, as if to announce, “Let the show begin!”
And begin it did, as an American Kestrel and Sharp-shinned Hawk drifted by slowly, only a few feet apart, drawing lazy circles in the wind, just 20 feet overhead. Then it starts: “Sharpie coming in low over the camel’s hump.” “Get on that Merlin cutting behind the lighthouse.” “Peregrine straight up!” “Bald Eagle cruising over the Sound.” Dozens of birders are here now, all looking through an assortment of optics and all simultaneously shouting out their sightings.
His table covered with field guides and notebooks weighted down with rocks, the official counter furiously writes down everything as observers call out the birds. It’s the kind of day where everyone brings lawn chairs and no one is sitting down. A counter’s worst fear is that when a bird or flock goes by and draws everyone’s attention, something else will slip past unnoticed. At Lighthouse Point, with all the birds that pass by, especially large numbers of falcons and accipiters, a lot of coffee gets cold in the cup while watchers can’t take their eyes off the skies.
Lighthouse Point and Quaker Ridge: How to get there
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Greenwich Audubon Center: (203) 869-5272
613 Riversville Road, Greenwich, CT 06801
Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
From the Merritt Parkway (Route 15) in Connecticut take Exit 28 and travel north on Round Hill Road. After 1.7 miles, turn left onto John Street. The entrance to the center is on the right at the Riversville Road stop sign.
From Interstate 684 in New York, take Exit 3 to New York Route 22. Go north on 22 and take a right onto Route 433 (Riversville Road). Continue 2.5 miles to the intersection with John Street and turn left into the center.
Parking is on the right and the hawkwatch site is immediately to the left. In addition to the hawkwatch, the 295-acre sanctuary features a wonderful New England mix of woodlands, meadows, and ponds attractive to many species of nesting and migrant passerines. The new Kimberlin Nature Education Center is set to open this fall.
Lighthouse Point Park
Managed by New Haven Parks Department
Ranger Station: (203) 946-8790
From eastbound Interstate 95, take Exit 50 and turn right at the second light onto Townsend Avenue. From westbound I-95, take Exit 51 and proceed along the parallel service road for eight-tenths of a mile and turn left at the traffic light onto Townsend Avenue.
Follow Townsend Avenue south for 2.4 miles to the second traffic light, then turn right onto Lighthouse Road and follow it about a half-mile to the park entrance.
The hawkwatching area is in the center of the open field and parking is adjacent. In addition to the hawkwatch, this large coastal park has paths through woodlands, thickets, and salt marshes. A bird sanctuary is located across from the hawkwatch. Other attractions include a Coney Island-style carousel and a 70-foot lighthouse on the beach that dates to 1840.
Hawkwatching in large groups often seems like organized chaos, especially when the birds are flying fast and furious. Somehow, a compiler manages to get it all down on paper: species counts, frequency, and hourly tabulations. At other times, when conditions are poor for migrating raptors, a lot of hot beverages and hot air is dispensed, as bored birders recall better days.
Ron Bell of the New Haven Bird Club, which sponsors the Lighthouse Point hawkwatch, has been the compiler for the past 10 years, spending 500 to 600 hours each fall scanning the skies for raptors. Other than “big days” when huge numbers of hawks move past, Bell recalls two particularly memorable incidents at Lighthouse Point. The first occurred when a Golden Eagle, very unusual at the site, was slowly soaring just 200 feet overhead. Suddenly, a Peregrine Falcon stooped on the eagle from above, and as it was hit by the falcon, a Northern Goshawk simultaneously came up from below and also whacked the eagle. The large eagle survived the attack from the two smaller birds. On another occasion, a female Cooper’s Hawk attacked a Savannah Sparrow that had been feeding near the compiler’s table. Round and round they went, spiraling in tight three-foot circles with the hawk right on the sparrow’s tail until the sparrow finally dived for cover into a bush.
While the action at Lighthouse Point is just heating up, about 40 miles southwest and eight miles inland from the coast of Long Island Sound, another outstanding hawkwatching season is well under way. Although similar in location, Quaker Ridge at the Audubon Center of Greenwich, Connecticut, attracts a somewhat different array of raptors. Broad-winged Hawks, which tend to avoid large bodies of water during migration, are seen more here than at Lighthouse Point, which overlooks the Sound.
Most birds seen at Lighthouse Point are migrating directly along the coastline, but the best days at Quaker Ridge occur when strong winds from the north or west push the normally inland migratory stream toward Long Island Sound. The birds then mass along the coast, where from their aerial viewpoint, the theory is that they can see the Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, New York City to the east, and the ridges to the west. Depending on their preferences, the winds, and prevailing weather conditions, they head in all different directions to avoid crossing the water.
Broad-winged Hawks migrate earlier than many other raptors, perhaps because they travel farther to their wintering grounds in South America. On a cool mid-September morning, when the winds have been right, large concentrations of these small buteos roost in the forests along the Connecticut shore. As the rising sun creates thermals sufficient to carry them aloft, the hawks lift off and form into kettles, effortlessly riding the rising columns of warm air to an altitude where they can stream off in a prolonged glide along their migratory course.
The viewing area at Quaker Ridge is a pleasant northeast-facing field, at more than 500 feet elevation, which doesn’t seem very high until you realize that it’s one of the tallest hills around. Looking toward the higher forest-covered Round Hill, the viewing area is in a perfect position to keep track of birds that have roosted along the coast the night before and are migrating inland from the water. Although this area of Connecticut was heavily farmed and almost completely deforested 100 years ago, fragmented second-growth forests now cover a substantial amount of the surrounding area, providing acceptable roosting habitat for migrating birds.
According to Joe Zeranski, one of the founders of the hawkwatch at Quaker Ridge, there were so few trees at the turn of the last century that Connecticut farmers used to entertain themselves on summer evenings by gathering on the hilltops to watch steamships plying the waters of Long Island Sound. Now it’s impossible to see all the way to the sound, and the trees have to be periodically pared down at Quaker Ridge to preserve an acceptable northeasterly view to keep track of the river of raptors.
And what a river it is! More than 9,600 raptors were counted at Quaker Ridge last year. Donna Rose Manwaring, a former official counter there, recalls seeing more than 7,000 Broad-winged Hawks in one day, with kettle after kettle passing by all day long before a stream of hawks poured into the surrounding forest to roost as evening settled in. On another occasion, 66 Red-shouldered Hawks flew past within three hours. And during a lull in hawkwatching one day, she checked out a flock of juncos to find a rare Boreal Chickadee among them.
“I love to open people’s eyes and introduce them to the wonderful spectacle that happens each fall,” says Manwaring. “Nothing is better than seeing their eyes and minds expand when a stream of hawks starts going by just above the tree tops.”
On a perfect day in mid-September, I met Drew Panko at Quaker Ridge. He runs the Fire Island, New York, hawkwatch and was visiting Quaker Ridge. Decked out with two pairs of binoculars, a video camera, and miscellaneous other gear, he looked ready for anything. With an infectious smile, he pointed out a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks coming up in the distance. They were so far away I couldn’t find them despite his prompting, until they came much closer. Expert hawkwatchers take great pride in their ability not only to find hawks at amazing distances, but also to identify them correctly. While the rest of us are struggling just to see where the birds are, they’re talking about differentiating Sharp-shinned Hawks from Cooper’s Hawks at a mile away, based on the relative speed of the wing beats, since smaller Sharpies tend to flap faster than their larger cousins. Finally, I picked up a circling swirl of about 50 dots, rising on a thermal above the trees. “You better have your binoculars focused just right,” says Drew, “because these are ‘poppy seed’ birds.”
For most observers, it’s much more exciting when a kettle emerges from nearby trees and close looks can be had of these beautiful birds as they rise up to the altitude where they stream off toward their next destination. Manwaring said the spot where they peel off from the kettle is the easiest place to get an accurate count.
The hawk counters’ tallies
Last year, hawkwatchers counted more than 24,800 birds of prey at the Quaker Ridge and Lighthouse Point hotspots. September 17 was the biggest day at Quaker Ridge (1,930 birds). Lighthouse Point’s peak was October 14 (1,906).
Quaker Ridge Lighthouse Point
Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) 4 0
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 520 471
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) 585 1,418
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) 53 76
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) 159 413
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) 1,748 8,096
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) 292 796
Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) 8 10
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) 69 90
Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) 5,222 737
Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) 0 3
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 206 750
Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) 0 1
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) 5 10
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) 454 1,807
Merlin (Falco columbarius) 46 332
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) 23 50
Unknown raptor 233 202
Total 9,627 15,262
Rounds of applause
One of the wonderful things about hawkwatching at Quaker Ridge and Lighthouse Point is that the sites are easily accessible and you can drive right up to the viewing area. And a lot of the usual birding rules don’t apply: No walking or driving is involved — you just sit or stand. Nobody is quiet — it’s more like being in a stadium watching a sports match, with everyone yelling out birds and directions. When a good bird or kettle passes by, hawkwatchers have been known to applaud spontaneously or burst into cheering at the “performance.” And hawkwatching is perfect for schmoozing. When the action is slow, what better way to fill the time than trading birding stories? Plus, no one cares about the noise; just pass another cup of coffee and a sandwich.
Until about 1970, there were few organized hawkwatching sites in Connecticut, New England, or most of the United States. That year, Neil Currie, who helped put hawkwatching on the map, noticed large concentrations of Broad-winged Hawks passing over the school in Watertown, Connecticut, where he was teaching biology. He wrote a letter to a regional Audubon publication asking if other birdwatchers were interested in observing migrating hawks.
Among the people who replied were Michael Harwood, who would go on to write The View from Hawk Mountain: The Story of the World’s First Raptor Sanctuary and other books, and Don Hopkins, who is one of the deans of New England raptor banding. After investigating Lighthouse Point and being impressed with the numbers of birds that swarmed across the point before cutting over or around New Haven Harbor, Currie encouraged New Haven birders to start monitoring the site. At about the same time, Joe Zeranski and others began watching the skies at Quaker Ridge.
In 1971, Currie, Hopkins, and others organized about 30 to 40 bird clubs in New England to go out one weekend in early September to monitor a site of their choosing. Afterwards, another weekend was added in mid-October. In the mid-1980s, many of the best sites became monitored full-time during the migration period from mid-August through November. In the early 1970s, Harwood put together an Audubon conference in Syracuse, New York, that resulted in the formation of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) that now is the official monitoring agency for the country. After that conference, a slew of hawkwatches sprung up all over the United States. Today there are more than 400 hawkwatching sites in North America.
Besides being notable places to watch hawks, Quaker Ridge and Lighthouse Point also attract countless passerines and butterflies. Western Kingbird, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Dickcissel have become annual rare visitors at Lighthouse Point, while the annual stream of thousands of Blue Jays flashing through the woods and across the fields is an amazing sight to behold. But birds aren’t the only ones that flock to these sites. Hawkwatchers come from all over New England and nearby New York, because when conditions are right, both sites are among the best in the region to satisfy their passion.
Sam Fried is a writer, photographer, and wildlife tour leader based in Bloomfield, Connecticut.