Peregrine Falcons show the value of our south-most hawk count
Published: December 22, 2010
|I gained the second floor of the campground bath-and-shower building with a minimum of huff and only a trace of puff.|
Back in my day, I was known to double-time it up to the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain, so it’s hard to admit that a mere flight of stairs (taken hurriedly) is now enough to make me winded.
“Hello,” I said to the back of Rafael Antonio Galvez, hawk counter at Curry Hammock State Park.
“You made it,” he said, smiling.
Immediately, a question from another visitor and the spotting scope-torturing efforts of Boy Scout Troop 914, who were, likewise, in attendance, quickly claimed the thirty-something-year-old’s attention. Rafael dealt with both challenges adroitly and without taking his eyes off the sky — a great big puffy-cloud Florida sky.
During the ensuing interval, I sized up the playing field. The immediate environs were, as hawk watches go, pretty Spartan. The watch itself was an elevated porch and stairwell overlooking the campground. Our vantage point was on the north side of the building, mercifully the shady side. A sighting board showed 2008 count totals as well as a running total for the day of my visit, September 25, 2010.
I saw three spotting scopes, a mechanical tabulator for clicking off species, one official counter (Rafael), and a dozen or so observers, all of whom had to be mindful of their elbows when lifting binoculars. Space was limited. It was a far cry from the visitor-friendly infrastructure found at Hawk Mountain or Cape May — at least the Cape May that visitors know today. But trim 35 years off the calendar, and observers would find a great deal of commonality between Cape May and Curry Hammock.
Even celebrated hawk watches have humble beginnings. And as regards Curry Hammock, I don’t know of any hawk watch on the planet that enjoys better proximity to restrooms.
Indoor restrooms, anyway.
Like no other count
But powder-room proximity is not the only or even the most compelling distinction enjoyed by Curry Hammock. Located on Little Crawl Key, about halfway down Florida’s long chain of keys, Curry Hammock is the southernmost hawk count in the United States. Tour leader Mark Hedden described it well in these pages in October 2008.
Tallies of migrating raptors began there in 1998 and for a time were conducted under the auspices of HawkWatch International. The recession put an end to that, and in 2009, no counts were conducted at the site at all.
Now you know why the 2008 totals were still posted on the sighting board. They also underscore why the count was brought back to life. Relatively new it might be. Fiscally strapped it most certainly is. But no other hawk count in the United States keeps a tally of migrating Short-tailed Hawks or has a slot on the tally sheet for Snail Kites. And no other hawk count can boast of having recorded more than 600 Peregrine Falcons in a single day.
Curry Hammock is the Peregrine Capital of North America, and there is nothing shabby about the rest of the species totals, either.
Hawk watches as significant as this don’t die easily. So in 2010, volunteer observers acting under the umbrella of the Hawk Migration Association of North America and coordinated by Julie Tilden banded together to bring the effort back to life. Rafael, an artist, author, and raptor fanatic, was one of these.
We’d met at the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center several years ago — me a deskbound director, he a lithe, young man with intelligent brown eyes. I didn’t tell him then, and I hesitate to write this now, but he resembles the portrait of Alexander Wilson that hangs in CMBO’s Center for Research and Education.
Rafael presented me with a book, which I gratefully accepted: his field guide to the raptors and owls of Georgia, the nation, not the state (Georgian Center for the Conservation of Wildlife, 2002).
Our next meeting took place September 24, 2010, at the official opening of the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival, where I was a speaker. He invited me to visit the hawk watch after my duties were completed if I “had the time.”
Had the time? To raise glasses at what may be the greatest migratory corridor for Peregrine Falcons on the planet? Name me a hawk watcher who could possibly say no to that!
So the next day, just after noon, I joined him. He the counter, me an observer. He a talented and raptor-centric young man moving himself and our knowledge of raptors forward, me an accomplished observer with more experience in my wake than open skies still before me.
I couldn’t help but think back to a time when our roles were reversed, his and mine. The year was 1976, the place Cape May, New Jersey.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Way out there, way back there
“Peregrine,” I announced, beating the distracted official counter to the call. Rafael picked up the bird and studied it carefully to determine whether it made the grade — that is, whether it was a bona fide migrant.
At Cape May, I would have counted it without question. At Curry Hammock, where wintering Peregrines are a problem, they weigh and assess. And when you are a relative newcomer on the hawk-counting block and your Peregrine totals are blowing everyone out of the water, you need to be certain your numbers are ironclad.
I know this from experience. Back in the fall of 1976, as a young hawk counter, I tallied 105 Peregrines during Cape May’s inaugural count. At the time, many feared that Peregrines were heading for extinction, and the total was regarded with skepticism. In fact, one author of multiple books on raptors observed, in print: “I seriously question the accuracy of this count.”
The criticism stung.
The astonishing totals, though, attracted the attention of one of hawk watching’s greatest figures: Maurice Broun, Hawk Mountain’s first curator. Unlike some detractors, he made it a point to see the flight and assess the merits of the young counter for himself. So one day, in 1976, he paid a visit.
We stood side by side for the better part of two days, feeling not just the magic of the Cape May flight but a friendship growing. When he left, he gave the count his countenance.
It felt pretty good, I don’t mind saying. Pretty affirming.
But as impressive as Cape May’s Peregrine totals were, and still are, they can’t hold a candle to Curry Hammock. And as good a hawk counter as I might have been back in 1976, Rafael is better.
Merit finds a way
The afternoon wore on. Visitors came and went and then mostly went. Rafael and I discussed birds, favorite artists, hawk-counting techniques, the future of field guides (illustrated by hand vs. digital images), and most important, ways and means of keeping the fledgling hawk count alive.
In 1977, CMBO faced a similar crisis. The institution was without a director, and start-up funds were exhausted. The New Jersey Audubon Society could provide an organizational umbrella but no financial support except that which CMBO could raise. So...
I agreed to stay on. Actually, I lobbied to stay on, to try to get CMBO on track. And it should come as no surprise that I called Maurice and asked how he and Irma, his young bride, had managed to turn a mountain into an institution at the height of the Great Depression.
At his invitation, I drove to their farm, Strawberry Hill, where I took a walk with hawk watching’s senior statesman and enjoyed lunch. I confess that I hoped Maurice would offer me a blueprint to success. He did not. He did one better. He led by example.
He put the burden of success right where it belonged, on the shoulders of the person who agreed to shoulder it — and not from disinterest, but from the kind of knowledge that takes a lifetime to acquire. If a thing has merit, merit finds a way.
A line spoken that day remains emblazoned in my mind. It came not from Maurice but Irma, who as much as her husband had helped turn the mountain into an institution: “Oh, Maurice, he’s just like we were when we were starting out.”
Thirty-five years on, I finally have the wisdom to appreciate that wisdom.
At 4 p.m., Rafael closed up shop. The day’s tally was lean (and conservative): 25 birds, of which five were Peregrines.
I helped carry the equipment to his car. Later, over dinner, we delved more into the nature of organizations and ways of generating recognition and support.
I guess it was then that I decided to write this piece. To let you know that an embryonic hawk watch on North America’s southern flank has merit and is much in need of having that merit recognized.
Some day, it will be as famous as Hawk Mountain and Cape May. And while merit does find a way, part of that way just might involve you.
And Rafael, you should know that you, and those other Curry Hammock counters, are just like Maurice and Irma when they were starting out. Big shoes to fill, but the path you are on has been walked, successfully, before.
If anyone ever questions your Peregrine total, you tell them to call me.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.