Migration and the Smith Point Hawk Watch

 

It may be difficult to believe with the heat we’ve been subjected to lately, but fall is coming. At the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, that means a switch in the research we’re focused on and the birds we’re paying attention to. As summer releases its grasp and the seasons change, we move from studying the region’s nesting birds to training our eyes on the residents and over-wintering birds.

This is the time of year when 2/3 of U.S. bird species start to prepare for migration. Migration is defined as the regular travel of an animal as it returns eventually to its original place of departure. It’s often annual and linked with the seasons – with birds we observe it in spring and fall. Changes in day length and the sun’s intensity trigger hormones and metabolic changes in the birds that prompt them to increase their food consumption and store fat for their upcoming journeys. Some will travel relatively short distances – from Canada to the southern states, for instance, but many will travel much further, sometimes thousands of miles. More than 300 species that nest in the US and Canada fly to the West Indies or Central and South America. The main wintering area for birds extends through Mexico and Central America to Panama – this region is home to the highest density of winter bird residents in the world. Sadly, less than half of the birds that migrate during the fall each year make it back to their point of departure, with many of them lost at sea.

This multinational citizenship of birds, if you will, is one reason the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory has the phrase “and beyond” in its stated mission of “protecting birds and their habitats around the Gulf of Mexico and beyond”: Protecting them locally simply doesn’t suffice if they’re only going to fly thousands of miles to find their second homes destroyed – eliminated by sea level rise, decimated by logging, encroached on by human development, etc. It’s why one of our major programs is dedicated to helping purchase land for conservation in Latin America – we’ve helped protect a total of 27 properties 10 different countries to date.

For birders and nonbirders alike, migration can be an especially exciting time because we get to see birds we don’t normally see as they pass through on the way to their final destination. One especially amazing sight is the migration of raptors as they make their way south in the fall, and one of the best places to see it is at the Smith Point Hawk Watch at Candby Abshier Wildlife Management Area on the eastern shore of Galveston Bay. From August 15 through November 30 from 8 to 4 pm each day, the hawk watch will be staffed by volunteers whose responsibility it is to document the types and numbers of migrating raptors passing overhead. With an average of 21 different species and 52,000 total raptors each season (the high count was 115,316 in 2001!), that’s not an easy task. But it’s one with many rewards. A few impressive statistics: The Smith Point Hawk Watch ranks 7th in the US and Canada for the average number of birds per season and 2nd for species diversity, and it sees one of the highest average seasonal totals of Swallow-tailed Kites in the US. As one of only 4 fall Gulf Coast hawk watch sites, it’s a treasure worth visiting right here in our own backyard.

Jennifer Horton is the Education and Outreach Manager at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.

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