A Fascination for Raptors

American Kestrel
American Kestrel / Copyright Jerry Liguori


There are few animals that capture the American imagination more than raptors. From the Bald Eagles that adorn government insignia and
Osprey cams that ignite intense online discussions, to the massive effort to save the California Condor, raptors embody our sense of “the wild.”

Jerry Liguori has been entranced by raptors for decades. As a seasoned educator at EarthShare member group HawkWatch International, he has travelled around the country studying raptor migration patterns and sharing his expertise. We asked him to reflect on his work with HawkWatch and how people can support these majestic animals.

 

How did you get involved in this work?

I was 16 when I first saw a group of turkey vultures soaring low over an open field as I was cutting grass during a summer job in central New Jersey. I was mesmerized by their size and their buoyant, easy flight. The next day, my friend took me to see a Red-tailed Hawk behind his house and I was hooked. During college, I studied Environmental Science and volunteered at a bird rehabilitation center.


What is the mission of HawkWatch International? How do you achieve that mission?

The mission of HawkWatch International is to conserve raptors and our shared environment through research and education. We achieve this by studying and monitoring changes in populations and habitats of raptors, and by reaching people of all ages through our education programs, field trips, volunteer program, and website.


What makes raptor watching so fun?

Birds of prey display incredible aerial maneuvers, can fly at high speeds, and can catch prey as large as they are. One exciting aspect of watching migrations in particular is that you never know what kind of bird you’ll see next, and you may see large groups of birds at one time (as many as tens of thousands), which is a thrilling experience.


What are the best times of the year, and best places to watch hawks?

The best times of year are autumn (September through November) - when birds are migrating south, and in spring (March through May) - when they head back north.  Some of the best places in the US to watch hawks are the Goshute Mountains in NV, Hazel Bazemore Park in Corpus Christi TX, Cape May Point in NJ, Hawk Mountain in PA, Hawk Ridge in MN, Braddock Bay in NY, Whitefish Point in MI, Kiptopeke State Park in VA, and many others. However, the largest raptor migration in the world occurs every fall in Veracruz, Mexico.


How is climate change impacting hawks and other birds?

We don’t fully understand the effects climate change has on birds overall, but we do see indicators that we are actively studying, such as changes in migration timing, loss of natural cavities in forest areas, and some species inhabiting areas well north of their previously known range, like the Mississippi Kite and Cooper’s Hawk. I’ve seen Black Vultures in Canada where they historically never occurred. More research is needed to paint a larger picture of climate change on migratory animals, and raptors serve as an excellent indicator species for this purpose.
 

What should a beginner know as they undertake birding or hawk watching as a hobby?

Beginners shouldn’t stress about trying to identify every bird they see. Purchase a quality pair of binoculars, learn the basics before tackling the minutiae, and have fun - birding is not a competition! HawkWatch International has ID guides for purchase and several free fact sheets on their website to get you started. Our raptor ID app is the ideal learning tool since it has 1,000 images, and voiced-over video clips of all 34 North American raptor species.

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