Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Smith Point Hawking

I’m having trouble writing this story because the story keeps fragmenting into different directions.  For serious birders, I am posting flight photos of a dark morph Broad-winged Hawk; a fairly good get in the birding world.  I’m also posting photos of a Swainson ’s hawk and a juvenile Broad-wing, for contrast.  These photos are only good enough for identification, which for the hawk-in-flight world, is not all that bad.

But for non-birders, these photos are just not that interesting.  400mm of glass, with a human monopod in a gusting north wind, does not give enough clarity to declare “great photo!”

But that is not why I’ve procrastinated.  That is not the storyline that is causing me to pause.  Truth be told, I did NOT enjoy this particular day in the field.  And I’m not sure how to explain without sounding like a whiner; but, here goes…

This day of looking skyward was facilitated by the sturdy 30’ wooden platform, managed by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, in Smith Point, Texas.  Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Smith Point; most native Texans have not.  But this tiny point of peninsula is surrounded by a lot of water, looking out onto Galveston Bay, East Bay and Trinity Bay.  Smith Point is well known to the subset of serious birders that are hawk enthusiasts; hawk counters; hawking experts.
I confess my birding enthusiasm has never driven me to Smith Point.  And if I’d depended solely on my car’s GPS, it would not have driven me there either.  Let’s just say Smith Point is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere; somewhat off the map.  Let’s also say it is well worth the visit, and I will return one upcoming September. 

September is the peak month for sighting thousands of raptors (sometimes in a single day) from Smith Point’s observation platform.  September (into mid-November) is the main time period for fall migration of raptors headed south, to central and South America for winter.

Why didn’t I enjoy this great birding day?  After all I was surrounded by a small group of very serious volunteers:  Hawk Counters participating in the yearly hawk watch sponsored by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, the Hawk Watch International and the Texas Parks and Recreation department. 

This day and these experts could make for a positive learning experience. Several teachable moments were available; but no teachable moment was instantiated.  That is, quite selfishly, why I didn’t enjoy the day.
I have participated in multiple yearly Christmas Bird Counts, and know enough about birding etiquette, to not bother counters as they count; not interrupt as they record.  But this was a slow November count day. I introduced myself to the group as a birder with no hawk migration experience.  With good binoculars and camera in hand, I obviously came to this hawk party with serious interest. 

I mostly stayed quiet, pointing binoculars to sky.  This November day was mostly about solo raptor flyovers, nothing to challenge these skilled hawk counters, trained to count hundreds of birds at a time.  So when my binocular view told me I had no clue to hawk identification, I’d quietly vocalize to the collective counters:  “can you tell me what this is?”  And mostly I’d get an answer.  A specific one:  name identification only.
Call me spoiled but I’m used to more experienced birders sharing the WHY of their identification.  I’m used to the sharing of field experience that gives probable clues for the identification. Bentsen State Park naturalists and volunteers are especially good at this field education, for both beginning and more advanced birders.  I’ve learned a great deal from park volunteers, CBC volunteers and birding enthusiasts in most every bird locale, beginning those many years ago with Joan and Don at Pedernales Falls State Park.

But on this cold, windy, quiet hawk-watch day, several teachable moments were lost.  I was an outsider to this group of counting comrades.  I was not comfortable initiating the “why” and “how” of the identification process.  I had no feedback to my questions being welcomed.  That is OK.  But it was disappointing.
Back home, upon multi-hour review of my photos (with multiple field guides spread out around my computer), I inferred some knowledge by book and photo comparison.  (Jerry Liguori’s book “Hawks from Every Angle:  How to Identify Raptors in Flight” was most helpful.)  But after-study is not nearly as rewarding as learning in the field, with binoculars on bird. I gained no field experience this hawk-watch day.

I want to emphasize my respect for, and appreciation of, these dedicated hawk experts that volunteer their time.  It is not an easy job; and it was obvious that they enjoy their work and community of each other. 

But I’d like to suggest, with best intent, that maybe a bit more sharing of their field expertise would encourage more birders; which in turn would encourage more birding tourism; which in turn would encourage more revenue into Texas birding hot spots; which in turn might result in better infrastructure at this and other locales.

Result?  Perhaps their future bird counts at this wonderful locale might include a bathroom facility, rather than the lone porta-potty as their only three-month comfort station. 
And why did I leave after only two hours?  It was not the cold or the wind or the lack of welcoming spirit.  But this girl draws the line at porta-potties. 

 In-flight photos of the dark morph Broad-winged Hawk:


In-flight photos of the Swainson’s Hawk:

And a probable juvenile Broad-winged, convinced by Jerry Liguori’s book as to this i.d.  (But I’d surly like to discuss the subtle differences with Swainson’s and other juveniles, while watching this beauty in my binoculars):


  1. Great hawk ID photos. RC

  2. Emily:

    Someone showed me your post and I found it interesting and honest. If I visit Smith Point next fall, introduce yourself and I'll talk all day about hawks!

    Jerry Liguori

  3. Mr. Liguori,
    I was finishing up a fantastic day of birding Brazoria NWR when I saw your comment to my blog. Thrilled would be the understatement of the day. This ol' native Texan takes people at their word: I'll be more than ready to listen all day to your expertise wrt hawks; so here's to hoping you visit Smith Point next fall (and let me know when)! Thanks for your feedback on my blog--I hope you will continue to check it out. My best days are birding days. Now I have 450 Raw images to review from today's great day in the field. Emily

  4. I liked them even though I am a non-birder!

  5. Emily

    I'll certainly let you know if I make a visit, I appreciate your enthusiam for raptors!!! I'll put your blog in my favorites...check out my blog if you get a chance too.


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