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Among several tribes on the northern plains, the passage of time from one summer to the next was marked by noting a single memorable event. The sequence of such memories, recorded pictographically on a buffalo robe or spoken aloud, was called a winter count. Several winter counts might be in progress at any one time in the same tribe, each differing according to the personality of its keeper.

Barry Lopez, from his little book WINTER COUNT.

In the Winter Count Issue (1996):

Owls R Us: Forbidden Island Calls Long Distance.

Christmas Eve Day: Traditional Raptor Count to the North Country.

California Counting: Pacific Coast Highway Run.

Current Events: Sharpie/Cooper's Ratio & Accipter I.D.

Spring '96 @ Plum Island: 1 Site, 1 Observer, 100 Hours.

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT when the red BatPhone rang out [we had a Frogfone but it croaked].

So it was dark and stormy, blahblahblah, at the NRA/WBA joint headquarters in the basement of the Radass Group complex as the answering machine received the following:

"Thomas, call me back as soon as you get in." Operative X [not his real name] never uses such formal language or calls at all really, unless, it's pretty important.

We covered the phone with three layers of security aluminum foil to prevent the alien forces from the Planet UU [not their real name] from intercepting the call and heard an amazing story of maybe more than fifty Great Gray Owls on Forbidden Island [not its real name]. Posting an alert - either on an RBA or the Internet - has been forbidden since crazed birders [sure, that's redundant] mobbed FI a few years back and acted like humans on the T at rush/any hour.

Turned back on our first trip by snow squalls off Lake Effect [not its real name], our second trip was a success as we photographed many fine owl species [sure, that's redundant] in Forbidden Island's Owl Woods [its real name].

OWL WOODS:We checked out the Barred Owl first, then we had 4 GGO's in one tree, in addition we saw 3 Saw-whets and 2 Boreal Owls.

THE REST OF THE ISLAND: 41 Red-tails, 20 Roughlegs, 2 adult male Harriers, 2 Kestrels, 5 Northern Shrikes, and 11 Snowy Owls.


FOR MORE YEARS THAN WE CAN REMEMBER, Gerry Smith and I have travelled to Jefferson County NY west of Watertown primarily to observe and count raptors on Christmas Eve Day.

We usually work our way to Cape Vincent from Watertown and always include Pt. Peninsula, outside Chaumont. Here are the highlights and details of our count...

HIGHLIGHTS FOR 12/24/95:Rough-legged Hawk[27], Redtailed Hawk[17], Sharp-shinned Hawk[2], Am.Kestrel[2], Merlin[1], Short-eared Owl[2], Snowy Owl[1], Northern Shrike[6];Snow Bunting[137], Horned Lark[60], Wild Turkey[25], Gray Partridge[13], Pine Grosbeak[2], Lapland Longspur[1], and an Eastern Coyote.

DETAILS:The first bird of the day was a Roughleg [around 8 am near Adams Center]. This bird, like all of Sunday's raptors was observed perched for at least some of the time we observed it. There's a photo of a Roughleg from Pt. Peninsula accompanying this article.

We came across a concentration of Roughlegs south of the intersection of Rts. 3 and 180 with 9 birds in view at one location plus a tenth raptor... an immature Snowy Owl! Within a one mile plus radius of that intersection we had almost all of our day's Roughlegs -- this is not the usual location for a mess of raptors.

Our Roughleg total topped out at 27 and the breakdown was as follows: 18 light phase and 9 dark phase; of the birds we could age, 6 were adults and 12 were immatures.

The Redtails were mostly adults [only 2 immatures out of 17 birds]. The two Kestrels and two Sharpies were adults; the Kestrels were males while both Sharpies were females. The Sharpies and the Merlin [immature female] were observed in the center of leafless trees directly over 3 different houses with bird feeders.

The two Short-eared Owls were together observed sitting and flying. The grayer adult was carrying a Microtus as the brown immature chased after it... this around 2:30 pm.

As it turned out there were no hawks along Hard Scrabble Road or on Pt. Peninsula, a rare situation for this raptor hot spot west of Chaumont. Four of the 6 Shrikes however were seen on Pt.Peninsula; 5 of 6 Shrikes were adults. The Coyote was a Pt.Pen. added attraction: a male, he loped over the road in front of us and stopped several times on his way out across a large field to look back at us.

The Turkeys were all together near a bird feeder; the Gray Partridge -- voted "our favorite introduced species of all time" -- were found in two coveys: 9 birds in one group, 4 in another. We had one group of 110 Snow Buntings, while a group of 18 Horned Larks contained the Longspur bonus bird.

We felt lucky to find A Snowy Owl based on this winter's sparse reports. It seems though, the numbers may be picking up as three other Snowy reports were received by Gerry over the last week: Betty Hughes saw one at the Watertown International Airport [a lost Quebec pilot landed there once] and Nick Leone came across one along Rt.12 [north of Rt. 3] and another one nearer to Cape Vincent.

While covering many of the roads north and west of Rts.3 and 180 to the Lake, we did not bird Pillar Pt., Three Mile Bay roads, Pt. Salubrious, or the Perch River area.

HISTORY:When I was living in the North Country and first reported 75 Roughlegs in one day from Pt. Peninsula [in the early 1970's] it was rejected [for the supplement to Bull's Birds of NYS] as counting the same birds over and over. But Gerry Smith's regular and careful census work from this area has shown peak Roughleg years to exceed 200 birds in a day just from Pt. Peninsula! The last of these big years was around 1990... it depends on the furry food supply. We once had a one hundred owl day [in day light hours!]: 6 Snowy Owls, 2 Great Horned Owls, and 92 Short-eared Owls. So since I moved away from the North Country to Boston, Gerry and I have created a tradition for ourselves of counting raptors and anything else we find on the Eve of Christmas.

- By Anonymous

I HAD A FEW DAYS AROUND MACWORLD EXPO to look for raptors along the Pacific Coast Highway. The looking turned into counting and the counts had their highlights.

I had over 750 hawks comprising 14 species; the bulk of these were on The Big Hawk Days: LA to San Luis Obispo, 1/6/96 - 150 hawks; Guerneville to Muir Woods, 1/13/96 - 203; Carmel to the Carrizo Plain, 1/15/96 - 248.

I veered off Route 1 on two noteworthy occasions: I like the area along the Russian River from Guerneville to the PCH north of Bodega Bay, especially for the wintering Red-shouldered Hawks [although there weren't many visible this year with the foggy conditions until mid afternoon] and I ventured up onto the famous Carrizo Plain - found roughly between SLO and Bakersfield. Other than that, this was a linear count taken from the rental car.

Turkey Vultures [441] were by far the most abundant raptor along the coast with Red-tails [141] and Kestrels [127] rounding out the top of the list. The rest of the list is as follows: RS & Black-shouldered Kite [12 each]; Ferruginous Hawk [9]; Harrier [8]; Merlin [3]; Sharp-shinned Hawk [2]; Prairie Falcon [2]; and one each for Peregrine, Swainson's Hawk, Roughleg, and Golden Eagle. Amongst the Redtails were a few dark phase birds and one adult Krider's. Loggerhead Shrikes, a bird all but extirpated from my Northeast, tallied 33.

I made two trips to the Carrizo Plain, a dry, flat, elevated [about 2100 feet up according to my altimeter] partially abandoned area of grazing land that also contains a large white [baking soda?] lake bed. Each time, I got up there around 2 pm and stayed to 5 pm plus. There's no way I covered all the many roads [laid out in a nice grid], having never been there before, so this is by no means a comprehensive census. I compiled the following snapshot using either species high count or ages and sexes: 14 RT, 9 AK, 5 FH, 4 NH, 3 ML, 1 PF, 1BsK, 1 RL, 1 GE. Mostly the birds were adults attesting to the bleak/beautiful conditions. The Roughleg was a light phase adult. Note: no TV's on the CP that I saw... and no Red shoulders. For raptor counting stay to the areas where the grass is very short and look for Ferrug. on the ground. Also avoid really overgrown areas without fence posts or telephone poles... unless they're in the air you'll waste your time in those areas! I stayed one day late enough for owls but didn't have any until I was about 10 off the CP near an active farm when a well-lit Barn Owl flew thru the headlights for a several second look.

Plenty of Mt. Bluebirds up there and lots of prairie race [gray] Horned Larks plus lots of sparrows of various edible spp. Also on the CP were 18 Pronghorns [mammals], 300 Sandhill Cranes [in the water at the very east end of Soda Lake]. There were also about 100 medium sized brown birds [ducky/large shorebird] standing in the shallow water but I was too far away to id them.

I've done the PCH down to the Golden Gate three years now and a couple hundred hawks is pretty typical but only half the spp. count of the CP.

There was another hot spot that's definitely worth pointing out. The concentration of numbers and spp. occured between the end of the Big Sur country [south of Ragged Pt.?: where the road straightens out and the very steep hillside backs off quite a bit to the east] and San Simeone. This would cover about a ten to fifteen mile stretch. Here I had 165 hawks of 7spp. [8 counting the Krider's RT]. 84 TV, 29 RT, 45 AK, 4 FH, 1 SH [a light phase immature] 1 BsKite, and a Prairie Falcon, plus 10 Shrikes. The eco-geography makes sense for a concentration and it's probably worth at least a followup by someone with hawks on their mind!

Big Sur country, from Carmel to Ragged Pt. is very very pretty but counting hawks is problematic: the land to the east is too steep to look up and do any counting, there's no road to the west and the road moves around alot... making it more than dangerous to look around anywhere but the road!

I spent a half day just walking at Pt. Lobos State Park in Carmel and looking at Gray Whales and Sea Otters and Sea Lions. But wouldn't you know, I look up just once and the high soaring hawk is a Peregrine that folds and dives down out of sight after some Pelagic Cormorant or Black Oystercatcher.

All along the PCH in January and February, Gray Whales are common. Hint: look into the sun where it lights up the water and it easily lights up the spouts too... for miles out. Nearby to San Simeone [just north by the lighthouse] there's nice wintering population of huge Winebagos and equally huge Elephant Seals within a few feet of the highway [anyone seen the movie: Tremors?]


The rule of hand in the east is that the Cooper's:Sharpie ratio is 1:20, although Cooper's counts have been increasing recently while Sharp-shinned counts have been dropping.

Dear Edward:

First, hawks are identified, or not, one at a time. We've never noted any hawk watchers checking the ratio during the day at the watch. "Hey Ed, how we doin' vis-a-vis the Ratio today." "Well, we're running at 1 to 12 as of noon, we'd better ease up on those pesky Coops." However, we haven't been on the summit for a few years, maybe things have changed.

In the case of California v. Tiny Raptors, it's not surprising that advanced beginner to intermediate level hawk watchers are guessing. Another study on a grander scale has been underway at Cape May since Frank Nicoletti arrived in the early '80s and began aging and sexing accips. diving into banding stations at 500 yds. One day this fall Jerry Ligouri, the current Cape May top gun, shook his head sympathetically at the thought of making a study out of accipiter i.d. as he stood amongst many other excellent hawk watchers who are all capable of identifying accips. at the limit of optics using actual field marks and having it hold up in front of hundreds of skeptics day after day. Others shall we say were less understanding of the old days and ways.

Current events: In 1995, based on a CH & SS sample size of roughly 70,000 from Derby Hill, Braddock Bay, Cape May, and Kiptopeke identified by professional counters, the ratio for the east was about 1:6. Cape May 1996 ran about 1:6 again.

We look at eastern sites with ratios of 1:10 or lower and know that there's someone there who has been hanging out with the big boys and girls at the top four sites... paying attention too.