Cameron Cox is an experienced and enthusiastic birder. He has counted migrating raptors at several hawkwatches throughout the United States. Here is Cameron’s thoroughly engaging description of his experience counting for the first time in the Neotropics at the Canopy Tower, where he did an amazing work for which we are so grateful. FYI, we are looking for a volunteer counter for the Hawk Migration season in 2020!
Canopy Hawk Count
By Cameron Cox
My time as a volunteer hawk counter at Canopy Tower began at 8:00 AM October 1 and began with a bang: 5,428 hawks in the first hour of the count! As hawks streamed by through the valleys on either side of the Canopy Tower, it was immediately apparent that this was a job where I would have to learn quickly, keep a high level of concentration and watchfulness, and when the poo hits the rotating device do the best job possible. My last day ended in a bit of a whimper, counting only 3,511 raptors the entire day, but the very last minute of the count at 4:59 PM on November 7, the last thing I saw on the Tower was my best view of Double-toothed Kite for the entire 300-plus hours I spent on top of the Tower. A reminder that even on a slow day at the Tower something exceptional can happen at any moment.
In between these bookends I had many other exceptional moments as I counted 515,018 raptors. “Exceptional” is also an accurate description of this season of raptor counting at the Tower. Records were broken for 7 of the 16 species that are counted regularly/semi-regularly at the Tower. In the case of Broad-winged Hawk (season count: 257,676; prior season record: 140,330) and Peregrine Falcon (season count: 148; prior record: 56), the records were not so much broken as annihilated. Records were also broken for Swallow-tailed Kite, Osprey, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, and Merlin. The season could have been even more exceptional, but I counted only an average number of what is usually the most dominant species, Turkey Vulture (TV). I did get a Halloween treat in the form of a burst of 30,905 Turkey Vultures during the 10 o’clock hour, one of the most staggering events of bird migration I’ve ever seen. For the first full season, however, Turkey Vultures were not the most numerous species counted and were in fact drastically outnumbered by Broad-wings, 257,676 to 136,364. The day after our count ended, the nearby Cerro Ancon hawk count had their best day of the season, with over 200,000 Turkey Vultures passing over. I have no doubt that if we had extended the season one more day we would have set a new season high count of TVs.
For me, perhaps equally striking as the numbers of raptors was the diversity of raptors I observed during my time, a total of 33 species of diurnal raptors. Of the 33, only 12 were migratory species, including rare northern migrants like Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. When you spend over 300 hours staring at the sky you also pick up some rare tropical raptors like a lost immature White-tailed Hawk and the absolutely stunning and extremely rare Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. A number of resident tropical raptors like Semiplumbeous Hawk, Bat Falcon, and Great Black-Hawk would wander past the Tower at times. Some of the most spectacular species were among the most regular, like Black Hawk-Eagle and King Vulture, both seen on a near daily basis. The first time I saw the rare black-morph Hook-billed Kite I was absolutely floored, then it became clear that that individual was resident in the area and I saw it regularly but it never became any less stunning. Similarly, when you are scanning across the sky and you suddenly come upon a White Hawk it will take your breath away and it takes a while to get it back. I came to know the habits of the local pair of Short-tailed Hawks intimately, even what they liked to eat (it’s fresh martin, by the way, Purple or Gray-breasted).
It can be hard to concentrate on just raptors given the number of dazzling tropical species that pop up right at eye level. The position of Distractor in Chief at Canopy Tower is held firmly by Blue Cotinga. When a Blue Cotinga flies suddenly into your field of view, flashing in the sun, you have to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about color. It truly is a mind-bendingly beautiful species and one that I saw well more than half of the days I was counting. It stood out even among a very colorful cast of characters that I saw daily at the Tower such as Green Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, Red-capped Manakin, Blue-crowned Manakin, and White-necked Jacobin zipping along everywhere. When counting a kettle of Broad-wings you could be at absolutely any hawk count in eastern North America, but then you look down and there is a Keel-billed Toucan right there and it is crystal clear that you are not in Kansas anymore.
For me the entire experience was fantastic but there wasn’t just one reason it was so great. It was the experience of counting a high-volume hawk count, with the tropical raptors, with the tropical birds, but it was definitely capped off by the experience of living at Canopy Tower and the people that make the place tick. I want to thank Carlos Bethancourt and Rosannette Quesada for bringing me down and helping make the season successful and also the staff at the Tower, particularly Tatiana Pérez and Lourdes Córdoba, who all made me feel welcome at the Tower. Also thanks to Cesar Javier Pinzón for counting on my days off. It was a fantastic season and my memories of the Tower, the endless streams of raptors, the flashing colors of tropical birds moving through the canopy, and the people that go out of their way to make every visitor’s experience at the Tower as wonderful as mine was, will be with me forever.