By Katherine Wright
Every Tuesday, from late summer through fall, Drew Panko stands on a small, raised wooden platform that looks out over the lighthouse at the eastern end of Robert Moses Park. Staring up at the sky for 8 hours at a time, he watches for passing hawks that soar over Fire Island as they journey south for the winter.
Panko heads up “Fire Island Hawk Watch”, a group of birders who document migrating raptors. The group, the only hawk watch on Long Island, is part of a network of over 300 similar ones across the country, which act as citizen scientists monitoring hawk populations by counting their numbers as they fly overhead. (Long Island is home to 8 Audubon societies, but they don’t exclusively watch for raptors).
“We try to keep track of all the birds that we can identify as they come through,” Panko, a retired schoolteacher, said.
From late August through November members of the Fire Island Hawk Watch take turns in manning their bird spotting post and tallying the hawks, which include Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Merlin, as well as other birds of prey. The numbers are then entered into HawkCount, the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s online repository for such data.
Data from birders provide a way to track the occurrence and abundance of species and their distributions in space and time, Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said. HawkCount audits only raptors in the USA, but another birding database, eBird, maps sightings of any bird species. As of the beginning of this year, eBird had information on the whereabouts of over 10,000 bird species, with data entered by more than 300,000 people, according to their website.
“[eBird] is an effective citizen science tool,” John Turner, the conservation chair of Four Harbors Audubon Society, said.
Turner conducted a watch from August 27th through October 6th to count Common Nighthawks migrating south from their summer breeding grounds. This year was the first time that Turner has carried out a watch of these birds on Long Island. Nighthawk numbers are in decline, Turner said. “They are not doing well…we hope [the data] provide a small and meaningful role in their population trends.”
Citizen science data not only allows amateurs to track bird numbers, but also scientists and conservationists, who use the information to guide conservation efforts to where they are most needed, Farnsworth said.
In a research article published in the April 2017 issue of Biological Conservation, Farnsworth and his colleagues highlighted conservation efforts around the world that have been directly informed by data from birders. For example, three years ago in Croton Point County Park in Westchester County, New York, mowing schedules for the park’s grassland were revised after data entered on eBird indicted that four bird species rare to the region were attempting to nest in the park, but were being stopped by mowing practices. Since the change, all four species—Grasshopper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Boblink, and Eastern Meadow Lark—have successfully nested in the grasslands.
While its still too early to say how the number of raptors flapping past during this year’s hawk migration compares to those of previous years—the watch on Fire Island will continue until Thanksgiving—it has been a “banner year” for Osprey, Trudy Battaly, who watches for Hawks alongside Panko, said. So far, the watchers have recorded 800 Ospreys on their journey south, more than double the number they spotted last year.