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Field Report from the 2020 Hawk Watch

February 4, 2021   |   Phil Brown
An Osprey in flight. (photo © Judd Nathan)

A Different Kind of Year at the Hawk Watch

2020 marked the 16th consecutive season of raptor migration monitoring at the Pack Monadnock Raptor Observatory, which is located within Miller State Park in Peterborough. Between September 1 and November 20, staff and volunteers logged 558 hours of observation time, tallying 12,032 raptors from the Observatory. Due to COVID-19 restrictions within Miller State Park, visitation was limited and groups were nonexistent. Despite the lack of school groups, 4,568 people visited the Observatory in 2020 to witness, learn about, and enjoy the spectacle of raptor migration.

Official counter, Levi Burford, doing the numbers. (photo © Phil Brown)

Official counter, Levi Burford, doing the numbers. (photo © Phil Brown)

One of our favorite days at the Observatory was a visit from Eric Masterson, longtime observer and past site coordinator, just a couple days after getting home from the rehabilitation facility after his hang gliding accident. (photo © David Baum)

One of our favorite days at the Observatory was a visit from Eric Masterson, longtime observer and past site coordinator, just a couple days after getting home from the rehabilitation facility after his hang gliding accident. (photo © David Baum)

A Big Year for Several Species, but Also Some Declines

With only one more hour of observation time than the 2019 season, the Observatory tallied roughly 1,500 more birds in 2020. This may relate to favorable migration weather, a successful breeding season for northern populations of many species, and several other unknown factors. These totals include the highest all-time counts for three species: Bald Eagle (185), Red-shouldered Hawk (223), and American Kestrel (257). Up from last year and more in line with their long-term averages were Broad-winged Hawk (8,815) and Sharp-shinned Hawk (1,325). Also bouncing back significantly from low 2019 tallies were Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, and Merlin.

Only a few species showed significantly lower trends or continued declines. These include Osprey (162), which has now dropped below the Bald Eagle level for the second consecutive season, and Northern Goshawk (12), which has demonstrated a sustained and strong decline, both locally and region-wide. Peregrine Falcon, while not thought to be declining in population levels or by other measures, had a lower than average showing, with only 30 individuals detected.

We set a new record high for Bald Eagle (185) in 2020. (photo © Judd Nathan)

We set a new record high for Bald Eagle (185) in 2020. (photo © Judd Nathan)

We also set a new record high for Kestrel (257). (photo © Beth Sargent via the Flickr Creative Commons)

We also set a new record high for Kestrel (257). (photo © Beth Sargent via the Flickr Creative Commons)

Promising Trends for Kestrels

Following the 2019 season’s strong showing for the American Kestrel – a species in decline over much of its range – was a record high count of 257 of these tiny, colorful falcons in 2020. Though the trend had been positive in previous years, it was still a surprise to record so many as migrants past the Observatory in 2020. This species has suffered from a combination of factors related to habitat loss, contamination, other human-induced causes, and even competition — including direct predation from larger raptors. A cavity-nesting species of open habitat, Kestrels have benefited from the proper placement and maintenance of nest boxes in suitable habitat. Perhaps some regional conservation efforts are starting to pay off! We will continue to monitor the migratory trends of this Species of Special Concern in New Hampshire in the years to come.

We Count Lots of Things!

In addition to raptors, Observatory staff and volunteers also counted migrating Canada Geese (3,355; twice the 2019 total) and Monarch Butterflies (534; half the 2019 total), among many other species. In total, an impressive 89 species of birds were tallied from the Observatory, the most notable of which were several species of irruptive “winter finches” and two rare Boreal Chickadees from the northern forest.

White-winged Crossbill — one of several irruptive "winter finch" species observed in 2020 — perched high atop a Red Spruce. (photo © Andre Moraes)

White-winged Crossbill — one of several irruptive

283 Red-breasted Nuthatches were counted from the Observatory in 2020. (photo © Judd Nathan)

283 Red-breasted Nuthatches were counted from the Observatory in 2020. (photo © Judd Nathan)

Events & Education

While no formal public events were conducted at the Observatory in 2020, our staff and volunteers still managed to have a considerable impact on thousands of visitors, including many families. Homeschool families were a notable presence throughout the first half of the season. As a free, outdoor, and safely-operated destination atop a favorite mountain, the Observatory was quite popular for learners of all ages, as individuals turned to nature for solace during this trying time. Just as important this fall was the need to connect with others pursuing similar interests, and it was easy to find camaraderie from a safe distance on the observation platform.

The Harris Center also hosted a series of popular virtual presentations focused on raptors, featuring places and faces both close to home and further afield. We look forward to and are hopeful for a return to some of the popular in-person programming – especially school groups – during the 2021 season.

The Bigger Picture

The Pack Monadnock Raptor Observatory is part of an international monitoring effort under the umbrella of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). Because of the site’s consistent and long-term dataset, data from Pack are included in the latest Raptor Population Index (RPI), an analysis that illustrates how migratory raptor populations are faring regionally. These data are particularly important for tracking migratory populations of several species of conservation concern from year to year, as well as determining raptor populations. Results of the most recent RPI analysis are included in the full 2020 season report.

Late afternoon sky, as seen from the Observatory in November. (photo © Phil Brown)

Late afternoon sky, as seen from the Observatory in November. (photo © Phil Brown)

Nature’s Green Grocer and many of its patrons provided key financial support to help the Observatory through the 2020 season. (photo © Nature's Green Grocer)

Nature’s Green Grocer and many of its patrons provided key financial support to help the Observatory through the 2020 season. (photo © Nature's Green Grocer)

Thank You

Financial support in 2020 came from the Gilbert Verney Foundation, Nature’s Green Grocer, and the Jack Daniels Motor Inn, and many individual and organizational sponsors, including sustaining donors. Miller State Park, NH Parks, and the NH Department of Natural & Cultural Resources continue to support our work onsite, in partnership with NH Audubon. We’re also grateful to our many dedicated volunteers, sponsors, and program participants, who keep this project a vibrant community resource for all.

Learn More

For more detailed information, including an in-depth analysis and population trend graphs for each raptor species we observed, see the full report from the 2020 season.

Contact Us

For more information on the Pack Monadnock Raptor Observatory, please contact Phil Brown at (603) 525-3499 or by email.