Back in 2013, I was the official hawk watcher at the Ashland Hawk Watch in Hockessin, DE. These 3+ months were some of the best (since funnest isn’t a word) of my life, and helped me discover my new favorite style of bird watching: stationary birding! While simply standing in place atop the hill, we tallied over 20,000 migrating raptors (and thousands more songbirds and waterfowl) that season– all from a single spot in the northern Delaware piedmont. Besides the skies, we watched as songbird feeding flocks traveled through the hedgerows around us, and witnessed incredible species diversity. As a bed-ridden birder, this stationary style of birding suited me; I could sit in place before I could walk again, and could enjoy migration from a single spot.
But for all the hours I’ve spent on the hill at Ashland, I had never visited any other hawk watches (besides Larry Lewis’ watch at nearby Bucktoe Creek Preserve in Avondale, PA)! As part of my Recovery Big Year, I wanted to explore these other hawk watches and get to know what sort of migration flights they experience. About two weeks ago, I visited my first new hawk watch during the Big Sit! on the hawk watch platform in Cape Henlopen State Park, Lewes, DE. When some free time opened up this weekend, Hannah Greenberg and I decided to take a trip down to the hawk watch at Turkey Point, MD, to see what hawk watching was like on the Chesapeake Bay.
At 10:30 in the morning, the parking lot for Turkey Point at Elk Neck State Park was packed, and we were lucky to find a spot! We started the mile walk to the end of the peninsula, and were in awe of the cliff-side views of the Chesapeake Bay to the West. Just before reaching the end of the point, we came across two friendly and welcoming birders– Dave Kimball & Russell Kovach– representing the Turkey Point Hawk Watch in a meadow just before the lighthouse. I had never even heard of a hawk watch like this one! The hawk watch consisted of two picnic tables and an information board that were located in a small, long meadow, surrounded on all sides by tall trees. It took only seconds, though, to realize why this hawk watch was established: there were raptors everywhere! There were Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, and Red-shouldered Hawks in the sky constantly, mixed between kettles of Turkey Vultures and gobs of Double-crested Cormorants. An occasional Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s Hawk, or Merlin would dart past, but in general, the birds were just sort of hovering overhead; none of them seemed to really be moving anywhere. This behavior is so atypical from what I’ve observed at other hawk watches. Usually, you spot a raptor as it’s zooming past in a directed southward flight. These raptors, on the other hand, would appear from the North, linger, and in some cases even turn around!
I guess if you consider the geography of the area, this pattern makes some sense. As a rule of thumb, raptors ‘prefer’ to migrate over land than over water, as the thermal currents generated by the warm sun heating the ground give them lift, thereby facilitating their migratory travels. Thermals are exactly the reason why the piedmont Ashland Hawk Watch can get 14,000 Broad-winged Hawks in a season, while the coastal Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch tallies about a dozen. So, when a raptor finds itself at the end of a peninsula, it may choose to turn around in search of a more favorable path. This is, of course, just my theory based on a few hours of observation and could be entirely wrong. Regardless, the spectacle of watching migratory raptors arrive, stop, and then turn around was absolutely new to me and very exciting to observe!
After hanging around the hawk watch for a little while, we decided to walk the remaining 0.1 miles to the Turkey Point lighthouse. My Dad had visited the lighthouse before, and gave us a few good pointers on how to best enjoy this location. We started with his first suggestion, which was to take the lighthouse tour!
We got a short rundown of the history of the lighthouse; our guide explained that the C&D Canal is the 3rd most traveled canal in the world, and that the lighthouse was built to direct boating traffic to the right side of the point, down the Elk River and towards the canal. Ships that mistakenly turned left often ended up stuck in the broad, but shallow, waters. After our history lesson, we opted to climb up the lighthouse’s spiral staircase, which was rather terrifying for someone with vestibular issues. As a vestibular migraineur, I rely heavily on visual cues from my environment to understand my spatial orientation. Walking up a narrow spiral staircase is quite unfamiliar and challenging!
By the time I had made it to the top of the staircase, I felt wildly discombobulated and was unsure as to whether or not I would be able to make it to the top. My brain was failing to understand my physical position, and I couldn’t set it straight– there were so many lines and confusing angles. I considered heading back down the stairs, but decided that 1) I absolutely hate quitting, so I had to get to the top to prove to myself that I could do it, and 2) I would probably feel better after getting back to a more normal visual environment. So, I started climbing up the short ladder that led to the top of the lighthouse. And I did it! The view from the lighthouse was somewhat rewarding, but I was even more satisfied to have made it to the top in the first place. I felt fine as I climbed back down, this time using the railing and wall to visually ‘anchor’ myself.
My Dad had also mentioned a trail that led you down the cliffside and to the water’s edge, so as we exited the lighthouse, we turned towards the trailhead. I heard the chip notes of a few Yellow-rumped Warblers and noticed them flitting towards us, coming in to land after flying over the bay. While I was commenting to Hannah how remarkable it is that birds make these sorts of flights over bodies of water, I noticed a Robin-like passerine that I knew right away was something unusual. I got my bins on the bird, saw the light gray head and yellow body, and immediately started saying, “Hannah! Take a picture! That’s a Western Kingbird!!” I have no idea how Hannah managed to actually get a photo– her camera was turned off and capped at that moment– but she thankfully was able to capture two documentation photos.
The bird appeared in the northwest corner of the clearing, and flew directly in front of us. It looked as though it may land in the treeline on the southeast corner, so we started running towards it in hopes of seeing where it perched. Instead, the bird made its way back over the water, where we watched it until it flew out of sight. Reviewing our photos showed that the bird had a notched tail, ruling out Western Kingbird and pointing in favor of Couch’s or Tropical Kingbird. In order to tell these two species apart, the bird has to vocalize, as the calls of the two species are distinctively different. To put the excitement of this sighting in perspective, a Western Kingbird can be found just about anywhere in the western United States. The range of Tropical Kingbirds & Couch’s Kingbirds spans from Argentina all the way up to the southern edges of Texas and Arizona. There are only a handful of records of these species in the mid-atlantic. What a spectacular sighting! Hopefully this bird will be relocated in this area and identified to species.
All in all, we had a beyond stellar trip to Turkey Point! From the hawk watch flight style to the lighthouse tour to the kingbird sighting, everything exceeded expectations. As we were walking back to the parking lot, we thought back to my quality of life just a few months ago, where walking 2+ miles and climbing up a lighthouse would have been 100% out of the question. While my recovery is slow, it’s happening. And experiences like these make me endlessly thankful to be gaining my life back. Here’s to hoping for more great adventures!