Raptors fans had plenty to cheer about this fall.
Sharp-shinned hawks posted the highest species total in 11 years, and turkey vultures were hot on their tails. Red-shouldered, red-tailed, and broad-winged hawks all hit new season highs, as did the fish-loving Ospreys.
And for the lucky fans who came out on Oct. 23, there was another big first – a black vulture sighting at Rosetta McClain Gardens.
No matter how Kyle Lowry and those other Toronto Raptors do, this is already a banner year for birdwatchers who took part in the Rosetta McClain Raptor Watch.
From August to November, the group saw 11,128 raptors – birds of prey – as they flew south for the winter. It was the highest count since the Scarborough Bluffs watch started in 2003.
Numbers aside, raptor-watcher Ron Pittaway said many people who stop and chat with the group are amazed to find out what kinds of birds they’re looking for.
“People don’t realize that we have bald and golden eagles go by,” said Pittaway, a member of the Ontario Field Ornithologists.
“All these birds you think of in the wilderness are regular migrants through Toronto.”
Pittaway said wind is likely the biggest factor in how many raptors are counted every year. When the wind blows steadily from the northwest, the migrating birds tend to hug the shoreline as they fly west and then south around Lake Ontario.
Like sailboats tacking into a strong wind, said Pittaway, the birds tilt their wings slightly to the right as they edge by the bluffs. Rosetta McClain Gardens is one of few public places along the top of the bluffs with a fairly open view.
“When they come in along the bluffs, boy, they’re right in your face,” he said. “You’re seeing them really, really well.”
Some raptors, such as goshawks, Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks (“sharpies”), hunt in the mornings as they migrate. On days the birds fly in close, it’s not uncommon for the birdwatchers at Rosetta to spot the tell-tale bulge in their crops after they’ve had breakfast.
Of course, no binoculars or telephoto lens can compete with the keen-eyed raptors themselves.
“Hawks have incredible vision,” said Pittaway. “If they’re flying and they can see even dust or leaves rising in the air – sort of spiralling up like the little tornadoes you might see in a parking lot – they will head for those areas of rising air.”
Pittaway said birdwatchers will sometimes see hundreds of birds soaring up in the same thermal, often under a big cumulous cloud, then glide out with their wings tucked back, losing as little altitude as they can as they fly towards the next thermal.
Eleven years in, the Raptor Watch is proving popular. If anything, organizers are concerned about the informal group growing too large.
“It is a garden park, and we have to respect those values,” said Pittaway, explaining that they have to be careful not to bring a lot of food, since it’s not a park for picnicking, and to keep the garden paths clear for other users.
For more information and photos of the migrating raptors, see raptorwatch.blogspot.ca.