Magic over the Islands

Each fall season for the past few years, hawk counters at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch have broken their own world record for the most Peregrine Falcons tallied at a single migration monitoring site in a season.

Sometimes hyperbole is used inappropriately, but come to the Florida Keys Hawkwatch in October and you will see for yourself!

Sometimes hyperbole is used inappropriately, but come to the Florida Keys Hawkwatch in October and you will see for yourself!

Recent Peregrine Falcons totals @ FKH

  • 2012 – 3,836 Peregrine Falcons tallied
  • 2013 – 4,010 Peregrine Falcons tallied
  • 2014 – 4,216 Peregrine Falcons tallied
  • 2015 – ????

As of October 7th, 2015, however the FKH count had lagged FAR behind recent years’ totals with only 948 Peregrines tallied (nearly 2,000 behind previous years total by the same date 10/7). I spoke with Rafael Galvez, Director of FKH, artist/author/guide extraordinaire, all around awesome guy, and member of the Leica Birding Crew, that same evening as I drove toward the Eastern Shore Birding & Wildlife Festival in Cape Charles, Virginia. “What’s going on down there?”, I asked.

 afael Galvez holds adult "Florida" Red-shouldered Hawks (male right, female left) of the subspecies Buteo lineatus alleni as part of a study on subspecific variation - January 2014

afael Galvez holds adult “Florida” Red-shouldered Hawks (male right, female left) of the subspecies Buteo lineatus alleni as part of a study on subspecific variation – January 2014

We both agreed it looked dismal for resetting the bar for world record Peregrine count in 2015, but were curious why the count was so low this far into peak season. Hurricane Joaquin had raced Northward off the east coast a couple weeks prior, and even though it stayed off shore, tropical bands of showers pushed up the shore moving against the path of fall migration likely causing some disruptions. Immediately following this, a storm system hung over the Carolinas for 6 straight days dumping unbelievable amounts of rainfall causing damaging flooding, which devastated property and took numerous human lives in South Carolina. The area was declared a National State of Emergency by the federal government as a result.

lingering storm hangs over the southern Atlantic coast for a week in early October

lingering storm hangs over the southern Atlantic coast for a week in early October

The end of September through the first 2 weeks of October is typically the peak of Peregrine Falcon migration in the US which tends to follow right down the coastline in the east, so on top of horrific effects on human lives, these storms would have undoubtedly disrupted the Peregrines’ migrations. I asked Rafael, “Do you suppose some birds moved inland to skirt these disruptive, lingering storms (that created an effective barrier along the coast and all of the Carolinas)?” This would have caused them to miss the Florida peninsula entirely. Hawkwatch data from watches along coastal Texas had not shown signs of additional Peregrines migrating through here through that period, but we both felt that the birds had been missed. We knew full well that Peregrines sometimes will reach the Gulf of Mexico near Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana and head straight out over the water. Satellite transmitter tracking data posted by the Falcon Research Group has shown the diverse paths and frequent pelagic migrations of Peregrine Falcons definitively in the past. The falcon affectionately named “Island Girl” had flown through the Florida Keys in each of her first two flights south actually as she made her way from the high Canadian Arctic to Argentina and others had displayed their prowess at flying out over the water as well.

"Island Girl's" 2010 migratory route

“Island Girl’s” 2010 migratory route

In the two days that followed that conversation, the FKH had some of their first triple digits flights of falcons tallying a combined total of 568 Peregrines (274 & 272) bringing the 2015 season total up to 1,512. This was a major improvement, but nothing unexpected for this time of year at this site, and the tally was still well short (less than half) of the previous year’s count – 3,164 Peregrines by October 9th, 2014.

Ted Keyel scans the skies at FKH in fall 2012

Ted Keyel scans the skies at FKH in fall 2012

Running the count in 2015, was veteran hawk watcher Ted Keyel, who had returned to conduct the FKH count for a second time. His first season was in 2012, and for at least one year he held the dubious title of tallying more Peregrines in a season than any other hawk counter in the US. His other claim to fame though was experiencing & tallying the largest single day flight of Peregrine Falcons ever recorded anywhere in the world. Ted along with Rafael, the rest of the dedicated FKH volunteers, and eight VERY lucky visitors witnessed a spectacle like none seen on the planet, when 651 Peregrine Falcons raced past the Florida Keys Hawkwatch on October 10th, 2012! In the years since, no single day flight anywhere (including FKH) had even reached the 500 mark.

Ted Keyel scans the skies for migrating Falcons!

Ted Keyel scans the skies for migrating Falcons!

On the afternoon of October 10th, 2015, I was busily talking to the numerous visitors excitedly looking at the new Leica Ultravid HD-Plus binoculars and other optics in the vendor area of the Eastern Shore Birdfest in Cape Charles when my phone (on silent mode in my pocket) begin to buzz and vibrate like mad… a missed call, a text, another missed call… When I was finally able, I pulled out my phone to see what was going on and read the messages then listened to the voicemails in disbelief. Thinking I was misunderstanding the unbelievable messages, I gave the verbal command, “call Rafael Galvez” and within moments was talking to my VERY excited friend in the Keys. “It’s unbelievable… over 500 in the past hour alone… this is nuts!.. I wish you could see this…”

kettling (soaring) Peregrines photographed in years past at FKH!

kettling (soaring) Peregrines photographed in years past at FKH!

He continued to explain how the day had started relatively normal for this time of year with 10 Peregrines by 10 AM and then 45 by 11 AM but when the total jumped to 295 by noon they knew they were into something special. An additional 386 were tallied from noon to 1 PM, which reset the single day world record to 681 and counting (with half a day left)… between 1 & 2 PM, another 453 Peregrines raced by “island hopping” down the Florida Keys archipelago moving to the southwest, eventually jumping off toward Cuba… from 2 to 3 PM, 241 more would pass and the numbers would slowly taper off as the day progressed. The final Peregrine, a large bird with a full crop disappearing into a cloudy sunset near 7 PM, brought the daily total to a mind-numbing 1506 Peregrine Falcons tallied in a single day!

FKH-logo

To put this into perspective, the world acclaimed Cape May, NJ hawkwatch sees an average of 791 Peregrines in an entire 3 month season! Only once, have they ever tallied more than 1,500 Peregrines in a single season and you have to go back 18 years to the amazing October flights in 1997 to relive that experience. On that amazing year, perfect weather patterns conspired to create the best Peregrine watching ever seen in Cape May with 1,793 Peregrines tallied over the season punctuated by the only triple digit flights of 291 on October 7th, and 141 & 117 passing October 10th & 11th respectively (their best single day flight of all time was 298 on 10/5/02)!

Kiptopeke Hawkwatch platform taken during the Eastern Shore Birdfest 2015 - Jeff Bouton

Kiptopeke Hawkwatch platform taken during the Eastern Shore Birdfest 2015 – Jeff Bouton

These same weather patterns in 1997 also provided the best Peregrine year at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch just south of Cape Charles, VA. Kiptopeke averages only 518 Peregrines annually (understanding averages are dragged down by early years when PEFA were still endangered and rarely recorded), but in 1997 the Kiptopeke hawkwatch crew tallied their peak season with 1,640 Peregrines seen. They also recorded their all-time daily high (the largest single day, Peregrine flight ever recorded in the US away from the Florida Keys), an amazing 364 on October 7th, 1997.  This is the same day that Cape May’s peak 1997 flight occurred a mere 120 miles NE of Kiptopeke as the falcon flies.

immature Peregrine soars past!

immature Peregrine soars past!

Much like the amazing ’97 flights in the mid-Atlantic, this recent, incredible flight through the keys that broke the World Record by 250% was a culmination of perfectly-timed weather events that will likely never be duplicated in our lifetimes. Although, it’s the hope of a days like this, that draws hawk counters and amateur observers to their favorite hawkwatches every migration season! Many raptor enthusiasts headed to the keys the following day and were rewarded with the “leftovers” of the big flight and an additional 367 Peregrines were tallied (mostly in the morning hours) on the 11th. A respectable 277 more passed on October 12th and the once dismal looking season’s Peregrine tally doesn’t look quite so bleak anymore. After 5 consecutive days with a total of over 2,700 Peregrines the FKH 2015 count now sits at 3,662 which is a 211 higher than the amazing 2014 season high total which reached 4,216 by season’s end! Could we see a fifth consecutive record breaking season?!?… I wouldn’t have guessed so a week ago, but now I think it’s at least possible (713 Peregrines were tallied after October 12 in the 2014 season so there is still a lot of good winds ahead).

To experience more about this amazing, unparalleled natural spectacle, read the first hand account in the Florida Keys Hawkwatch blog found here: 1,506 Peregrine Falcons in 1 Day Count – New World Record Also, enjoy the amazing YouTube video that Rafael and the FKH crew put together documenting some of the action live as it happened, “1506 Peregrine Falcons Over the Florida Keys Hawkwatch”!

Congratulations to our friends at FKH for witnessing such an amazing event, a wonderful reward for your superb dedication and long hours spent staring into sometimes lonely skies!!!!