Sharpie Madness and a Successful Educator Workshop

Sharp-shinned Hawk, (c) Josh Haas

My wife and I introduced seven Michigan educators to the wonder of raptor migration in Northern Michigan. A core part of the HMANA Michigan Raptor Migration Teaching Network (MRMTN), our workshop was based in Mackinaw City with day trips to the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory and the Mackinac Straits Hawkwatch. Both sites were inspiring for soaking in hawk-watching at its best but an impressive movement of Sharp-shinned Hawks stole the show at Whitefish Pt.

The goal of the MRMTN program is to engage with Michigan K-12 educators to support them in building lesson plans and curricula focused on raptors and raptor migration for their classrooms. A group of 11 educators with students ranging in age from elementary to high school are in our learning community and eager to introduce these phenomena to their classrooms.

This trip/workshop marked our first of two site-based workshops where the group can both experience raptor migration but also work collaboratively in person sharing ideas, drafting lessons and furthering their content to make it ready for students. The first year-long phase of the MRMTN project culminates at the HMANA 50th anniversary conference in Duluth, MN where a subset of teachers will share about the program and samples of their curricula.

A less than ideal weather forecast forced some changes to the schedule but it worked out for the best as the first major stop for migration turned out to be superb for Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks. Not to mention, 50 degrees and sun along Lake Superior certainly helped with the appeal.

Rough-legged Hawk, (c) Josh Haas

Whitefish Pt. in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of my favorite places to experience raptor migration. It was vital to me the teachers had a similarly emotional connection with the birds and mystique of this site. Prior to hitting the deck, we made a quick introductory stop to the boreal forest where the group participated in an opening activity. While certain target birds eluded us, a secondary target, Red Crossbills made a beautiful appearance.

As we caravanned the final few miles to the point, sky-bound raptor numbers grew as we approached. Upon getting out of our cars, the group was surrounded by Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned Hawks in every direction; a great start before hitting the raised platform. Basking in the sun as we overlooked Lake Superior, we spent a couple hours emersed in the wonder that is hawk-watching. Educators theorized as to why the birds were taking certain flight paths, how to differentiate species and what was causing them to be so low. Experiencing how they view the phenom was inspiring. The winds were not perfect for the water crossing and they were stiff. The positive to stiff winds, however, is it tends to put birds, especially the smaller raptors closer to ground level. Being on the raised platform, this put Sharpies super low where plumage and behavior was a joy to experience.

Upon our return to Mackinaw City, our good friends at the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch prepared an outing to their owl banding site where banders shared the protocols, premise and research behind their operation. Participants asked great questions, in the spirit of sharing with their students. No owls were caught before leaving but the time and care the Straits group provided was excellent.

The next morning began with rain which gave us an opportunity to begin working as a group to invest in learning plans and share ideas collaboratively.  Educators talked about conservation, migration and the birds themselves as they thought about geography, biology, physics and cultural impacts that are relevant and close to home for students in Michigan. We are excited to see each of their learning plans take shape and the creative ways these educators will apply raptors and migration in their classrooms.

As the work began winding down, the rain started to move out and we spent the remainder of the day at the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch. This showed participants a different side of hawk-watching where field marks were lacking and silhouettes ruled the sky. This created a more thorough study of these birds. The highlight, however, came by way of  Raptor Watch ambassador Ed Pike with freshly trapped/banded Hawks to share with the group up-close. It was a fabulous way to close our two days of hawk-watching before ending in the classroom with focus on drafting individual trip reports and finishing lesson plan outlines.

It was a pleasure getting to know these outstanding educators and it gave both my wife and I a sense of pride but also a chance to be humbled as we listened to the ways these educators viewed our passions, with fresh and innovative ways of using the subjects in and out of the classroom.

MRMTN Group at Whitefish Pt.

Did I Just See a Kestrel or Merlin?

American Kestrel (left), Merlin (right), (c) Josh Haas

If you’ve ever questioned the identity of the small falcon that just zipped passed the migration site, you may have been left wondering whether you had an American Kestrel or a Merlin.  The differences between these two falcons can seem subtle at first but the differences become more pronounced after even just a quick study of their shape and cadence in flight.  Add to that distinct behavioral differences to the equation for these two species and confidence builds quickly.

American Kestrels are small thin falcons with wings that look like banana peels attached to their body.  The thin, dainty impression of this bird is the first thing noticed when graced with their presence.  When soaring they hold their wings mostly flat, straight out from their bodies and they remain perpendicular to the body instead of the more expected swept back falcon appearance.  They make tight circles as they gain altitude fast.  They are buoyant and animated in flight often rising and lowering while soaring, flapping and gliding; especially when any kind of wind is present.  When gliding, their wings are held slightly bowed downward and the more classic swept back shape appears.  Their glides often end with them losing speed quickly, forcing them to flap and correct themselves.

The Kestrel’s wing beat is light, fluttery and looks like they are spending a lot of time getting from point a to point b.  They will also flap and glide in direct flight, similar to Sharp-shinned Hawks but unlike the active Merlin.

American Kestrel, (c) Josh Haas
Merlin, (c) Josh Haas

Where American Kestrels feel thin and dainty, Merlins feel stockier and heavier.  They llook like Kestrels on steroids and are masters of speed.  Where Kestrels seems light and delicate in flight, Merlins command their space and fly through it like they are late for a date.  If seen soaring, consider yourself lucky as these falcons rarely soar.  While in a soar, they show pointed falcon-like wings, held flat or slightly angled downward, however, their stocky build shines through.  Their wings are especially heavy near the base before tapering to sharp points.  A Merlin’s tail shares the heavier look and is sharply squared at the end.  When gliding their wings are angled down and they hold their speed throughout.

When flapping, it’s fast, rhythmic, powerful and sometimes feels like it never ends.  If you have a falcon in your bins, the bird is low and suddenly drops out of view, consider a Merlin.  They hug tree lines and shorelines, sometimes rocketing by only to be noticed at the last minute, if at all.

While these two raptors both have classic falcon wings, there are some key things to look for to distinguish the two.  With Merlins, it’s all about noticing a heavier, stockier build, including the wings and tail. They are especially hefty in the wings from the body to the wrists before the wings taper to points.  Kestrels on the other hand, appear thinner more delicate and longer winged; in fact, everything about the Kestrel is thinner all around.  Because both birds hold their wings slightly drooped in a soar, one needs to look for other pieces of the puzzle to differentiate the two but behaviorally, Kestrels will soar infinitely more often than Merlins, so this is an important factor to consider.

Be sure to pay attention to other clues related to flight behavior.  Kestrels rise and lower in altitude, both while flapping and gliding.  In active flight, the Merlin flaps more often and is more active overall.  The wing beat of the Merlin is fast, at a constant even rate and it seems like it never ends.  They have a direct line of flight and rocket through it.  The Kestrel often flaps and glides in an alternating fashion, similar to Accipiters like Sharp-shinned Hawks.  They are more buoyant and move around a lot in their space.

Behavioral traits to look for:

  • Both of these falcons will actively hunt in flight, even during migration but Merlins tend to do it more often
  • Merlins seem to prefer their space and will scream and go after any other bird occupying where they want to be, even birds as large as Eagles
  • Kestrels are typically seen well before getting close to a migration count site and also tend to be higher in the sky, while Merlins are most often low, hugging tree lines and beaches
  • The speed and timing of Merlins is extremely fast and usually found with little time to study them as they rocket by migration sites

Want to learn more?  Think about investing in our movie, Hawks on the Wing which not only features video and audio voiceover for 16 eastern North American raptors, it also includes 28 side-by-side comparison videos. Seeing these raptors actively flying on screen with audio voiceover teaching you how to tell them apart is the next best thing to experiencing it live!

2023 Fall Color and Macro Tour Report

AuTrain Falls, (c) Josh Haas

My final tour of 2023 focused on fall color and macro opportunities in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula. Our small group of intrepid color chasers assembled and car-pooled North, enjoying the build-up of color as we approached the famed Mackinac Bridge; one of Michigan’s most iconic features. It was a mixed group of color chasers chasing stunning views and photographers chasing stunning images with the secondary goal of learning photographic techniques.

Our first color stop included the North Cut River Bridge along Hwy-2. This beautiful area features a valley with moving water below and beautiful foliage looking to the North. The cantilevered steel bridge itself is a wonder to experience with stairs and trails that offer access on, around and under the structure. After taking in the views from our first stop, we finished our drive and arrived to our house on Lake Powell, just south of Munising, MI. Evolving these tours to a single lodging environment allows the group to spend more time together. Everyone had their own private space but the living and dining area proved very beneficial.

Waking up refreshed, we enjoyed a homemade breakfast and made our way to our first waterfalls; Munising and Wagner Falls. These falls are among the easiest to access and most iconic in the area. Recent rains also provided greater water flow which made them especially photogenic. For our less photography-minded participants, I was even able to teach how to take their phone photography up a level. Either way, some in our group had previously viewed these falls but agreed they looked different. As with everything in nature, things change and evolve. 

North Cut River Bridge, (c) Josh Haas

Wagner Falls was especially different due to more fallen trees changing the flow of water and causing some distraction. This was a perfect example to show how thinking creatively about composition and isolating only certain areas of a scene can be a smart plan-b. Our plan-b ended up including some nice bits of color which was placed well compositionally alongside the waterfall.

Wagner Falls (isolated section), (c) Josh Haas

Our last area for the day included the AuTrain river which offered waterfalls and smaller opportunities before we made a stop along Michigan’s big sea, Gitche Gumee. High winds are not a photographer’s best friend for long exposure waterfall techniques, however high winds out of the North stirred Lake Superior to an oceanic scale.

AuTrain Lower Falls, (c) Josh Haas
Lake Superior Phone Capture, (c) Josh Haas

For our third day, we drove East; deeper into the Pictured Rocks lakeshore. The color was good but also somewhat spotty. My goal was to drive the entire length to the Grand Marais side and begin with the impressive Sable Falls. By driving through first, it gave us a chance to scout some of the better areas of color and then make stops as we traveled back to the West. Sable Falls was a mini-adventure in itself, given the 168 stairs down to the main viewing area. The sign reminded us it’s not just going down, we had the 168 stairs to come back up as well! I worked with participants on capturing the light, waterfall techniques as well as composition, especially noting the times when going vertical (portrait) should be considered. Photographer Liz Clark even captured a short video of this beautiful slice of nature. She loved the three-tiered flow of water flowing over the rocks. It was a great example of looking for art in nature.

Sable Falls Video, (c) Liz Clark

Sable Falls, (c) Josh Haas
Bald Eagle, (c) Josh Haas

We chose the Beaver Basin area for our color stop on the way back to Munising. This was a slight departure from the waterfalls we had been working so far. With an expansive vista view, the group loved seeing a vast blanket of color and even Lake Superior in the distance. We finished the afternoon enjoying some local coffee and ice cream before returning to home base. Some took advantage of some well-earned rest and a few of us sauntered off to a park nearby called the Robert McQuisten Recreation Area. The beautifully maintained boardwalks rewarded us with dandy views of two Bald Eagles as we traversed the forest and wetland.

Each area we visited on this tour provided ample time for viewing and photographing the main events but also proved great for exploring and finding as many other unique opportunities as possible. As we headed South we even made a side trip in the lower peninsula to the famed Dead Man’s Hill overlook, another vista view. The Grayling and Gaylord areas are often rich with color at the same time as the central upper peninsula.

This group did a wonderful job pushing themselves to learn, be active outdoors and move forward with a sense of adventure. Looking ahead to 2024, there will definitely be both birding adventures and photographic endeavors to come.

Beaver Basin Vista, (c) Josh Haas

Michigan Raptor Migration Teaching Network

Group Scanning the Skies

My wife Kara and I had a great day of birding recently; hawk-watching, chatting and enjoying lunch & cookies with a great group of educators!  We have officially kicked off the Michigan Raptor Migration Teaching Network (MRMTN) with an in-person field trip to the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch! We organized this trip as a pre-conference offering as part of the Michigan Alliance for Outdoor and Environmental Education’s annual conference. Eight educators from across the state gathered to experience hawk-watching for the first time.

Mother nature did not disappoint! Even with strong East winds, birds were attempting the 4 mile Straits crossing and giving us great close up views. Winds out of the north at a slightly subdued speed would have favored migration and potentially higher numbers but the stronger winds put smaller birds lower which captured the awe of onlookers.

We were able to watch a variety of raptors including Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Bald Eagles, an Osprey, a Cooper’s Hawk and a Merlin all moving South! At the end of our visit, we were even treated to large groups of Sandhill Cranes in migratory groups.

Jeff Dykehouse, MSRW

Our location is the fall count site of the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch (MSRW), which is a non-profit that conducts scientific research on migrating birds of prey in the Straits of Mackinac area of Michigan. We were fortunate to have Ed Pike, an ambassador of MSRW, provide an overview of the history and current research dedicated to protecting this important flyway. We also met with Jeff Dykehouse, a Monarch butterfly researcher who was catching and tagging Monarchs in migration.

Monarch Butterfly, (c) Josh Haas

In Fall, the views of the Straits from the hawkwatch are spectacular.  With warm temperatures, the bridge behind us and beautifully lit skies to the North, it made for a great day to be in Northern Michigan. One of our participants, Svetlana Iretskaya, was even taking photographs of the birds in flight and shared some of her great images with us!

Raptors over the Straits of Mackinac, (c) Svetlana Iretskaya

Thank you to those that joined us and made this experience so full! The conversations about raptor ID, the importance of hawk counting for conservation and the beauty of our surroundings were all soul filling. The simple lunch of Subway subs and fresh made cookies from The Wild Blueberry in St. Ignace tasted so good in the field (both of which offered us opportunities to infuse some resources into the local St. Ignace community). 

Group Photo

Thank you for joining us to kick off the Michigan Raptor Migration Teaching Network (MRMTN). MRMTN is a new program of Hawk Migration Association of North America which will support K-12 educators in experiencing and sharing the science of raptor migration with Michigan students.

Related presentations about MRMTN will be Friday, Sept. 29 during the MAEOE conference and on Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Kellogg Biological Station’s K-12 Partnership Fall Workshop.

Want to learn more about MRMTN? Please join the mailing list. We plan to send out newsletters and keep those interested in the know of what we’re doing.

Michigan Young Birder Meet-up, RAPTORS!

Young Birders Working on their Junior Guides

I’m stoked to be partnering with Michigan Audubon this year; leading four meet-ups with a focus on young birders. The goal is simple: Get young birders and their families outside together to see that other like-minded young friends are out there with similar interests. These meet-ups are a part of Michigan Audubon’s Young Birder Network. The Michigan Young Birders Network is a program of Michigan Audubon that aims to connect young birders, ages 13–18, offering a space for them to share their enthusiasm for the avian world.

Our recent September meet-up focused on raptor migration along the shores of Lake Erie. We focused our time at the Detroit River Hawkwatch, a popular migration site known for diversity and large numbers of Broad-winged Hawks in September. Anyone who knows how raptor migration works knows good flights are difficult to predict. Weather, winds and species timing make all the difference and when planning a meet-up months in advance, we can’t possibly know what will happen the day of. However, in mid-September, the likelihood of Broad-winged Hawk numbers is good so we targeted this species as the main draw to young birders and their families.

Detroit River Hawkwatch

Five young birders met on a beautiful mid-September day with warm temperatures on predicted Northeast winds for at least the first part of the day. Northeast winds are an excellent direction for the Detroit River Hawkwatch. While the watch site is at a single point of land, winds can push flights of birds North or South making the birds very distant to see. A North component to the overall wind is a great start for Fall migration. Adding some East in can put birds much closer to the watch site.

Broad-winged Hawk, (c) Josh Haas
Sharp-shinned Hawk, (c) Josh Haas
American Kestrel, (c) Josh Haas
Broad-winged Hawks, (c) Josh Haas

As luck would have it, the 1030-1130 hour brought over 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks directly in-front, overhead and behind the site, providing spectacular views for our entire group. In addition, Sharp-shinned Hawks were on the move and we even tallied a handful of American Kestrels, which was particularly exciting for one of our young birders.

In addition to stellar hawk-watching, we gave the birders a new Junior Hawkwatcher Guide we recently updated with the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). The young birders loved the raptor migration-related activities and seeing them diligently working through the guide was especially gratifying. For more information on HMANA’s junior hawkwatcher program and to get a FREE Junior Hawkwatcher Guide, click HERE.

All in all, it was another successful meet-up. Our last and final meet-up for this year will be November 4th at the Muskegon Wastewater property where we’ll experience large rafts of Ducks and a good possibility for migrant Golden Eagles. We would love to have your family join us for this meet-up.  Please contact Lindsay Cain at Michigan Audubon for more information. These meet-ups are welcome to all and an informal way of birding and enjoying time with like-minded friends. A young birder aged 13-18 is required in your party.

Inspiring Hawkwatchers and a Raptor ID Overview

I was asked to provide a Raptor ID program recently for the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch as part of their “Raptors Revealed” virtual speaker series.  Rather than providing the same ‘ol ID program, I added much more to the introduction inspiring birders as to why we love experiencing raptor migration but also why it’s vital to be deliberate in sharing this pastime with others, especially those younger than us.  I really enjoyed this program and hope you will too!

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Experiencing Migration East of Toledo

After missing Spring migration in 2020 due to the pandemic, we vowed to do everything we can to not let that happen again. Enter a travel trailer. We are now traveling in our own little bubble following the birds. This has proven great as we’ve experienced raptor migration at the Whitefish Pt. Bird Observatory as well as passerine migration East of Toledo. We’re comfortable, socially distanced and experiencing quality time in nature.


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2020 Fall Sandhill Crane Count

Every Fall I look forward to joining my friends at Michigan Audubon to tally the number of Sandhill Cranes coming into roost at the Kiwanis and Baker Sanctuary properties.  However, this year would be different due to the pandemic.  As luck would have it, the count site has ample space to social distance so three of us settled in and prepared for a gorgeous evening of Fall birding as the sun was setting upon a mostly clear sky.

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Virtual Bird Walk

The 2020 pandemic has us all craving engagement and part of what has been lost is birding in groups; learning from each other and experiencing migration.  In the Spring, we featured many virtual bird walks streaming LIVE through the camera lens for all to see.  We tried hard to include the personal side of bird walks with tips on ID, life history for the birds we saw and stories from Josh on experiences he has had over the years.

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Spring Has Sprung in the Midwest

Harbingers of spring for us Michiganders include the return of a few key bird species.  In Southwest Michigan birds like Turkey Vultures, Song Sparrows and American Robins are the ones that get our blood pumping for the return of warmth and longer days.  As things progress a bit further we await the first Eastern Phoebe or get ready for the big numbers of ducks and raptors to come in on their way North.

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