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Updated: Birding and Birdwatching Festivals and Events in 2020

From coast to coast and from Mexico to Canada, 2020 is filled with exciting birding festivals and events. We have compiled all that we could find for the year in the hopes that you can find an event near you to attend. Happy birding!


January 2020
February 2020
March 2020
April 2020
May 2020
June 2020
July 2020
August 2020
September 2020
October 2020
November 2020
December 2020


JANUARY 2020

North Shore Birding Festival
January 16-20, 2020 — Mount Dora, Florida
The North Shore Birding Festival is perfect for birders visiting Florida or locals wanting to learn more from knowledgeable birding guides. Add to your life list at an amazing birding area, the 20,000-acre Lake Apopka North Shore, where 360+ species have been sighted, more than any other inland location. Four full-day trips and 16 half-day trips are offered, along with keynotes and dinners. For details and registration, call Orange Audubon at 407-637-2525 or visit our website or Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/northshorebirdingfestival.

Everglades Birding Festival
January 16-20, 2020 — Davie, Florida
Explore the unique Everglades ecosystem while searching for 150 plus species.A focus on gaining advanced birding skills with daily mini-workshops, small groups, and expert guides. Keynotes, Dinners, and Evening Programs. Full-day field trips to Corkscrew, STA 5, Upper Keys, South Dade, Everglades National Park, and more. Target species: Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Limpkin, Painted Bunting, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Gray-headed Swamphen, Common Myna, Egyptian Goose, Burrowing Owl, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Prairie Warbler, White-winged Parakeet, and Nanday Parakeet. Contact: Paddy Cunningham, 754-201-1141, (954) 805-6810, birdpaddy@yahoo.com

Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival
January 17-20, 2020 — Morro Bay, California
Morro Bay is a Globally Important Bird Area, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Pacific Flyway. Over 200 bird species have been seen during the festival weekend! The festival includes keynotes, field trips, workshops, bazaar, and family day. Saturday and Sunday keynotes to be announced. Registration opens early November. Contact: 805-234-1170, registrar@morrobaybirdfestival.org.

21st Annual Snow Goose Festival Of The Pacific Flyway
January 22-26, 2020 — Chico, California
See the beauty and experience the excitement of avian migration at this action-packed 5-day festival that celebrates the remarkable journey of millions of waterfowl and thousands of raptors that migrate along the Pacific Flyway and call Northern Sacramento Valley their home during the winter months.

17th Annual Eagles & Agriculture
January 23-26, 2020 — Minden, Gardnerville, & Genoa, Nevada

Wings of Winter Birding Festival
January 24-26, 2020 — Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, Springville, TN
The Third Annual Wings of Winter Birding Festival is hosted by the Friends of Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge who partners with national and state agencies and organizations in the area. The Festival focuses on birds around the Kentucky and Barkley Lake area in western Tennessee and Kentucky. Dozens of volunteers and agency staff have worked to create an unforgettable weekend experience for any level birder. You will walk away with new tips and tricks from your guides to make you an even better birder.


FEBRUARY 2020

Galt Winter Bird Festival
February 1, 2020 Galt, California
The 13th Annual Galt Winter Bird Festival advances public awareness of the conservation of the region’s wildlife. This area is a critical stop for many important species of birds commuting on a diverse chain of habitats called the Pacific Flyway. In addition to these magnificent migrating birds, hundreds of bird species call Galt and its surrounding cities home. The festival brings tours, vendors, programs, and presentations for guests to enjoy. There will be wildlife entertainment for all ages, art, food and more! Over 1,200 attendees enjoyed our last festival. Contact: Jackie Garcia, jgarcia@ci.galt.ca.us.

Cumberland County Eagle Fest
February 1, 2020 — Mauricetown, New Jersey

8th Laredo Birding Festival
February 5-8, 2020 Laredo, Texas
The Laredo Birding Festival highlights over 200 species of spectacular birds. Laredo is a dynamic city that bridges two cultures and plays host to pleasant winter weather; while also being the crossroads of eastern, western, and neotropical birds. Birders will encounter lovely vistas along the Rio Grande; access to nearly two dozen historic South Texas ranches; and experience quality field trips in small intimate groups led by professional field guides! The upcoming Festival kicks off on Wednesday, February 5, 2020, at the Laredo Center for the Arts, during the Birds, Beer and Cheer mixer and Birds of the Brush art exhibit opening. The festival is hosted by the Rio Grande International Study Center, the Monte Mucho Audubon Society, and the Laredo Convention & Visitors Bureau. For more information, visit our website or call (956) 718-1063.

High Plains Snow Goose Festival
February 6-9, 2020 Lamar, CO
Come see the Snow Geese as the migrate through Colorado! Tours, silent auction, trade show & craft fair, programming, banquet, and more. Great change to meet other birders. Contact: highplainssnowgoose@gmail.com

Teatown Hudson River EagleFest
February 8, 2020 — Croton-on-Hudson, New York
The bald eagle’s return to the Hudson Valley after being on the brink of extinction is one of the great conservation success stories of our time. Join us at Croton Point Park as our region’s bald eagles descend upon the Hudson River as part of their winter migration. Celebrate the return of this magnificent bird with live bird-of-prey shows, educators with viewing scopes observing wild eagles, children’s activities, food trucks, and 25+ environmental organizations — all in heated tents!

41st Annual Winter Wings Festival
February 13-14, 2020 — Klamath Falls, Oregon
The Winter Wings Festival is produced by Klamath Basin Audubon Society volunteers with support from sponsors, grants, and participant registration fees.  Proceeds from this festival support local grants to teachers and other entities for outdoor education and community nature-related projects. Typically the reported species at the festival number about 120 – 133. Here is our 2019 festival bird species count.

Eagle Expo And More
February 13-15, 2020 — Morgan City, Louisiana
Boat tours in various waterways, presentations by wildlife & birding experts, photography seminar and social with guest speaker.

Nebraska Crane Season
February 15 – April 15, 2020 — Gibbon, Nebraska

24th Annual Whooping Crane Festival
February 20-23, 2020 — Port Aransas, Texas
This festival is a one of a kind event, focused on the Whooping Crane-the rarest of cranes and one of the most endangered birds in the world. The festival is open to birders, photographers, families, and anyone who loves the outdoors and nature-related activities.

California Duck Days
February 22, 2020 — Davis, California
California Duck Days is a family oriented, community-based outdoor festival with activities for people of all ages. Field trips are led by some of the region’s most experienced birders and naturalists. On-site activities for families include interactive exhibits, wetland themed arts and crafts, trout fishing in our ponds, and much more. 

San Diego Bird Festival
February 26 – March 1, 2020 — San Diego, California
Join us for activities, live bird presentations, interesting workshops, and guided bird walks for the whole family. If you are interested in being a sponsor or a vendor in 2020, please contact Jen Hajj at hajj@sandiegoaudubon.org. If you are a San Diego Local and would like to participate as a volunteer, contact us.


MARCH 2020

SOAR With the EaglesCancelled
March 1-29, 2020 Wabasha, Minnesota
SOAR With the Eagles is the National Eagle Center’s annual festival that celebrates the spring Bald Eagle migration along the Mississippi River. During weekends in March, visitors enjoy a variety of special programming hosted by the National Eagle Center. The festival includes animal presentations, nationally renowned flying bird shows, environmental exhibits, demonstrations by the DNR and US Fish and Wildlife Service, Native American crafts, wild eagle viewing, and much more! There is programming for all ages and exciting opportunities to experience and learn new things about the natural world! Contact 651-565-4989 or info@nationaleaglecenter.org.

Vallarta Bird and Nature Festival
March 4-8, 2020 — Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Our Mission: To Spark Awareness for Birds and Nature and To Inspire People to Act to Conserve Birds and Nature For Its Ability to Enrich Our Lives. The World Renowned Vallarta Botanical Garden Is Surrounded By The Beautiful Bird-Rich Mountain Landscape Of Cabo Corrientes, located 24 Km (15 Miles) South of Puerto Vallarta. All Tours, Workshops, And Presentations Have Spanish and English Speakers.

Friends of Goose Pond Marsh Madness Sandhill Crane and Migratory Bird Festival
March 6-7, 2020 Linton, Indiana
The festival will kick off Friday night with a social hour and dinner, live/silent auction, and guest speake Saturday festivities are at the Linton Humphrey’s Park from 8 am to 4 pm with Guided Bus Tours, Education Workshops, Craft Vendors, Art Exhibit by the Indiana Wildlife Artists, Birds of Prey Exhibit, Amphibian Exhibit, and Food Vendors. Contact: mail@friendsofgoosepond.org or visit our website or Facebook page (Friends of Goose Pond).

International Festival of Owls
March 6-8, 2020 Houston, Minnesota
Immerse yourself in owls at the only annual, full-weekend, all-owl festival in North America. Highlights include seven species of live owls (including a Snowy Owl and a flying Barn Owl), owl prowls to call in wild owls, a birding and natural history bus trip, and learn from owl experts from around the world. Families can build an owl nest box, dissect an owl pellet, make a variety of owl crafts, buy owl merchandise, enjoy owl art and photography, and have a hoot eating owl-themed food. The whole city of Houston gets involved! Contact Karla Bloem, 507-896-6957, karla@internationalowlcenter.org.

North American Bluebird Society Conference
March 11-14, 2020 Kearney, NE
The North American Bluebird Society is a non-profit education, conservation and research organization that promotes the recovery of bluebirds and other native cavity-nesting bird species in North America. 

Birding America Conference
March 14, 2020 Chicago, IL
Chicago Audubon Society is proud to present the 13th bi-annual Birding America Conference. Join us to discover great places, great people, and great birds presented by international experts, with topics ranging from plovers to penguins to scrub jays; covering locations from the Midwest to Montana and Maine to Brazil to the boreal forest. Keynote Speaker: Dr. John Fitzpatrick, Director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology: “Birds Can Save the World – but only if we invest in them today.”

Owl Prowl At Jack Miner – Cancelled
March 18, 2020 Kingsville, Ontario, Canada
Join us at Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation for an Owl Prowl with Xander Campbell and Jeremy Hatt. We will be meeting in the historic house first to discuss the species of owls in the Kennedy Woods and what features make owls so unique! This is a family friendly event. Pre-registration required. Only 40 spots available. Call or email the Sanctuary to book your spot.

22nd Othello Sandhill Crane Festival – Cancelled
March 20-22, 2020 Othello, WA
The Othello Sandhill Crane Festival has announced the Friday, March 20th and Saturday March 21st keynote speakers.  The 23rd annual festival will be held March 20, 21, and 22, 2020 in Othello, Washington.  With the celebration of the spring migration of the Sandhill cranes, the festival offers a variety of events for the whole family to enjoy and learn.  Online registration opens on February 1, 2020.  Some tours sell out quickly, so check the website early!

Audubon’s 50th Annual Nebraska Crane FestivalCancelled
March 20-21, 2020 Omaha, NE
Join us for our 50th Crane Festival on Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, 2020! On-line registration will begin at 9:00 am CST on Monday, December 9. Registration will include Saturday meals, access to all speakers and a free t-shirt. Student and child discounts available. 

Wings Over Water Northwest Birding Festival – Cancelled
March 20-22, 2020 Blaine, WA
Join us for our 18th annual birding festival! Wildlife speakers, exhibits, kid’s activities, interactive art stations, birding field trips, birding and wildlife cruises, and more!

Waterfowl WeekendCancelled
March 20-21, 2020 Brighton, Ontario, Canada
Waterfowl Weekend will be held at the park. World-class waterfowl viewing during the spring migration from 10 to 4 pm. Volunteer naturalists will help you view and identify over 25 different species of ducks, geese, and swans at our viewing stations. Also check out art, photography, and carving displays and children’s activities in the Nature Centre. Join The Friends for BBQ lunch fundraiser at the Lighthouse, on Saturday and Sunday, from 11 am. The Lighthouse Interpretive Centre and The Friends’ Gift Shop will be open. Contact: David, David.bree@ontario.ca, 613-475-4324 x225

Raptor Fest 2020 – Cancelled
March 21, 2020 Gainesville, GA
With live bird and animal encounters, this seasonal program will offer children, families, and all nature lovers the chance to learn about wild birds of prey. There will be plenty of hands-on activities, guided hikes, scheduled presentations, and food vendors for kids of all ages to enjoy! List of exhibitors and vendors coming soon to our website. Contact: elachee@elachee.org, 770-535-1976.

Brant Wildlife FestivalSome events cancelled
March 21 – April 19, 2020 Parksville, British Columbia, Canada
A Spring Celebration of Nature – we welcome the arrival of thousands of migratory birds, fish and marine mammals to the shores of Parksville and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island in March and April. The Brant come to rest and feed before continuing their arduous northern journey to their nesting grounds. Contact: Robin Rivers, rrivers@naturetrust.bc.ca

Brew On The BayouPostponed to Nov 7, 2020
March 21, 2020 Lake Jackson, TX
Join the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory for our third annual Brew on the Bayou here in Lake Jackson. Come sample and enjoy specialty brews from local breweries as well as wines. Listen to live music, grab a bite to eat from local food trucks and check out some hot items at our silent auction. Our beautiful wooded grounds will be lit by torchlight making it a perfect spot to enjoy the brews, the food and the music! This is one of GCBO’s biggest fundraisers for our conservation efforts, so you can have fun while helping birds! Contact: Celeste Silling, 979-480-0999, csilling@gcbo.org

4th Annual Matagorda Bay Birdfest – Postponed
March 27-29, 2020 Palacios, TX
Matagorda Bay Birdfest is a truly exceptional event and bird celebration. Our expert-guided tours by boat, kayak, and land include tours to Powderhorn Ranch and to the Mad Island Nature Conservancy, #1 in bird species count for Audubon Christmas bird count in 21 of the last 25 years! It is the undiscovered jewel of mid-coast Texas! Our extensive panel of speakers include many outstanding professionals including speakers from the Audubon, The Smithsonian, and the International Crane Foundation. Don’t miss the Keynote dinner at the Palacios Pavilion overlooking beautiful Matagorda Bay or the one-of-a-kind Bird Parade along the waterfront that is both fun and fabulous! Contact: Laurie Beck, (956) 285-3234, lbeck@becktv.com.

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival
March 27-29, 2020 Palacios, TX
Matagorda Bay Birdfest is a truly exceptional event and bird celebration. Our expert-guided tours by boat, kayak, and land include tours to Powderhorn Ranch and to the Mad Island Nature Conservancy, #1 in bird species count for Audubon Christmas bird count in 21 of the last 25 years! It is the undiscovered jewel of mid-coast Texas! Our extensive panel of speakers include many outstanding professionals including speakers from the Audubon, The Smithsonian, and the International Crane Foundation. Don’t miss the Keynote dinner at the Palacios Pavilion overlooking beautiful Matagorda Bay or the one-of-a-kind Bird Parade along the waterfront that is both fun and fabulous! Contact: Laurie Beck, (956) 285-3234, lbeck@becktv.com.


APRIL 2020

Yellow Warbler, Photo by Emilie Haynes

A Celebration Of Swans – Cancelled
April 1-30, 2020 Marsh Lake, Yukon, Canada
Yukon’s premier birding festival brings residents and visitors alike out to great swan viewing areas to welcome spring to the North. The mass migration of tens of thousands of swans, ducks, and geese is not to be missed. The Swan Haven Interpretive Centre, open daily in April, is the hub of the festival. Events include photography and art workshops, presentations, campfire storytelling, children’s activities, and more. Contact 867-667-8291, wildlife.viewing@gov.yk.ca.

24th Annual Great Louisiana BirdFest
April 3-6, 2020 Mandeville, LA
Birders travel from all corners of the U.S. and from around the world to participate in the Great Louisiana BirdFest. Our area is a prime bird-watching location, and the Great Louisiana BirdFest is considered one of the premier birding events in the country. Join us and enjoy what people travel long distances to see and experience the ideal spring weather, natural resources, and wildlife of Southeast Louisiana in our own backyard. Birding trips by foot and pontoon boat for expert and beginning birdwatchers in varied habitat, including swamps, wetlands, pine savanna, and hardwoods. Photography and other workshops, Southern food and hospitality. Contact: Rue McNeill, 985-626-1238, rue@northlakenature.org.


MAY 2020

Audubon’s Orielle, Photo by David Hollie

JUNE 2020

Swallow-tailed Gull, Photo by AW Pittman

#BlackBirdersWeek
May 31 – June 5, 2020 Everywhere! Twitter, Instagram, Facebook!
Organized by @BlackAFinSTEM in response to what happened to black birder Christian Cooper. But it’s also in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breyonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the countless others. Many of us work in the outdoors, in urban areas and wilderness. It could’ve easily been anyone of us. We want our peers to not only recognize our existence but our experiences being Black. The history books set a precedent for civil unrest in the face of injustice. We want it to be clear that we stand with the protesters fighting against police brutality even as we organize a protest specific to being #BlackinNature.


JULY 2020


AUGUST 2020

Maroon-fronted Parrot, Photo by Rene Valdes

Live Guided Birding Tour at the Panama Canal
August 25 – September 30, online, Gamboa, Panama
We are Eco/birding guides in Panama and we have created an amazing online birding experience for people who cannot travel due to the pandemic. We have attached cameras to our powerful scopes and can transmit videos of birds in the rainforest LIVE to people around the world. As a way to continue doing what we love, we came up with an idea that we think is innovative and practical during this difficult time that will allow people from all over the world to experience the rainforest live from the safety of their home. We are lucky enough to be able to transmit live from the middle of the jungle with a strong internet signal in an area famous for birdwatching and wildlife viewing. We have created a live guided birdwatching tour right next to the Panama Canal that includes 2 hours of birdwatching in a world famous birding area followed by a 30 minute driving tour of Gamboa, an old American Canal Zone town that is home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.


SEPTEMBER 2020

Yampa Valley Crane Festival
September 3 – September 6, Steamboat Springs Hayden, CO
Enjoy Greater Sandhill Cranes during Labor Day weekend in the beautiful setting of Northwest Colorado! The 9th annual Yampa Valley Crane Festival takes place September 3 – September 6, 2020 in Steamboat Springs and Hayden, CO. and features the Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Cranes that breed and stage in the Yampa Valley. Festival activities include nature walks, a crane-friendly ranch tour, documentary films, bird art, family activities, live raptors, workshops and more.

Puget Sound Bird Fest
September 12 – September 13, online
Keynote speaker Kaeli Swift will kick off the festivities on Saturday at 10:30am with a live interactive webinar “Something to Crow About,” followed by other interactive webinars throughout the day. Cast your vote in the annual Bird Fest Photo Exhibition and Contest. Other festival favorites such as the Kids Corner and a Birders Help Desk will also be available on line, as well as video-based virtual birding tours featuring some of our local hotspots. The Pilchuck Audubon Society plans to host a native plant sale at the Edmonds Wildlife Habitat and Demonstration Garden on Sunday.

Virtual Bird Camp
September 14 – October 30, Boulder, Colorado
Our summer session was such a success that Bird Camp will continue this fall with new sessions to get 4 – 12 year olds kids involved in birds, birdwatching, and conservation. Participants of all ages learn about bird identification, journaling, science explorations, photography, and more through online and family experiences that meet state science standards. Sessions for specific age groups ensure that we work at a good pace.


OCTOBER 2020

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tom Gannon

Virtual World Migratory Bird Day
October 8 – October 10, Everywhere!
World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) is a global event that celebrates the phenomenon of bird migrations and serves as a call to action to protect the birds we share. Environment for the Americas organizes WMBD in the Americas, connecting people to bird conservation from Canada to Argentina and the Caribbean. WMBD is officially celebrated on the second Saturday in May (May 9, 2020) and the second Saturday in October each year (October 10, 2020).Bird Day LIVE brings together biologists and educators from across the Americas to share their work and activities for the conservation of migratory birds. Visit BirdDayLIVE.com for our schedule of activities.

Virtual 5th Hawai’i Island Festival Of Birds
October 15 – October 19, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
The Hawai‘i Island Festival of Birds (HIFB) 2020 is virtual event due to precautions and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and travel restrictions to Hawai’i this year.  Festival content will be launched on the HIFB website at the start of the Festival on October 15 and will run through October 19. There is no cost to attend the virtual festival, but participants will need to register.

There will be bird challenges and guest speaker videos posted each day throughout the festival week as well as opportunities to win prizes including HIFB Virtual 2020 stickers and care packages mailed from Hawai’i to your home. This year’s theme is “Wanderers and Migrants.” Guest speaker video talks will highlight many of the pelagic, migrant, and vagrant species that visit the main Hawaiian Islands and that thrive in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. 

Virtual Winter Raptor Fest 2020
October 18 – November 30, Greenwich, New York
The Winter Raptor Fest will be virtual and available for streaming from October 18, 2020, to November 30, 2020.
Events include:
“Night Owls” – Whispering Willow Wild Care & North Country Wild Care
“Predators Of The Sky” – Vermont Institute Of Natural Science
“The Threat To Boreal Habitats” – Adirondack Wildlife Refuge
“Raptors In Flight” – Adirondack Raptors
“Wildlife Alive!” – New York State Wildlife Rehab Council


NOVEMBER 2020

Cedar Waxwing, Tom Gannon

Fall Migration Celebration
November 8, Augusta, MI
The W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary was founded in 1927 and deeded over to Michigan State University in 1928, so we are celebrating more than 90 years! The Sanctuary is an important migration stopover for waterfowl and the best place to view Trumpeter Swans in Michigan’s lower peninsula. Join us from 1 to 4 pm and look for migrating waterfowl on Wintergreen Lake, meet our education raptors, make crafts to take home, create enrichment for the resident birds, and learn about how and why birds migrate. There will be a decoy exhibit by local, award-winning decoy carver Willy McDonald of The Duck Blind, who will also be helping the kids with their crafts! 

Black-Necked Crane Festival
November 11, Bhutan
The Black-necked Crane is the last discovered of 15 species of cranes in the world. This majestic bird is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau and migrates to lower altitudes, including several areas of Bhutan, in autumn. In Phobjikha Valley, one of the major habitats in Bhutan, the arrival of the cranes signals the end of the harvesting season. The Black-necked Crane festival was first initiated with the objective of linking conservation of the graceful birds to the improvement of livelihood of the community. Over the years, as the festival gained popularity among the community people, visitors from the nearby Dzongkhags (districts) and international visitors, it became an annual event to welcome the cranes and to celebrate the centuries’ old relationship between the cranes and people of Phobjikha. Among the events is the popular Black-necked Crane dance performed by school children in crane costumes. The local community also performs folk dances and mask dances. The Black-necked Cranes have a sacred identify in Bhutanese culture and often appear in folklore, dances, and historical texts. Since 1987, Royal Society for Protection of Nature has been working to protect and rebuild the population of the Black-necked Cranes. 

Bhutan Bird Festival
November 11 – November 13, Zhemgang Dzongkhag, Bhutan
Zhemgang Dzongkhag (District) will organize the three-day “Bhutan Bird Festival,” which coincides with the Birth Anniversary of the Fourth King of Bhutan in Tingtibi Town. The festival has eleven enthralling events split into pre-festival, main events, and post-festival programs.

Zhemgang district is a popular birding destination. With the district’s boundary intersecting with three protected areas–Royal Manas National Park, Jigme Singey Wangchuk National Park, and Phrumshengla National Park. The district harbors more than 500 species of birds.

White-bellied Herons are found in the Mangde Chu (river) and its tributaries. All four species of hornbills found in Bhutan–Rufous-neck Hornbill, Great Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill and Pied Hornbill are sighted at different elevations. Beautiful Nuthatch is occasionally sighted in the upper regions of Zhemgang.

California Swan Festival
November 13 – November 15, Yuba City, CA
The festival honors the return of tens of thousands Tundra Swans to their winter home. In close-knit family groups, the swans make a spectacular show for bird watchers and photographers. This three-day event offers more than 35 guided tours by experts, exploring a wide range of waterfowl habitats and other natural assets of the beautiful Yuba-Sutter region. Field trips include Swan Sighting, Ag/Wildlife Educational Tours, Historic Tours, Nature Hikes, and trips to the region’s National Wildlife areas. Registration for field trips (at affordable rates) begins online in late August. Free Junior Naturalist program, led by Shady Creek Outdoor School naturalists. Children of all ages will enjoy hands-on learning. Activities include crafts, games, live animal presentations and much more. A vendor fair is held all day Saturday and Sunday in the Swan Central building. Parking and entry to the Swan Festival are FREE, as are a wide range of workshops and presentations on wildlife education, natural sciences, ecosystem management, and photography. 


DECEMBER 2020

Scarlet Robin, Peter Lowe

Collective Behavior: How Animals Work Together

Studies of birds, fish and ants reveal the hidden ways groups coordinate movement, which might influence engineers designing drone armadas and efficient information flow

In Frank Schätzing’s 2004 sci-fi novel The Swarm, marine life develops a collective mind of its own. Whales band together to attack ships, while herds of jellyfish overwhelm the shores. It’s as if ocean creatures decided to jointly fight humanity, to try to reclaim their degraded environment.

Scientists say this scenario isn’t made up out of whole cloth. Animals do move in groups governed by the collective. Think of a flock of birds, a parade of ants, a school of fish — all are swarms like those envisioned by Schätzing, if not quite as murderous. “Animals regulate these vast collective structures without any leadership, without any individual animal knowing the whole state of the system,” says Nicholas Ouellette, a civil engineer at Stanford University. “And yet it works fantastically well.”

Researchers are now learning about how these swarms pull off such unusual feats. In the English countryside, birds have two distinct sets of rules for flocking, depending on the purpose of their flight. In Mexican forests, groups of ants have evolved computing-like search strategies to find their way around a disturbed environment. And in a lab in Germany, fish develop personalities that ultimately determine how they influence the rest of the school they are swimming with.

These aren’t just interesting observations about nature. Lessons from the natural world about animal group behavior could help humans better engineer our own future, collectively. Such knowledge could help scientists build drones that coordinate their flight like flocking birds, for instance, design packets of information to flow efficiently like foraging ants, or even develop ways to adapt to climate change like some fish do.

Flocks in flight

Ouellette studies how birds and insects fly, which might seem odd for someone whose background is in statistical physics. But he got interested in collective animal behavior because it lies at the intersection of many different types of science. Physicists see it as a living analog to the movement of points within an interconnected system, such as how particles and matter flow. Biologists see it as a subset of animal behavior. Either way, “it’s intellectually very exciting,” Ouellette says.

So a few years ago he began working with Alex Thornton, a biologist at the University of Exeter, England, who studies jackdaws (Corvus monedula). These highly social birds can travel in large flocks, sometimes mixed with rooks. Thornton and his colleagues track thousands of jackdaws in Cornwall, using multiple high-speed cameras to capture footage of the birds and produce three-dimensional maps of which bird flies where.

Among other discoveries, the scientists reported last year that jackdaws that pair with each other for life behave differently than unpaired birds when flying within a flock. Paired birds interact with fewer neighbors when looking for cues to which direction they should fly. Instead they rely more on their partner for information, which leads them to flap their wings more slowly and thus save energy.

On winter evenings, the jackdaws commute from their foraging grounds back to their nests, often gathering along the way at trees in “staging stops.” As the birds travel together toward their roosts they move in what’s known as a transiting flock.

To explore a different kind of coordinated group behavior, this time near the birds’ nests, Thornton and his colleagues placed a stuffed fox in the middle of a field to frighten the birds. The fox had a remote-controlled robotic bird in its mouth that flapped its wings limply. And the scientists broadcast recordings of other jackdaws making loud, scolding sounds that may signal the presence of a predator.

The fake fox worked. The jackdaws started flying around the fox, though in a completely different pattern than the scientists saw in the transiting flights. “The way the birds interacted with each other, and particularly the way they decided which birds to interact with, changed completely in the two kinds of flocks,” says Ouellette. He and his colleagues reported the findings in November in Nature Communications .

Birds flying within a flock have to decide how many other birds they are going to pay attention to for cues on where to move. In a flock of 100 birds, each bird doesn’t need to pay attention to 99 others — it just needs to figure out how many birds to bother watching.

There are two ways birds can go about this. If they pay attention just to the birds within a fixed distance of them, scientists call that a metric interaction. If the bird pays attention to a certain number of birds nearby, no matter how far away they are, it is called a topological interaction. Flocks operating by metric rules behave differently than flocks operating by topological rules; the density of the flock matters only if it is following metric rules.

The group led by Ouellette and Thornton has shown that transiting flocks operate by topological rules. But the stuffed fox led to flocking by metric rules as the birds freaked out. Why the difference? “We don’t know,” says Ouellette. One possibility is that the birds may be trying to keep a certain distance between themselves and the fox. By doing so they start operating in metric mode, which they then use to govern their distances from other birds as well.

This change in behavior is surprising, he says — and might be transmitted among the animals by visual or sound cues as they fly around, calling to one another.

Algorithmic foraging

For the jackdaws, environment shapes behavior. The same is true for ants, says Deborah Gordon, a biologist at Stanford and author of an article on collective behavior in ants in the 2019 Annual Review of Entomology. She studies several species of ants and how they make collective decisions, such as when and where to forage for food.

All of the roughly 14,000 known ant species live in colonies, and so must share information in their search for food and other resources. Gordon studies how ants develop networks of interactions that allow them to pull this off.

One of her favorite species is the red harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), which searches for seeds that are scattered across the landscape. A red harvester colony typically has some foragers waiting in the nest while others venture out for food. Studying these ants in New Mexico, Gordon showed that ants leave the nest at a rate determined by how often foragers return with food. The more food available, the more often foragers return to the nest; this, in turn, kicks off more ants leaving the nest. But if there is little food available, the rate of forager return slows and the whole process throttles down.

In 2012, working with her student Katherine Dektar and Balaji Prabhakar, a computer scientist at Stanford, Gordon calculated how information was flowing among the ants. The researchers found it was similar to the way Internet protocols regulate the rate at which data is transferred depending on how much bandwidth is available for transferring it. The scientists dubbed this naturally produced set of problem-solving rules the “Anternet.” The Anternet information seems to help the colony to forage efficiently.

Since then, Gordon has continued to explore the step-by-step problem-solving rules, or algorithms, that regulate how ants collectively search for food and make their way around the environment. She is now studying a tree-dwelling species from western Mexico known as the turtle ant (Cephalotes goniodontus). These ants travel entirely along tree branches and vines, laying down a pheromone trail behind them so that others can follow. The trails connect the ants’ nests and sources of food, forming a sort of communication network in which junctions in the vegetation serve as nodes.

But that network can be easily broken if, say, a windstorm breaks one of the vines. The ants then have to reestablish the trail connectivity. They do so by exploring and choosing new paths to get them around the break. It’s sort of like the way Google Maps suggests alternate routes to get around a traffic accident.

By mapping many paths and examples of how turtle ants found their way around a break, Gordon and her colleagues identified an algorithm that describes the ants’ behavior. The algorithm may not be the most efficient in any one situation, but it works well to find a new route in many different situations. This suggests that evolution has found ways for ant colonies to adapt to their ever-changing environment.

“Evolution has already done a lot of experiments for us, by shaping the way that the ants work collectively to respond to different kinds of conditions,” she says.

Swimming schools

Jolle Jolles, a behavioral biologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany, has also been thinking about collective behavior in the environment. He studies how the individuality of animals affects how they behave within a group — mostly in the fish species known as the three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus).

Biologists studying collective behavior often choose to use fish, in part because they are relatively easy to work with. It’s a lot easier to raise minnows in a tank than to chase jackdaws around southwestern England or ants through a Mexican forest. Sticklebacks in particular are popular and are hardy enough to survive being washed down a drain, as Jolles knows too well. Perhaps most important, sticklebacks also show a huge range of behavior, both individually and in groups, and are well studied. “They are really great little fish,” he says.

Traits of individual sticklebacks include sociability — how closely a given fish likes to hang out with other fish — and boldness, which is how likely a fish is to take risks to find food. In work published in 2018, Jolles showed that schools of fish made up of randomly selected individuals swam in groups that behaved quite differently from one another, even when tested in different kinds of environments. Some groups swam consistently faster, with the fish more aligned with one another than they were in other randomly assigned groups. That suggests that individual differences among fish helped shape their collective actions. The fish could be picking up on visual cues from other fish, and perhaps relying on information from sensory organs that detect movement and other changes in the water. “These group-level behaviors are a result of individual behaviors,” he says.

In experiments involving 80 fish over a 10-week period, Jolles and his colleagues found that bold fish tended to remain bold, as shown by the time spent away from the deep, sheltered end of a tank to venture into bright, shallow areas and look for food. In contrast, shy fish ventured out more and more as the experiments went on, the team reported last year in Animal Behaviour . That suggests that shy fish are less predictable in their behavior over the long term.

Jolles has also worked with robotic fish to explore his ideas. In recent, soon-to-be-published experiments with collaborators in Berlin, he put guppies into a tank with a robofish. The scientists could program the robofish to display all sorts of behavior, including being extremely social with the guppies. With it, the researchers were able to show that the individual speeds of various guppies — which wouldn’t seem like that important a factor — turned out to be the major force that drove patterns in how the fish schooled together.

Jolles is now trying to expand his ideas to other animals, hoping to find universal laws underlying the collective behavior of species from elephants to killer whales. Such laws could show how different traits, such as boldness in sticklebacks, determine which animals end up leading the group and how the group behaves as a whole.

Collective wisdom

From birds to ants to fish, studies of collective behavior have illuminated the basic workings of many animal species. But there are also broader implications for humans. Engineers can take lessons from animals that swarm effectively together to build better swarms of small robots.

Imagine a set of drones hovering over a dam to inspect it. Like the jackdaws, they have to use some sort of rules to determine how far away to fly from their nearest neighbor. If the wind is calm, they might be able to count neighboring drones, through topological rules, to figure out their best position. But if the wind picks up, disrupting the whole flock, they might need to shift to metric rules to avoid crashing into one another.

And understanding how ants collectively adapt to changes in their network, such as when a tree blows down, could help researchers develop flexible and responsive rules for how robots navigate an unfamiliar and changing environment, such as in a burning building. “That’s a lesson for engineering,” Gordon says.

The behavior of swarming animals could even reveal clues for adapting to perhaps the biggest threat of all: climate change. Jolles plans to soon start tracking several species of fish, including sticklebacks, in mountain rivers in the Spanish Pyrenees that are vulnerable to drought and rising temperatures. By studying individual differences among the fish as well as how they behave collectively, Jolles hopes to learn which of them are most resilient in a changing climate and why. “I want to understand how fish can deal with these harsh conditions to help make predictions for the future,” he says.


This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine on July 29, 2020. Knowable Magazine is an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. 

Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews

 

We’re Flying Less. Remote Areas That Depend on Tourism Feel the Impact.

By Dimitri Selibas, Ensia

Between flight shaming and a global pandemic, destinations that depend on travelers to protect ecosystems are finding themselves with fewer resources to do so.

Rincon del Mar, a beachside hamlet on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is part of a burgeoning industry that is helping to turn the tide for the country’s peacetime economy and its environmental conservation.

In 2010, Amauri Julio, a fisherman turned tour guide, joined other community members to form an environmental group to protect Rincon del Mar’s beaches and mangroves. During the day, he offers tours for snorkeling among tropical fish and corals and visiting idyllic Caribbean islands. Participants in afternoon tours view giant flocks of seabirds going to roost, aquatic reptiles and, as night falls, luminescent plankton in the lagoon surrounded by mangroves. With the country’s more-than-50-year armed conflict in the past, Julio says that more and more international tourists are visiting, providing a sustainable source of income for the village and their environmental projects.

Growing concerns about climate change, however, could change that. One response has been “flight shaming,” using remorse to discourage travelers from flying. The movement started in Sweden in 2017 and gained international attention when climate activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat to attend the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York in September 2019. Some conservationists and ecotourism providers are concerned that flight shaming may have negative unintended consequences, especially in developing countries where tourism is a key source of jobs, economic growth and conservation funding.

Places like Rincon del Mar depend heavily on tourism. And the Colombian government views tourism as a whole, which has grown some 300% since 2006, as the country’s “new petroleum” and is investing heavily in the blossoming industry.

The Covid-19 pandemic is offering a preview of what could happen if flight-shaming caused air travel and international tourism to dry up. “If you want to see what happens when people stop flying to Africa or Asia, we can see it right now. With tourists gone, poachers are moving in and killing endangered species,” Costas Christ, a former senior director at Conservation International and founder of Beyond Green Travel, a sustainable tourism consultancy says in an email. Christ says he is concerned that with tourism companies and governments’ conservation budgets pummeled, previously protected natural habitat may be turned into cattle ranches. “That is what happens when tourists stop flying.”

Tourism With Benefits

There’s an important distinction to be made between nature tourism — the act of vacationing outdoors — and ecotourism, Christ says.

Nature tourism involves spending a holiday in natural places, “but that does not mean [travelers] are having a positive impact on nature,” Christ says. He points to Tayrona National Natural Park, also on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, as an example of where people visiting in large numbers damaged the natural environment by discarding trash, lighting fires and trafficking plants and animals.

Ecotourism, on the other hand, encapsulates principles and practices that ensure that tourists benefit both the environment and local communities. “Ecotourism was developed to make sure nature tourism did not destroy the very environment that tourists want to visit,” Christ says.

Liven Fernando Martinez Bernal, a professor at the National University of Colombia and an expert in tourism, economics and the environment, says that if the ecotourism industry can grow in an organized way with quality standards, it could generate impressive benefits. Bernal wrote his doctoral dissertation on the environmental impact of tourism in Colombia’s National Parks, looking at the post-conflict scenario and focusing his analysis on the economic impacts for local communities. He found that ecotourism doesn’t require a large capital investment, so rather than concentrating benefits in the hands of a few as often happens in the tourism industry, it can contribute to wealth distribution and economic development at the local level.

Costa Rica is a prime example. From the early 1940s to the 1980s, forest cover decreased from 77% of the country’s territory to 21%, mostly driven by the expansion of cattle ranching and production of crops like coffee and bananas. Facing an economic crisis in the early 1980s, the country looked to ecotourism as a way to diversify the economy while protecting the environment. Today more than 3% of its GDP comes from ecotourism. This, combined with a carbon tax on fossil fuels and payments for environmental services has meant that within 30 years, the country had more than doubled its forest cover.

Conscious Decisions

Experts suggest there is a balancing act at play between the desire to support local economies and conservation efforts and the need to address global climate change. Ecotourism clearly plays a role in protecting habitats and the biodiversity they support. Yet reducing the threat of climate change is key to their well-being, too.

Christ suggests that the answer may lie in finding a happy medium that accommodates both, particularly where they intersect. “The answer is not to stop travel,” he says, “but to get travel right.”


Dimitri Selibas (@dselibas) is a freelance writer and photographer.

This article was originally published by Ensia and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License.

Editor’s note: Dimitri Selibas wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Rachel Cernansky.

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Earth to Birds: Take the Next Left

Scientists have long thought that avian migration is guided by the magnetic field, but how, exactly?  The search has led to three very different hypotheses.

By Sophie Fessl, Knowable Magazine

Every fall, the bar-tailed godwit takes to wing and flies nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand — a journey of 7,000-plus miles. Countless other birds head off too, bound for warmer spots before returning in the spring. How they do it without getting lost remains mysterious to this day.

Scientists are convinced birds must be using some type of biologically based magnetic compass, but they have yet to figure out how such a system would work. Now the field is heating up, and the latest research is pointing away from one long-standing theory and bolstering some intriguing alternatives.

Clues have been piling up for decades. Back in the 1960s, researchers discovered that European robins can somehow sense Earth’s magnetic field. In the decades since, scientists learned that robins and a variety of other bird species use the field, which is created by movement of iron in Earth’s core, as a navigational aid. The birds combine this guide with information deduced from the sun, the stars and geographical landmarks to complete their voyages.

A few long-distance bird migration routes. Image adapted from L. Shyamal / Wikimedia

But a vexing question that remains is what sort of biological receptor birds use to detect the magnetic field.

“Key experiments by a group in Germany definitively showed that a magnetic sense exists. Now, more than 50 years later, we still don’t really understand how it works,” says neuroscientist David Keays of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna.

Today, researchers are focusing on three possible ways that a magnetic sense could work. One idea involves a form of iron with magnetic properties, called magnetite, acting as a sort of compass within cells that rotates to align with the magnetic field. Another contender, known as the radical-pair mechanism, hinges on a chemical reaction in a bird’s eye that is influenced by Earth’s magnetic field. A third hypothesis suggests that as a bird moves through Earth’s magnetic field, small currents are generated in the creature’s inner ear.

In all three of these scenarios, signals are produced and passed on to the bird’s brain to be processed and translated into directions. Here’s a look at each of them.

Testing their metal

The magnetite idea has been studied the longest. Though it is biologically possible — certain kinds of swimming bacteria use the iron mineral to orient themselves — evidence in higher animals remains elusive, with scattered reports that are not always reproducible.

“The history of the magnetite literature in vertebrates is basically, ‘I find magnetite here,’ ‘I find magnetite here,’ ‘I find magnetite here,’ but it’s not getting much further than that yet,” says biologist Henrik Mouritsen, who investigates magnetoreception in European robins and blackcaps and coauthored a 2016 overview of the topic in the Annual Review of Biophysics.

Mouritsen, of the University of Oldenburg in Germany, would like to test the magnetite hypothesis using a classic tool of biologists: Remove something from the animal and see what happens to its behavior. If magnetite is critical for navigation, destroying the magnetite-containing cells would affect the birds’ ability to find their way. But for this research strategy to work, scientists need to know just where to find magnetite in the robins. And even if they find it, “it’s a long way from showing a cell contains iron to showing it’s magnetite connected to nerve tissue that has any biological relevance,” Mouritsen says.

One major knock against the magnetite theory is that a bird’s compass senses only the axis of the magnetic field and not its polarity, says chemist Peter Hore of the University of Oxford, a coauthor on the Annual Reviews paper. Unlike the compass needles used by people, which rely on the magnetic field’s polarity to point toward the magnetic North Pole, birds know which direction the nearest pole is but can’t distinguish between north and south. So when scientists invert the magnetic field in the lab, birds don’t sense a change and continue to head in the same direction.

But magnetite particles would respond to a flipped field by pointing in the opposite direction, just like a compass needle would. If birds were depending on magnetite, they would sense the change and turn around to head in the opposite direction.

The eyes have it?

The weight of evidence gathered by scientists tilts toward another idea known as the radical-pair hypothesis, Hore says. Mouritsen also favors this idea, which is based on a protein in birds’ eyes called cryptochrome. When light hits cryptochrome, reactions within the protein generate a pair of molecules, called a radical pair. The two molecules in the pair each have an odd number of electrons, leaving each with a single, unpaired electron. These two extra electrons can have spins that are in the same (or parallel) direction, or in the opposite (antiparallel) direction, and they can also flip between these two states.

Adult female Amur Falcon in South Africa. Photo by Richard Lowe / birdseye.photo

According to the radical-pair hypothesis, Earth’s magnetic field influences how likely the spins are to be parallel or antiparallel. How those spins are then translated into a compass isn’t certain, but scientists suspect that in a biochemical reaction in the bird’s eye, the two spin states could lead to different amounts of chemical products being made. The products could then influence signals sent from the bird’s retina to its brain, making it aware of the magnetic field.

A mechanism based on radical pairs instead of magnetite could potentially allow birds to detect magnetic fields, Keays agrees. But because the radical-pair system depends on light hitting birds’ eyes, he thinks there is probably more than one mechanism at work. “It seems counterintuitive to have a light-dependent magnetic sensor when you are flying at night,” he says.

Or maybe the ears do

Keays is testing a long-forgotten hypothesis, first proposed in 1882, that as a bird flies through Earth’s magnetic field, tiny electric currents are generated in its ear. This would happen through electromagnetic induction, akin to how a magnet that moves through a coiled wire creates an electric current in the wire. Extremely sensitive receptors would pick up the small voltages induced in the bird’s inner ear and send signals to the brain.

Electromagnetic induction is thought to be plausible in sharks and skates, which can sense electric currents in seawater. That same electrosensory system could potentially function as a sort of biological wire in which currents could be induced, allowing the animals to sense Earth’s magnetic field.

To test whether induction could work in a land animal like birds, Keays built a simple, scaled model of a pigeon’s inner ear: a plastic tube filled with conductive fluid. When he put the model in a rotating magnetic field, sure enough, a small current was induced. Keays suspects the pigeon behavior of rapid head-turning to scan the environment during flight may also serve to boost the voltage in the birds’ ears. He has also discovered a very sensitive electroreceptor in the pigeon’s inner ear, which is exactly where it would be needed for induction to work.

Though scientists in the field are finding many new and intriguing pieces of evidence, the definitive test that will finally reveal how birds “feel” the magnetic field has yet to be devised, Hore says. “What we need is a killer experiment that would have the power to show, once and for all, whether it really is radical pairs and whether it really is cryptochrome. But it’s actually very hard to come up with something.”


Sophie Fessl swapped the fruit fly, her favorite neuroscience model, for pen and paper and is now a freelance science writer based in Vienna. Follow her on Twitter: @brainosoph

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine on July 16, 2020. Knowable Magazine is an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Sign up for the newsletter.

Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews

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Inaugural #BlackBirdersWeek Breaks Stereotypes About Birders

By Emily Benson / High Country News

Sheridan Alford’s love of bird-watching stems from a simple fact: “Anybody can do it.” Old or young, through expensive binoculars or with the naked eye (or ear), in a bucolic park or from a city window, anyone can connect to the avian world around them. Alford, a graduate student in natural resources at the University of Georgia, in Athens, Georgia, studies African American participation in bird-watching, trying to understand why some Black people engage in the activity and others don’t.

She’s also one of the co-founders of a social media push, #BlackBirdersWeek, which launched on May 31. The campaign was sparked by the viral video in which a white woman threatened a Black birder in New York’s Central Park, announcing that she was calling the police “to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” 

“I think a lot of us identified with that scenario,” Alford said in a recent interview. In response, she and other members of a grassroots group, @BlackAFinSTEM, who work in science or related fields, decided to organize a week of social media prompts. They hope to boost visibility of Black nature enthusiasts, highlight the value of racial diversity and promote dialogue within the larger (and largely white) birding community.

May 31 – June 5th, 2020 is the inaugural Black Birders Week.

High Country News caught up with Alford the day before the launch, during a tumultuous weekend of nationwide protests over police violence against Black people. In Western cities, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Denver and Seattle, peaceful daytime protests provoked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis gave way to overnight chaos, as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds, and buildings and cars were destroyed. Officials responded with curfews, emergency declarations and National Guard deployments. The organizers of Black Birders Week addressed the synchrony of their project and the civil unrest directly on Twitter: “We want it to be clear that we stand with the protestors fighting against police brutality even as we organize a protest specific to being #BlackinNature,” they wrote.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


High Country News: Who should participate in Black Birders Week? Who is it for?

Sheridan Alford: It is for Black birders. But who can participate? Anybody and everybody, and we encourage everybody to participate! We love seeing the support. When you’re trying to fight for something that you believe in, sometimes you just want to know that someone else is in your corner, fighting that same fight with you.

We are not excluding anyone. … The whole purpose is to highlight and showcase Black birders, and anybody can do that.

“We want it to be clear that we stand with the protestors fighting against police brutality even as we organize a protest specific to being #BlackinNature.”

HCN: Why is the Black Birders Week initiative important at this moment?

SA: At this point, things are popping up in cities around the country that are either racially driven or stereotypically driven, prejudice, whichever word you would like to use. The climate is shifting to where a lot of the acts against people of color or Black people are being filmed, and they are available to the general public — a lot of people are now seeing what some people have experienced their entire lives.

But we think that it’s very important to highlight the work that people are actually doing and kind of drive that conversation to, yes, look at us, and please acknowledge the hardship we go through — but as you acknowledge those hardships, also look at what we’ve been doing in our research, or what we’ve been doing in our communities to better the climate as a whole. So I think this week kind of fell exactly where it needed to, as far as time frame.

HCN: It’s happening right at the same time as these nationwide protests.

SA: And there was no way we could’ve predicted that!

“When you’re trying to fight for something that you believe in, sometimes you just want to know that someone else is in your corner, fighting that same fight with you.”

HCN: Do you see the initiative and the protests as parallel? Or not?

SA: I see them in parallel. … As a Black person, I feel for my people, within the riots and the protests and all the things that are happening across the country. And I think it all just further affirms and identifies what it is to be a Black person in America.

People need a break from a lot of the hurt that they’re feeling. I know a lot of my counterparts are like, I’m not going to get on social media today, I’m going to take the day to myself. I think providing this uplifting and celebratory week will give people that break that they need to mentally gather themselves as a lot of these racially charged and very heated discussions are being had all across the country.

You need the heat, but you also need something to offset that sometimes. I feel like that’s what Birders Week will provide.

HCN: It seems like these are two different ways to respond to the same thing — systemic racism — two different ways to try to dismantle that.

SA: Right. Two sides of the same coin; really, the same side of the same coin. It’s just different ways of hitting it at different angles, and all of it can only help, at the end of the day.

HCN: It feels like this campaign is a celebration of the diversity within the birding community — is that right? 

SA: I would say celebration, as well as a safe space. Because not everything is peaches and roses, and there are dialogues that need to be had. … Hopefully, we’ll be able to touch on some of the issues that people are truly feeling in their hearts and kind of hash things out.

“I think providing this uplifting and celebratory week will give people that break that they need to mentally gather themselves…”

HCN: What do people need to hear?

SA: The biggest thing is just allowing peoples’ voices to be heard. A lot of times, someone will say that they’ve created a safe space or, they’ll say, like, ‘Oh, yeah, we want to hear what you have to say.’ But then when you actually step out and say it, it’s not received well, or it’s discounted or discarded. 

It’s really just about voices and accountability and understanding that everyone, especially Black people, are human beings, and we would like the same treatment as everyone else.

HCN: What do you hope people watching or participating in Black Birders Week will take away from it?

SA: I think that one of the biggest takeaways will be to kind of disprove or muddle the generic stereotype of what a birder or a bird-watcher is.

A lot of times on bird walks, the people on the walk will automatically look to the men in the group for answers. … So it’s always important to be like, actually, no, the woman said that, or actually, no, this Black person actually knows a lot about this bird; to just kind of change the narrative about what not only a Black birder is, but what a Black scientist is.

HCN: How’s the reception been so far?

SA: The reception has been amazing and astounding. We’re all just really grateful, and really appreciative, and glad that people are looking for it; it seems to be something that a lot of people didn’t know they needed.


This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on June 2, 2020.

Emily Benson is an associate editor at High Country News, covering the northwest, the northern Rockies and Alaska. Email her at emilyb@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

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The silence of the owls

No one knows exactly how the nocturnal hunters manage their whisper-soft flight, yet it is inspiring the design of quieter airplanes, fans and wind turbines.

By Dana Mackenzie, Knowable Magazine

Every owl fancier has a story of the first time they heard an owl — or, rather, didn’t hear one. It’s unforgettable to see an enormous bird, whose wingspan can reach more than six feet, slipping through the air without even a whisper.

Justin Jaworski’s first close encounter came at a flying exhibition at the Raptor Foundation near Cambridge, England. “They trained the owls to fly very close to the audience,” he says. “My first experience was of ducking to avoid a collision. I heard only a very slight swoosh after it passed.”

Laboratory measurements have shown that the slight swoosh made by a barn owl is below the threshold of human hearing until the owl is about three feet away — a feat of stealth that biologists and engineers are far from completely understanding. But researchers from both disciplines are working to solve the riddle of silent flight — some with the aim of designing quieter fans, turbine blades and airplane wings.

Barn Owl, photo by Steven Cheong / birdseye.photo
Noise produced by a Barn Owl while flying isn’t heard by humans until the bird is three feet away. Photo by Steven Cheong / birdseye.photo

Such owl-inspired innovations can reduce noise by as much as 10 decibels, similar to the difference in noise between a passing truck and a passing car, Jaworski and Nigel Peake write in an overview in the 2020 Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics.

Go gentle

Jaworski, an engineer at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, is hardly the first scientist to be captivated by the puzzle of silent owl flight. In 1934, Robert Rule Graham — a British pilot and bird connoisseur — called attention to three structures on owl wings that might account for the owls’ silence.

More than 80 years later, his “three traits paradigm,” as Christopher Clark calls it, is still cited in many papers on owl wings. “He clearly knew birds very well, and he was an aeronautical engineer,” says Clark, an ornithologist at the University of California, Riverside. “Science was different in the 1930s. In our age of specialization, you don’t get that combination.”

First, Graham pointed out an unusual structure called the “comb,” which literally looks like a comb projecting forward from the wing’s leading edge. Second, he noted that most of the owl wing is covered with a soft layer of velvety feathers. Finally, he observed that the feathers on the trailing edge of the wing form a ragged fringe.

Most researchers still agree that the comb, the velvet and the fringe combine in some way to reduce noise, but the owl may have more tricks up its sleeve. “When all is said and done, I think we’ll have a number of mechanisms, including Graham’s,” says Clark.

To explain how an owl suppresses noise, it would help to identify where the noise comes from in the first place. For an airplane coming in for a landing, a large part of the noise comes not from the engines but from the flow of air around the plane, especially the sound produced at the trailing edge of the wings. The turbulent air rushing past the exposed edges of the wings translates to the dull roar you hear as the plane flies overhead.

Great Horned Owlets, photo by Jason C Rose
Great Horned Owlets display their soft, velvety feathers. Photo by Jason C Rose / birdseye.photo

One way to reduce this noise would be to make the trailing edge of the wing less hard, more porous and more flexible. This may be the function of the owl wing’s ragged fringes. Jaworski and Peake have mathematically calculated how engineers might use such porosity and elasticity to reduce noise, and how to quantify that diminished din.

Those calculations are supported by wind-tunnel experiments: A variety of porous materials do dial down the noise. Work by Thomas Geyer at Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany has found that a poroelastic wing the size of an owl’s can be about 2 to 5 decibels quieter than a regular wing.

However, says Geyer, the right porous material is crucial; in the wind-tunnel tests, some materials actually increased high-frequency noise. Measurements of owls in flight show that their wings mute only frequencies higher than 1,600 hertz (on a piano, two-and-a-half octaves above middle C). Since this is roughly where the range of rodent hearing begins, it’s the range that an owl would benefit most from suppressing as it hunts for a meal.

Jaworski and Ian Clark (no relation to Christopher) of NASA’s Langley Research Center have attempted to mimic the owl’s velvet by covering a standard airfoil with various kinds of fabric. “The winning textile was a wedding veil,” says Jaworski. However, it may not be necessary to donate your nuptial accessories to science, because the researchers got even better results by attaching tiny plastic 3-D–printed “finlets” to the blades of a wind turbine.

“Over a certain frequency range, we saw a 10-decibel noise reduction,” Jaworski says. “That may not sound like much, but in air acoustics, engineers fight over two or three decibels. Ten decibels is half as noisy. That’s a massive change for any technology.” Siemens, a manufacturer of wind turbines, has apparently been listening, and recently unveiled its second-generation “Dino Tail” turbines that have combs directly inspired by the owl wing.

Feathery enigma

Though owl wings are providing new insights into noise reduction for aeronautical engineering, engineers have had less success describing the physics of owl flight. According to ornithologist Clark, the engineers may not even have identified the most important source of noise in owl aviation.

If you’re trying to build an owl, rather than a wind turbine or an airplane, you’ll notice several differences. Owls have feathers; airplanes don’t. Owls flap their wings; airplanes don’t. There’s a good reason that aeronautical engineers prefer stationary, solid wings to flapping, feathery ones: They are easier to understand.

But if you are a biologist, to ignore flapping is to ignore a fundamental ingredient in avian flight, says Clark. As bird wings flap they change shape, and as they change shape the feathers rub against each other, causing noise. This noise is frictional, not aerodynamic, produced by the contact of solid against solid.

As bird wings flap they change shape, and as they change shape the feathers rub against each other, causing noise.

Ian Clark, ornithologist

In Clark’s view, the purpose of the owl’s velvet and the fringes is to reduce frictional noise between the feathers while flapping. Clark concedes that his argument would be moot if owls glided while hunting, but video evidence shows they do not: They flap when taking off, they flap when landing and they even flap when “coursing” for prey.

And the fringes are not only on the trailing edge of the wing, where the aerodynamic theory would predict them to have the greatest noise-reducing benefit. Fringes also exist on the leading edges of the feathers, where they do not affect aerodynamic noise, as well on some feathers that are not even exposed to the airflow. This suggests that their purpose is not aerodynamic.

Clark says that we may be asking the question backward. Instead of asking why owls are so quiet, we should ask why other birds are so loud. The answer is feathers. “Feathers are amazing structures, and probably the reason birds are so successful,” Clark says. But they come with an evolutionary cost: “If you’re going to build a wing out of feathers, they are going to produce frictional sound.” To become silent hunters, owls evolved special adaptations that reduce this disadvantage.

Long-eared Owl, photo by cheema.ss@gmai.com
Fringes on the edges of owl feathers likely dampen sounds, making them much quieter than feathers with sharp edges. Long-eared Owl, photo by cheema.ss@gmai.com / birdseye.photo

Owls are not the only kind of bird that has solved this problem. Some species of Australian frogmouths have independently developed the same adaptations. These birds are also carnivorous and have wings that are soft and fluffy with combs and ragged fringes. In Graham’s day, people assumed that frogmouths were closely related to owls, but genomic analysis has proved that they are not. While less studied than owls, they too are silent flyers.

“Evolution often takes a quirky path,” Clark says. “One way you can home in on the underlying mechanical principles, and tell them apart from quirks, is with convergent evolution.” When two unrelated animals have the same adaptation, it suggests that the feature confers a benefit — in this case, stealth.

At present, there are two ways to understand owl flight: an engineering view informed by the equations of fluid motion and wind-tunnel experiments, and a biological view based on anatomy, behavior and genomics. A truly integrated story will probably require both. Even engineers realize that idealized studies based on rigid, unfeathered wings are not enough. It’s quite possible that the owl uses its feathers and small shape adjustments of the wing actively, rather than passively, to manipulate airflow. Engineers aren’t even close to understanding this process, which spans several size scales, from the barbs of the feathers to the individual feathers, to the entire wing.

“What is missing to us is the microscopic point of view,” says Roi Gurka of Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, whose experiments with flying owls have led to beautiful computer simulations of the flow field around a flapping owl wing. “I understand the wing,” he says, but understanding the role individual feather morphology plays in noise reduction is another matter.

While the scientists debate, the barn owl will continue flying as it always has: its face as round and imperturbable as the moon, its ears trained on its next meal and its feathers treading gently on the air.


Dana Mackenzie is a mathematician who went rogue and became a writer. His first book, written at age six or seven, was “The Adventures of Owl.”

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine on April 7, 2020. Knowable Magazine is an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. 

Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews

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Taking Flight! Children’s Love of Birds Inspires Hope for the Amazon

Help CONAPAC and the Morpho Institute bring binoculars to student birders in the remote Amazon.

Guest post by Brian Landever, Director of CONAPAC, and Christa Dillabaugh, Director of the Morpho Institute

What happens when you mix more than 1000 students, 250 teachers, 75 binoculars, 26 remote Amazon rainforest communities, a host of international partners, and one ecolodge?  An incredible bird education project in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon! 

Thanks to collaboration between CONAPAC, the Morpho Institute, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, students from pre-school through high school are learning about behavior, habitat needs, and cultural significance of birds in the Amazon. Their passion became evident when students presented unsolicited skits, songs, and dances related to bird conservation during CONAPAC’s April 2019 visits to participating villages.

Then, in September 2019, 26 remote communities participated in this region’s first ever bird festival. Hosted in the community of Manati on the Amazon River, students inspired onlookers with bird-related art, music, and dance. Read all about this birding festival and CONAPAC’s educational efforts in the Amazon in our previous post: A Bird Celebration REVOLUTION is Happening Right Now in the Amazon.

Photo Credit: CONAPAC

With growing publicity, the students and teachers are excited to be recognized as leaders in a new force for conservation of the Amazon rainforest.

The Morpho Institute is proud to support this growing movement via our Amazon Binocular Project. When children hold up a pair of binoculars and focus on a familiar bird for the first time, their faces light up with glee. When binoculars are left in their communities, students become experts on the behaviors and habitats of their local birds. But we don’t yet have enough binoculars to meet demand. The 75 pairs of binoculars that we have provided are in constant use, and we aim to add 225 more by 2021.

Photo credit: CONAPAC

You can support this effort to give Amazon students the tools they need to deepen their appreciation of their local birds and support their teachers in taking bird education to new heights!

Please consider donating to the Amazon Binocular Project: https://morphoinstitute.org/amazon-binocular-project/

You also can support Amazon Teacher Training Workshops by donating to CONAPAC at www.conapac.org

Thank you for playing a role in supporting Amazon conservation through education!

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A Bird Celebration REVOLUTION is Happening Right Now in the Amazon

Fostering a love of birds through education in the Amazon, CONAPAC is increasing environmental awareness and jump-starting a birding revolution in Peru.

By Brian Landever

More than 1000 students from 26 remote Amazon rainforest communities gathered this September to participate in the first-ever bird festivals in the Peruvian department of Loreto. They awoke early, traveled to neighboring communities along the Amazon rivers, and spent the days presenting elaborate performances related to bird conservation and discussing the impact of birding in their communities.

Activities celebrating birds and birding have gained momentum since 2017, and a revolution is building. It’s a celebrative kind, raising spirits and enhancing the cultural arts.  Children are showing excitement for the natural world, and their parents are following suit.  It’s in good time; Peru has been listed as the world’s best country for bird watching, and is second worldwide for most species of birds registered. Most importantly, these activities are showing concrete increases in bird conservation.

The people in this region are strong, accustomed to the intense Amazon sun, and mainly fish and grow crops for sustenance. Children and adults cheerfully play sports every afternoon, and couples help one another with fishing. Their music with flutes, drums, and rattles, their regional dances related to animals, and their stories about the meanings behind bird encounters are just a few aspects of the people’s rich culture. Their homes may not have electricity or running water, and are over 100 kilometers from the closest city, but the warmth and comfort they have amongst one another in communities makes international visitors appreciate coming here.

Although many visitors return frequently, until recently, the forest was not commonly explored for leisure; entering only when hunting was the priority. That’s all changing now. Now, there’s a greater awareness of how the birds are important to the environment, developing the people’s pride for their home.

Education is key

Thousands of K-12 students became involved in this movement over the past several years. Their teachers are leading outdoor, project-based classes to inform them of the region’s bird species’ habitat, behavior, nesting, diet, cultural stories, and more. And their new curriculum is paying off.

During these festivals, students share what they are learning in unique ways. Some students perform activist theatre, portraying stories of birds fighting to retake their habitat after being encroached upon. Other students draw finely detailed portraits of the birds with masterful skill, and still others have crafted replica bird nests to explore nest functions. One high school senior rapped about birds’ beauty and the tragedy of losing them. Another 14-year-old young woman’s dramatic poetry about respecting birds in nature left watchers teary-eyed. Groups of younger students were happy to be included too, sharing well-practiced songs about birds’ beauty. One mother even rose to share an unsolicited folk song about the Blue-gray Tanager.

The impact of this is visible. Children are heard stopping their classmates from killing birds, and their parents report no longer hunting birds in unsustainable ways.  

Behind these activities are 250 dedicated teachers, Peruvian NGO CONAPAC, led by Brian Landever, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO), represented by Karen A. Purcell and Marilu López Fretts. They have been co-creating training workshops each year since 2017, resulting in dozens of dynamic lesson plans, materials, communication methods, and culturally embedded evaluations all focused on keeping enthusiasm strong.

Building a revolution

In 2017, the first ornithology training workshop was held for teachers from these rural communities. Karen A. Purcell and the “Celebrate Birds” citizen science team began co-developing materials, and soon launched an engaging, fun, culturally sensitive educational program focused on bird conservation.

In 2018, teachers began notably increasing their involvement following bi-monthly meetings with the CLO team. The large WhatsApp group began to receive hundreds of photos posted weekly by the teachers, excited to share their progress, in turn motivating one another.

In early 2019, there was no doubt that the program had matured when students presented unsolicited, elaborate skits and dances related to bird conservation during CONAPAC’s visits to their communities. Thousands of photos of class developments began to fill the WhatsApp group monthly, and the program supporters, JBQ Charitable Foundation and the Amazon Binocular Project, have stated they could not have used their donations in a better manner.

When the last workshop was held in June 2019, at Explorama’s lodges, located on the Amazon and Napo rivers, the teachers themselves opened the event. They had prepared creative songs, photo-realistic sketches of birds, and enthusiastic presentations of what they had accomplished to date with their students. The entire week was festive, productive, and further prepared the teachers with strong class curriculum. CONAPAC’s footage of these classes on its YouTube channel effectively capture the enthusiasm of these events.

In turn, the students are receiving motivated class sessions and can see that they have become part of something that is expanding, and being appreciated worldwide. The culmination of this, five bird festivals that took place in September, has surpassed everyone’s expectations.

Moving forward

During these festivals, the perspectives of local people were inquired into more closely in open conversations following each morning’s presentations. Discussions amongst parents, community authorities, students, and teachers with CLO are building an understanding of the movement’s impact on people’s lives and environment.

New, exciting initiatives were also shared during the festivals, including long trails, or “senderos,” complete with benches and gazebos, built by parents for children to birdwatch in the forest, building their understanding of how birds live in nature.

Right now, thorough, co-created program evaluations are being led by CLO to analyze the progress being made. The classes continue regularly, and bird clubs are meeting regularly amongst the most interested students from each community. Eight birdwatching trails have been developed, and more are being planned. The first community-led bird festival in Loreto was held on October 30th, 2019, uniting 11 communities and 600 people, leading to a press report.

The potential for this program to have a positive environmental and social impact is clear. As it gains more attention in Peru and internationally, it will add momentum to the global movement to respect and conserve the Amazon rainforest. For bird appreciators, incorporating ongoing citizen science data from students and community members will expand the database of birds from this region on Cornell’s eBird.com. If the Peruvian board of education replicates the training and materials in other areas of Peru, the impact would multiply tremendously, further fueling the country’s strong efforts to be a prime tourist destination. If more bird festivals occur, celebrating birds could become a proud new tradition.

Nonetheless, what has happened over the past three years has given unforgettable, enjoyable memories to thousands of children in Peru, empowering them with activities that contribute to the wellness of the Amazon rainforest and the planet overall.

Brian Landever is Director of Conapac, devoted to conservation and community development, in Iquitos, Peru.

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Winners of the Birds of South America Photo Contest

From this July to the end of September, birdseye.photo was flooded with hundreds of beautiful photos of birds endemic to South America for our summer photo contest. We got dozens of parrots, tanagers, gulls, owls, ducks, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, hawks, herons, and so many more! It was extremely difficult to pick just three winners, but here we are.

The BirdsEye team collected our ten favorite photos, then consulted professional photographers to choose the final three.

Here, along with a short story about each photo, are the winners.

FIRST PLACE
Debbie Reynolds, Sunbittern

Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias). Photo by Debbie Reynolds.

Debbie’s story: “I love “shooting” birds, and just happened to be going to the Pantanal in September, saw your email asking for shots of South American Birds, and thought I would send you a few of my favorites. 

 “This photo was taken on the Cuiabá River, where we stayed at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway at the Hotel Pantanal Norte.  We were riding in an 8 person boat up and down the river, looking for birds and mammals, and spotted this Sunbittern on a sandbar, just getting ready to take off.  

“The boat was bouncing around, but I managed to lock my camera onto the bird before it took off, and it happened to fly right in front of the boat.  I was using my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera, with a 400 MM lens.  F/5.6 and ISO 640.”

SECOND PLACE
Alexandre Gualhanone, Yellow-fronted Woodpecker

Yellow-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes flavifrons). Photo by Alexandre Gualhanone.

Alexandre’s story: “This photo was taken on a trip to the Tucanos Trail in the city of Tapiraí, State of San Pablo, Brazil, in the company of great friends, also birdwatchers. The bird was approaching a feeder for food.

“The Tucanos Trail is one of the hotspot of the State of São Paulo. It has over 300 species of birds recorded on its self-guided trails, feeders and drinkers.”

This photo was taken with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 100-400mm f / 4.5-5.6L IS USM lens, exposure time: 1/50, aperture: f / 5.6, ISO: 500, distance: 148.0 mm.

You can find Alexandre and his beautiful photos on Instagram @gualhanonebirdwatching

THIRD PLACE
Bonnie Flamer, Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus). Photo by Bonnie Flamer.

Bonnie’s story: “I was able to witness these gorgeous Hyacinth Macaws at Porto Joffre in the central portion of the Mato Grosso, Pantanal, Brazil. I was with a photo group that was there for birding and Jaguars. We took a tour around the property for birds before we were to go out in boats to see the wildlife on the rivers and channels in the area.

“As we were coming to the end of our tour we saw this pair of Macaws playing at the top of a palm tree. They played for a very long time and I and my group were able to take many photos. We were also lucky to get the Ipy trees in the background as they only bloom their pink blossoms for 5 days out of the year and the contrast of the blue macaws and the pink in the background made the photos.

“I used a Nikon 7100 with an 80-400mm lens, at 1/800 and f6.3.”

Congrats to our winners, and thank you to everyone who participated! – The BirdsEye Team

Note: Special winners, who were among the first 25 to submit quality photos of species on our “need these birds” list, will be announced soon!

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Luke Tiller has his eye on raptors

October Birder of the Month
By Amanda Grennell

Hawk expert Luke Tiller.

For Luke Tiller, lifelong outdoor enthusiast, self-taught hawk expert and tour guide, and environmental consultant, watching birds is all about their behavior.

“I like leading tours where it’s not just chasing some rare bird, but there’s some kind of spectacle,” said Luke. “I want to see something amazing that kind of knocks your socks off.”

Like many birders, Luke took a circuitous path to birding. After growing up in London and earning a degree in Philosophy, Luke found his way through various nonprofits to a management and marketing job with Connecticut Audubon. That’s how Luke discovered his love for raptors – which he describes as an “acceptable gateway” to birding.

“They’re big, they’re voracious. If you have a bald eagle flying over your head it seems to have more of an immediate impact on people,” said Luke.

Changeable Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). Photo: Luke Tiller.

When he got sick of working in offices, Luke found a way to make a living outdoors by running hawk watches on the East Coast and the Great Lakes, running the “Soaring Bird Surveys” in Israel, and guiding tours on major raptor migration routes. According to Luke there’s no magic or secret to becoming an expert in raptors – it’s comes just from watching them for a long time. After more than 15 years of focusing on raptors, Luke has definitely earned his expertise.

Unlike songbirds, raptors migrate during the day – so you can actually watch migration happening in real time. In the Americas, birds like the Swainson’s Hawk, the Broad-winged Hawk, and the Turkey Vulture migrate from the Northern continent to Central and South America in the fall (August to October), and back again in the spring (March to May). A similar migration pattern happens from Europe and Asia to Africa, for other raptor species.

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni). Photo: Luke Tiller.

Because raptors don’t usually migrate over the ocean, the land’s geography forces them to funnel through chokepoints – leading to a phenomenal number of birds in the sky.

“I’ve been in Panama when we’ve had had one million birds migrate in one day,” said Luke. “The sky gets blackened with birds.”

And what exactly keeps these powerful birds away from the water? The absence of thermals to keep them aloft. Instead of wasting energy on flapping, most raptors spend their time simply gliding from one thermal to the next. Flying distances of up to 7,000 miles, which the Swainson’s Hawk accomplishes every year, they need to be as efficient as possible. But above the massive heat sink that is the ocean, thermals don’t usually form.

Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). Photo: Luke Tiller.

In fact, Luke points out, seabirds can be quite dangerous for a raptor that ventures too far from shore. To cross between North Africa and Spain, raptors will get as high as they can above land and then coast over the Straight of Gibraltar. But sometimes they don’t make it.

“They are a fish out of water on the ocean. Gulls will force them out of the air and down to the water and drown them and eat them. And gulls don’t have talons like raptors, so they just rip them apart. It’s kind of gross.”

Some raptors, like Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys, are more adapted to life on the water, and consequently are built for lots of flapping, rather than gliding.

Apart from these natural chokepoints, raptors congregate in other places as well. The Amur Falcon, Luke says, migrate from Siberia and Korea to South Africa along the Doyang river. Before making the 3,000 mile journey over the Arabian Sea, they stop at a hydroelectric dam in Nagaland, a northeastern state in India, hundreds of thousands of birds at a time. Luke was lucky enough to guide the first commercial tour to see this gathering.

Adult female (bottom left) and male (top right) Amur Falcons (Falco amurensis). Photo: Richard Lowe.

The tour was motivated by a remarkable story: with fishing stock decimated by the dam, the local people turned to the Amur Falcons as a food source, repurposing fishing nets to catch the birds. During the huge migration event, they were caught by the thousands, and within a couple years the decline in population was noticed at their wintering grounds. But when Bano Haralu, a local journalist and conservationist, uncovered the source of the population decline, multiple organizations stepped in to protect the birds. They explained the problem to the villagers subsisting on the falcons, who then decided to stop hunting the birds and invest in tourism instead.

As a keystone species, the Amur Falcons’ story is not just about the birds, it’s about the ecosystems that depend on them. With the help of the government, forest service, NGOs and local communities, zero Amur Falcons are captured or killed in northeast India now – a resounding success for the environment.

Luke is fond of many environmental success stories with raptors, citing it as another reason to enjoy hawk watching. Bald Eagles, for example, were down to 500 breeding pairs in the 1960s. But after reducing the use of DDT, their numbers have soared past ten thousand pairs. Reduction of pesticides, along with a captive-bred release program also allowed Peregrine Falcons to recover.

“When you are talking about the environment many stories are depressing. I think it is important to share stories of success, especially when the problems are usually manmade,” said Luke.

Though he’s reluctant to pick a favorite – “Favorite birds are whatever you can think of when you get asked that question, and they change often,” – Luke said his current favorite is the Harpy Eagle.

Immature Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja). Photo: Peter Boesman.

The national bird of Panama, the Harpy Eagle is endemic to South and Central America, living in pristine forest habitat. Because of this, they can be somewhat hard to find. Luke puts a sighting between uncommon and rare. But, if you know the location of a Harpy nest, chances are good, as their chicks stay around for up to a year. Luke had the great fortune to travel to a Harpy nest in Panama a couple years ago.

“We had an hour drive, a two hour boat ride, about an hour and a half hike through the jungle where it was 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity. But it was all worth it when we finally got to the nest. Here was this baby Harpy and the mother sitting together. It was pretty amazing,” said Luke. “That’s why I like hawk watching and migration. You go to interesting places and you see this incredible spectacle.”

Luke Tiller with a tour group in Panama.

If you’d like to learn more about hawk migration in the U.S. check out the Hawk Migration Association of North America. You can also find hawk watch site near you on Hawk Count, which maintains a database of bird counts at over 300 sites across North America.