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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
http://www.birdseyebirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Luke-in-Israel.jpg13332000amandahttp://www.birdseyebirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/logo-uppercase.jpgamanda2019-10-17 02:15:302019-10-23 16:39:17Luke Tiller has his eye on raptors