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FAQs

What is a hawkwatch?
 A hawkwatch is a systematic and organized effort to collect standardized migration count data about diurnal raptors. Records include species identities (including color morph, sex and age classes when possible), numbers quantities, and behaviors of seasonal migrant hawks; data on weather and observation conditions; and a measure of sampling effort that includes number of observers and hours of observation. Observations at a hawkwatch are conducted on a regularly repeated basis (daily or nearly daily) from a single monitoring site.
Why start a hawkwatch?
Observers count raptors at established hawkwatches for recreational, educational, monitoring, and scientific purposes. The Hawk Migration Association of North America encourages new and existing hawkwatches as a way to educate people about the importance of raptors and to collect scientifically valid data. These long-term data sets (e.g. >10 years) can be analyzed to determine population trends and compared with data from other monitoring sites to monitor fluctuations in the overall and regional populations of North American raptors. There is much yet to learn about migrating raptors, especially in areas of the country where few sites are located including the Adirondacks, southern states, Great Plains, Canada and the West Coast. 
How do I start a hawkwatch?
Most hawkwatches start in locations and seasons (e.g. Spring and Fall) where people already know raptors aggregate during migration, such as coastlines and mountain ridges. To find a good place to observe the passage of migrant raptors on a regular basis, it may be necessary to try multiple sites over the course of one or several field seasons. The best starting point is to visit several existing hawkwatches and talk with the observers about their experiences and ideas. Most founders of new hawkwatches have learned the procedures and strategies of running a hawkwatch through their association with an established hawkwatch. A site that may have excellent coverage in one season may not serve well to cover the other field season, and most hawkwatches only operate in one season of the year. The staff, board and advisers of HMANA are willing to help with advice and information. 
What are the rules and requirements for operating a hawkwatch?
 There are no formally stated or enforced rules and there is no required certification or application procedure for starting an informal hawkwatch, and most hawkwatches operate independently. If you wish your observations to be useful as scientific data, you will need to adopt a formal standard protocol for the hawkwatch. A sample protocol and data collection instructions are available from HMANA and in the above cited book. The general protocol can be customized for use at a specifc site. Generally, the value of your observations will be enhanced if observations are systematic. Repeating of your counts at the same location annually and ensuring consistency in your counting methodology is essential.  
How do I find other participants?
 Most hawk counters are volunteers who live within 50 miles of the count site. Most counters are also members of other local birding organizations. You can send a note to the BIRDHAWK listserve (http://lists.hmana.org/sympa/info/birdhawk) indicating your interest in contacting other hawkwatchers in your area. Ideally, your hawkwatch will have a small pool of qualified observers that can rotate in field data collecting duties. 
Why formalize my hawkwatch?
 Lots of people conduct their hawkwatches informally for fun and the personal enjoyment of the birds. This simplifies the burden of recordkeeping, reporting and insuring systematic coverage of your watch. For your observations to be directly useful as scientific data, they must be collected and reported in a standardized format, allowing them to be compared with other hawkwatches. HMANA scientists are only able to analyze individual site data collected following standardized methods. The more complete, consistent, accurate and reliably reported your observations are, the more useful they are as part of the ongoing Raptor Population Index project and other analyses for which the data are used.  
What do I do with the data?
Records should be submitted electronically to HMANA (http://www.hawkcount.org) for safe archiving and to make them available for population monitoring and for other users. If a data contributor wishes to safely archive, but not make data publicly available, such option exists. Data archived in hawkcount.org is subject to data submission and use policies. Your hourly observations along with data about weather, time, other species present and number of observers can be re-sent from HawkCount to local listserves, fellow observers or other recipients. Anyone can register online to create a hawkcount.org site profile and registration. 
What happens to the data?
 Once the data is submitted to the HawkCount.org database, it becomes part of the largest repository of raptor migration counts collected over in North America. As stated above, you can choose to restrict access to your data or share it freely or on a limited basis with others. You retain at all times ownership of the data. Most sites, however, choose to distribute the data freely. HawkCount.org is connected to even larger observational record repositories such as Cornell University’s Avian Knowledge Network and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and researchers and decision makers from all over the world can have access to it for a variety of uses, primarily research and education. The primary use of the migration count data is calculation of population trends of hawks, through the Raptor Population Index Project which makes periodic analyses of status of raptors across the continent.  
How regularly must I count?
The more frequently (days per week) and the more regularly (same hour period each day) you count, the more useful your data will be. If daily coverage cannot be ensured, you will want to cover at least 75% of the days of the period of migration during which 95% of your target species pass through your locality. Because of the differential timing of migration of species, if you have multiple targets, the duration of your field season may well extend for more than 60-70 days per season. For data to be truly valuable, you need to repeat the monitoring each year using the same protocol. Depending on the locality, most raptors migrate between the hours of 8 AM and 4 PM in both migrations seasons, Spring and Fall. The goal of consistent monitoring is not to count highest possible number of migrants on the best migration days, but rather to count with following a standard methodology that minimizes variation due to location, method for recording migrants, and other observer biases. For scientific purposes, counting on days with few migrant raptors is as important as counting on days with many raptors. It may be difficult to persuade volunteers to participate in counts in localities and dates when conditions for flight are adverse for good migration counts, but efforts must be made to ensure systematic coverage. 
Where should I locate my hawkwatch monitoring site?
Locate your monitoring site in a place where you are safe, able to repeat your counts annually, get the best sample possible of the flight throughout the region and under different weather conditions, and have legally permitted access. You need to retain an unobstructed view of the flight path of raptors over the years. Your site should offer some protection from bad weather, particularly lightning. Most sites overlook a natural feature such as a ridgeline, pass, shoreline, isthmus or peninsula which serve to concentrate the stream of migrants. Test your possible location by spending a few hours observing during prime migration conditions in the early stages of establishing your hawkwatch. 
How do I find and train volunteers?
Utilize HMANA’s Jobs & Opportunities page on this website.  Post a message seeking volunteers there, and also on BIRDHAWK. Publicize your monitoring site and intentions among local media and birding community. Retired and young people, people who work late shifts or few times a week, students and the unemployed all make good prospects. You will need to observe and assess the reliability and quality of volunteers carefully. Many hawkwatches run on a team of finely trained volunteers with excellent skills, but there have also been instances where eager but untrained volunteers proved to be ineffective or unreliable observers. The best recruiting method is your own site. Making your site a well-known, welcoming, friendly location should bring in a pool of regulars who may make a more serious commitment to the various tasks involved in the count. It is important to encourage an atmosphere of inquiry, learning and sharing of identification tips at all times at a site where more senior hawkwatchers can operate as mentors for new ones. Successful, enduring sites place a high value on public education and outreach and foster an exchange of information about the activities and objectives of the site. Many sites keep a register or record of visitors who can be contacted as potential future participants, contributors or supporters of the site. Beginners start their “ascent” in a ladder of qualifications that ends with them being promoted to main counter. Refining the skill of a hawkwatchers may take a few field seasons of experience. A workshops at the beginning of the field season with the official counting team to review data collection, identification, data recording instructions, work shifts and calendars, troubleshooting and anticipating problems, etc., help increase the quality of work. Another way to train observers is to send them to spend time at a well-established count with veteran observers.  
How important is identification expertise?
Observers must identify migrant raptors accurately at the species level. A conservative target goal is to positively identify 90% of the migrants. Some hawkwatches also age and sex birds and keep track of color morphs, although these variables are not currently being used in the RPI analysis, they provide a great deal of additional information. The monitoring site should always be staffed by at least one qualified observer possessing extensive experience and skill identifying hawks in flight. Most sites have two observers on duty at all times, and the number of official observers covering the monitoring site is an important element of consistency in operating a hawkwatch. 
How do you define 'qualified observer'?
Qualified observers have a demonstrated ability to identify all species of raptorpassing the monitoring site. The observer should be familiar with the plumages, seasonal timing and behavior of migrants and demonstrate an ability to accurately record and report data and maintain the quality of the data recorded on site. He or she should be respected by fellow birders as an honest and reliable observer who makes few uncorrected mistakes in identification. He or she should have natural or fully-corrected vision. 
Is the official counter also listed as 'qualified observer'?
Qualified observers are primarily “qualified” by their ability to make careful and confident distinctions to the necessary level of detail required by the local count. In some cases, additional observers, apprentices, or other monitoring site participants may be delegated other tasks such as tabulating totals, recording environmental data, entering data in Hawkcount.org or serving a public greeting and education function at the website while in training as main observers. Each site needs at least one person who is in charge as a director, chair, site leader, or president. This person may also be a qualified observer or official counter. 
Does the official counter have to be on site throughout the day?
 The official counter must fulfill the requirements of the monitoring site protocol. The protocol may specify the conditions under which the count is not conducted such as bad weather, clearly unfavorable winds, or other conditions; or the presence of other qualified or substitute qualified observer counters at the site. 
Does cloud cover include haze?
Official records of each day should record all factors potentially influencing the migration or the observability of the migration.
What's the best way to get weather information?
 This should be specified in the local site protocol. If the site is very close to an official meteorological recording station, these data may be used, but be aware that migration can be profoundly influenced by very localized conditions so variables such as wind direction and velocity and precipitation should be recorded at the site with accurate recording instruments.
How do you manage reports from sites with multiple locations?
Each site viewing location must be considered separately in order for the data to be used in the Raptor Population Index analysis. If more than one monitoring site is used at a hawkwatch, all sites should ideally be staffed simultaneously to obtain complete daily and hourly records from all locations. For many types of analysis it is critical that the records of each site are independent and ensure that migrants are not double counted. Data from multiple locations should not be aggregated in a single report so that it could be interpreted as coming from a single location, but reported as separate monitoring sites. 
How do you evaluate height of flights?
Without instruments such as rangefinders, vertical beam radars, thermal imagers, or instruments such as “ornithodoliths”, these records are subjective, and the codes and categories recommended by HMANA only serve the purpose of defining coarse categories. Studies intended to accurately determine height of flight should use instrumental methods. 
Are the categories under height of flight appropriate?
The categories for flight height are not intended to replace formal studies using instruments. When counts are made from advantage points such as ridgetops, towers, and tall buildings, it is frequent to record migrants below the height of the observation point. The standard categories can be applied in such cases by applying a negative sign, e.g. -1, -2, etc.
How do you estimate visibility?
Visibility is the furthest point that can be clearly observed from the monitoring site. The distance to the point can be established through the use of topographic maps. 
How do you evaluate a professional, volunteer, or official counter?
Evaluating the performance of an observer is a complex task and it involves the precision and skill to identify migrants, the accuracy and detail of the records taken, and the adequate reporting of the data. Sites should establish the parameters that define a good observer and enforce the use of their data collection protocol at all times.