Written by Natalie Cypher
All photos by Jennie Braatz
As a naturalist, educator, and all-around wildlife enthusiast, I feel beyond fortunate regularly that my work allows me to combine several passions – my love of nature, with teaching and sharing. I have worked for many years in Interpretation and Environmental Education in the metro-Detroit area. Currently, I work as an Educator for the Michigan DNR Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC) in Detroit. The OAC opened in July 2015 and is located near the heart of downtown Detroit. One of our many goals as a natural resource education institution in an urban area is introducing new audiences to the outdoors— perhaps even introducing a new favorite hobby. While I certainly enjoy teaching camping, fishing, nature observation, and birding to new audiences. What is my favorite hobby to introduce? Hawk Watching! Lucky for me, I live and work in the perfect location – on the Detroit River and the site of the Detroit River Hawkwatch (DRHW). The U.S. Fish manages DRHW, and Wildlife Service is governed by the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Alliance. The actual count site is located at Lake Erie Metropark in Brownstown, MI, where the Detroit River meets the western edge of Lake Erie. Hawks migrating south from their northern breeding grounds may follow one of several routes around the Great Lakes, and one of those routes funnels them right over the boat launch at Lake Erie Metropark. You can learn more about migration at DRHW.
I’ve visited the count site for several years and “oohed” and “ahhed” at the sights of the thousands of kettling Broad-winged Hawks in September and the coveted Golden Eagles in November. I was even fortunate enough to be an official counter in the fall of 2016 (best job ever!). While counting hawks was a spectacular job, teaching about hawks is advantageous. When I learned about the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) Junior Hawkwatcher program that was started at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, I thought, “Okay, we need that here, and I want to do it!” It was a no-brainer.
The Outdoor Adventure Center supports several forms of raptor education through our school programming and public programming. Some of our favorite public education programs to host are live Bird of Prey programs – who doesn’t love looking into the round, black eyes of a Barred Owl or feel the wind from the wing-flapping of a Bald Eagle? These programs are fascinating and entertaining. They draw large crowds, folks ask many questions, and they are a fantastic opportunity to light a spark in learners of all ages and inspire a conservation ethic for our birds of prey. But I feel that one of our most impactful programs was our version of the Junior Hawkwatcher program. Thanks to DRHW’s rockstar volunteer and photographer Jerry Jourdan, we have a Junior Hawkwatcher activity booklet specific to DRHW. The Junior Hawkwatcher program drew a dedicated crowd – kids who love birds and especially hawks. A kid who could tell me all about Peregrine Falcons – before attending the program. A kid who drew the migrant Turkey Vultures in flight over the “stacks” – the Trenton DTE Power Plant smokestacks, one of the important landmarks within the count site – in his nature journal that he brought with him.
I was on cloud nine. These kids were engaged. After an initial introductory indoor program at the OAC, part 2 of our Junior Hawkwatcher program convened at the DRHW site. Our dedicated participants were awarded a Certificate of Completion for the program. It was a beautiful mid-October day, and our migrant Turkey Vultures put on an excellent show for special young guests. This I was grateful for because all hawk watchers know that the opportunity to marvel at big, low altitude kettling birds is not a given; it often must be earned with hours spent staring at an empty sky. You know what I mean. But that day, the stars aligned. As a perfect bonus to the program, hawk bander and raptor rehabilitator extraordinaire Dave Hogan managed to lure in and band a juvenile female Cooper’s Hawk that morning, which I could not pass up the opportunity to share. This particularly ornery Cooper’s Hawk was not so excited about the whole deal, but what she didn’t know is that she was a fantastic ambassador for her species and provided an opportunity that our participants will never forget (and I left puncture-wound-free – otherwise it would have been memorable for the wrong reason!). After a brief talk about Cooper’s Hawks and their migration, we snapped some photos for memories and released her on her way!
Hawkwatching may not be for everyone – it does require a strong interest, patience, and dedication. But these kids had it, and I was so happy to work with them and their families. We do hope to continue our partnership with Detroit River Hawkwatch and HMANA for this valuable program. Valuable for the partners involved, valid for the kids and families, and beneficial for the hawks. A win, win, win. This program is in the books as one of my most rewarding, and I can’t wait to do it again.
HMANA customizes Junior Hawkwatcher activity brochures and certificates of completion for your hawk watch site or group at no cost to you! Contact Jane Brown for more information.