Florida Keys News
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
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Drama aloft, below marks raptor migration

Barely visible inside a wooden isolation cage, the red-shouldered hawk's port-side eye warily regarded the humans who became visible when a protective towel was gently lifted away from the wire mesh door.

Weary-winged, possibly storm-tossed, the bird turned its head sideways to get a better view, then slunk back into welcome darkness.

The hawk is one of a dozen being nursed back to sky-worthiness at the Key West Wildlife Center on White Street, their numbers steadily edging upward during the annual southward migration of raptors.

This hawk was brought in Sunday after a woman on Johnson Street observed it on her lawn furniture, amazed when the bird allowed her to not only approach but collect it for rescue.

"We don't have hardly any birds of prey in Key West that are permanent residents," said Peggy Coontz, the center's animal care director. There are some, but not that many. Pretty much all of these guys that are coming in are migrating."

Red-shoulders, broad-wings, turkey vultures, Coopers and even a tiny kestrel are among 32 birds of prey that have passed through the center's doors since Oct. 1. Three of the 32 had injuries or maladies so severe that they were not able to pull through.

In most cases, however, tender loving care, rest, exercise and most importantly good quality food have made the difference.

"It's important," executive director Tom Sweets said of the raptor rescues. "Most of these are first-year hawks; it's their first migration. If we can help the first-year babies get it together for their migration, that's an important thing. That first year is the most hazardous and it's important that we help them get through it for the health of the entire population."

In the Keys and throughout the nation at this time of year volunteers and staff members of various organizations keep count of the raptors they see migrating.

Rafael Galvez, coordinator for Florida Keys Hawkwatch, completed the annual local count Tuesday. Those numbers are still being tabulated. But the last official count for this year's season was 27,685 birds of prey during the migration period, which began in October.

This year Hurricane Sandy and non-associated east and south-moving fronts both aided and hindered birds, according to his estimations.

"We had a very nice cooler northern front, and there was an influx of over 5,714 turkey vultures," Galvez said. "And every last one of them was going toward the southwest. There was no dilly-dallying, there were no birds lingering. There were 1,398 broadwings. The winds were strong."

The migration patterns, Galvez said, have a mystery to them. Some of the information on where birds come from, where they go and how they do so can be gleaned from research projects using transmitters. But the data is sparse compared with the numbers of individual birds in the air during migration.

What is assumed, Galvez said, is that birds overflying the Keys are following patterns dating back to the time when the Keys were more of a single landmass.

Following those same patterns, he noted, birds can get in trouble today.

"There was a time when Key West was one huge massive hammock with all these beautiful hardwood trees and a beautiful canopy," Galvez explained. "The broadwings so much liked and depended on it. Those are mostly gone. So there was a time when Key West would have been able to provide shelter and food for a much larger population, even if all it was had been a stopover habitat."

But now there is less land, less prey, less shelter.

And with wind currents being what they are, birds, especially yearlings, can easily be blown off course.

"If the winds are just so, it pushes the birds far out over the water," Galvez said. "Winds brought down many turkey vultures. Maybe some birds got caught on the wrong side of the storm, got into a place they cannot leave from."

The weather patterns can change everything. Sources of food -- even small songbirds on their own southward trek -- are blown off course and what little food there is becomes the subject of fierce competition.

And so some of the birds alighting in Key West are indeed that weary, or dehydrated, or nearly starved.

The details are locked behind the keen eyes of the raptors in various states of preparation for release from the center on White Street.

Of all the raptors brought there this season, only three did not survive. At least 17 have been released back to the wild, returning on their journey, hopefully, the rehabilitators say, to begin the cycle again next year.

And what of the moment when a hawk is released back to the sky?

"I am not sure you can describe it," said Koontz. "It doesn't matter if it's your first time or a thousand times, it gives you goose bumps. When they go, I hope they just keep on going and think their stay here was just a blip they will never have to relive."

jdesantis@keysnews.com

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