History - Detroit River Hawk Watch

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The Lake Erie Metropark (LEMP) Hawk Watch was established in 1983 under the leadership of Tim Smart. Smart had counted hawks for several seasons at Holiday Beach Conservation Area in Malden Center, Ontario, Canada. He knew that birds moving past Holiday Beach had to cross into Michigan near the Detroit region. Smart scouted the area, trying to find the best and most consistent concentration of hawks. His efforts were soon rewarded with two sites, the LEMP Boat Launch (the main site) and Pointe Mouillee State Game Area Headquarters parking lot (a secondary site), located just south of the Metropark. Both are located about 20 miles south of Detroit in Wayne County, and just eight miles (as the hawk flies) across the Detroit River from Holiday Beach Migration Observatory.

Smart and a handful of dedicated volunteers began counting, mainly on weekends. Even with this limited amount of coverage, Smart knew he had stumbled onto something big. This was fully realized during the fall of 1990 when the counters logged in their first full season of coverage, producing an astounding 106,235 raptors.

Smart served as coordinator of the watch for 16 years. His efforts established the Lake Erie Metropark Hawk Watch as one of the premier fall hawk sites in North America, with some of the most spectacular flights of broad-winged hawks and vultures ever recorded. In 1998, Lake Erie Metropark Hawk Watch became Southeastern Michigan Raptor Research (SMRR) and was granted nonprofit status. Smart retired soon afterwards, handing the leadership of SMRR to veteran counter Jeff Schultz.

In April of 2001, Schultz stepped down from the Presidency and became a member-at-large. Paul Cypher, an interpreter at Lake Erie Metropark, became president. The 2001 season marked a new chapter in SMRR's efforts to monitor the hawk migration over southeast Michigan. DTE Energy demonstrated its continued environmental support by generously providing SMRR a stipend to fund a full-time hawk counter. During these years, SMRR was fortunate enough to hire two of the best counters in the business: Craig Fosdick and Calvin Brennan.

The 2007 count season saw the addition of two new co-sponsors. The International Wildlife Refuge Alliance (IWRA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USWFS) contributed funding for a counter. In addition, the USFWS granted funding to help facilitate data entry from all SMRR seasons into HawkCount - a national database provided by the Hawk Migration Association of North America that houses all data from this count. Read more about it at Count Data.

The 2008, SMRR turned over the count to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and its friends' group, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance. IWRA became a sponsor of Hawk Fest, an annual celebration organized by Lake Erie Metropark.

Seth Cutright was contracted to count in 2009 from funding provided by USFWS. Formal data analysis and compilation of the historical data was conducted by Drew Panko and Trudy Battaly and funding provided by a grant from USFWS. The final product was completed in 2010 and is available here.

In January 2010, the Detroit River Hawk Watch Advisory Committee (DRHWAC) was formed and serves to:
  • Advise USFWS on Detroit River Hawk Watch (e.g., count protocol, data management, reports, publications, website and brochure content);
  • Actively pursue potential research and monitoring projects;
  • Work collaboratively with the USFWS, IWRA, and staff of Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority to undertake outreach, programming, and interpretation;
  • Review/assist in preparing grants (e.g., Challenge Cost Share Grants from USFWS, foundation grants, Friends Group Grants, etc.) with USFWS and IWRA to support an annual counter, publication costs, and other elements of Detroit River Hawk Watch; and
  • Recommend contractor/volunteers on an annual basis for count or specific data analysis projects.

Rob Payne was contracted for the 2010 count season. An outreach program was piloted with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers. The current website was constructed and DRHW engaged in social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Advisory Committee wrote a formalized protocol in time for the 2011 season. The monitoring protocol ensures consistent and reliable data collection emphasizing standardized techniques accepted by the Hawk Migration Association of North America. The Detroit River Hawk Watch takes very seriously the commitment to objectively sample the migration to contribute to regional and continental population indices.

During 2011, seminar talks were hosted by LEMP and DRHW at the Marshlands Museum drawing full crowds. That year Jonathan Stein began his first season and he has returned for five consecutive years. This has added important continuity and experience that has the maintained the tradition and scientific integrity of the count.

In 2016 the Detroit River Hawk Watch said farewell to Jonathan, who moved on to better pastures, and welcomed Dustin Brewer as its newest paid counter. With a strong supporting staff Dustin settled into the challenges of a season that saw slight declines in hawk numbers across the entire North American Hawk Watch community.
The story of the Detroit River Hawk Watch continues in this 2017 season. There are few things that are as predictable as the arrival of those first few kettles of broad-winged hawks during the second week in September. The Detroit River Hawk Watch seeks to match that predictability in its systematic coverage of the migration. Every year since 1983, counters have patiently monitored the skies at the lower Detroit River and produced daily reports. Today you will find these reports uploaded without a break each evening from September 1st through November 30th. For those visiting the watch site, one official counter and up to two assistants will be there logging the data for storage in Hawk Count and analysis.

The primary emphasis of the Detroit River Hawk Watch is on the systematic sampling of the migration for use in population indices (trend analysis). However, the program is also a flagship demonstrating the multiple benefits of long-standing, high quality citizen science programs. In a time when natural phenomena are increasingly distant in our lives, these data made available each night is a meaningful connection with the Natural World to the many on-line viewers of the data whose lives do not afford them time to spend there. In this way, the count data and the hawk watch team are the storytellers of this timeless phenomenon. DRHW is merely the keeper of many volumes of the unbiased, raw migration data, allowing anyone willing to listen the freedom to connect in their own way with a phenomenon that is on a rhythm as old as the Great Lakes. DRHW values both the scientific integrity of the data as well as emotive properties of the migration, understanding that both are needed. It is these two faces of DRHW that work together to meet our primary goal of building a strong conservation community.
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