hawk watch project
Hawkwatch programs are key components of raptor research and conservation; monitoring raptor populations, educating the public, and giving much needed economic opportunities to local biologists. Across the globe there are 388 watch sites, but only two in Mesoamerica, and none along the northern Caribbean coastline. To better understand raptors migrating through Belize and fill that gap in Mesoamerica, the Belize Raptor Research Institute (BRRI), now the Belize Bird Conservancy, initiated a community-based Raptor Watch Program in 2013 in Punta Gorda, southern Belize. The target species is the enigmatic Hook-billed Kite, a potential indicator species of climate change. This annual fall migration count is conducted daily by local biologists assisted by the local community and international students. The data obtained will assist in the conservation of raptors from the Neotropical and temperate zones by informing the scientific community and management agencies of changes in raptor populations.
Hawk watching has been around for hundreds of years and so has the persecution of raptors (Bildstein 2006). Hawk watch sites are global, with 388 watch sites worldwide, and are critical programs for raptor conservation (Zalles and Bildstein 2000). Raptors are important environmental indicators, but can be logistically difficult and expensive to study (Whitacre 2012). Each year millions of raptors undertake a long distance migration including intercontinental movements making multinational conservation key to their survivorship. The passage of hundreds and sometimes thousands of individual raptors of multiple species involves large portions of populations and occasionally entire populations congregating in a single location. This makes them vulnerable to human persecution or other threats. These bottlenecks or areas of high densities of migrating raptors, afford a unique opportunity to monitor raptor populations, including population fluctuations, abundance, age structure and change in seasonality due to climate change or other threats. This also is a productive way of educating the general public and community, while creating a long-term community-based research and conservation project. Currently, in Belize, few opportunities exist for locals to learn about or become involved with raptor conservation. By involving Belizeans and giving them opportunities to learn about and protect raptors, raptor conservation can succeed. Without community-based and citizen science conservation projects like this, conservation efforts will likely fail. This project gives locals opportunities to participate in scientific research and monitor local raptor populations, ultimately protecting raptors from persecution, which is the primary threat to raptors in Belize as most of Belize’s habitats are intact.
Raptor migration through Mesoamerica is poorly studied and unknown outside of Costa Rica and Panama (Bildstein 2006). In the Neotropical region nearly 75% of migratory raptor populations are threatened, which make raptor watches critical in monitoring raptor populations and assisting in conservation action plans (Zalles and Blidstein 2000). With regional human population growth rates estimated at over 1% annually, local communities will continue to grow exponentially creating more threats to more species.
This project will shed light on the species and number of individuals passing through Belize during fall (September through November) migration. The coast and topography of the region creates a natural funnel causing the birds to congregate over the Punta Gorda area of southern Belize in the Toledo District. Spotty anecdotal information has been obtained by us and other individuals, such as H. Lee Jones, author of “Birds of Belize,” on the raptor migration through Belize, but scientific quantitative data and systematic monitoring is lacking in Belize and through most of Central America. Other annual watch sites in the region of Mexico and Central America include Vera Cruz, Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala, therefore information between these sites and along the Caribbean coast between Costa Rica and Mexico is lacking. Many migrating raptors, such as Swallow-tailed Kites, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Ospreys, migrate to Central America via island hopping through the Caribbean islands or following the coastline and often make first contact with Mesoamerica through the Yucatán Peninsula by following the Belize coastline. As a result large flocks of Broad-winged Hawks, Swallow-tailed Kites, Mississippi Kites, and Hook-billed Kites have been observed in Punta Gorda, Belize. We have scouted most of Belize for potential raptor watch sites and, to the best of our knowledge, the most productive and important site is in Punta Gorda due to the concentration of raptors from the coastline. Therefore we have chosen it for this long-term Raptor Watch Program.
Species that were once thought to be sedentary, such as the Hook-billed Kite, have been observed migrating through Belize in large numbers, suggesting they may be a migratory species in the region (Jones 2002, Jones and Komar 2008). In 2001, over the course of a few days, H. Lee Jones observed 1,030 individuals migrating southbound through Punta Gorda in Belize during October and November (Jones 2002). Jones estimated that at least 5,000 Hook-billed Kites migrate through southern Belize during fall migration (Jones 2002), but there has not been any systematic monitoring to determine how many kites actually pass through. Where they are coming from and where they are going remains a mystery. This raptor species is a key indicator species for climate change, due to its specialized diet of terrestrial snails, its breeding season taking place in the wet season, which is presumed to be due to the abundance of snails during wetter months, and its movements and migration (Whitacre 2012). As climate change continues to impact biodiversity, a better understanding of Hook-billed Kites can result in a better understanding of raptor populations and managing for these changes into the future. Therefore, the Hook-billed Kite is our target species for this Raptor Watch.
This will be a long-term community-based project to be conducted annually. We have partnered with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), an influential non-profit organizations in Belize, on this project, as well as Ya'axche Conservation Trust. This data will contribute to the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s efforts. Two Belizean biologists coordinate and compile the count, while hundreds of raptor watch volunteers, locally and globally, participate in this research and conservation effort by counting raptors. The hiring of Belizean biologists will build local capacity and increase raptor research and conservation in Belize. It will give community members an opportunity to observe and count raptors, while also learning about them.
Project objectives include:
- Better understand and quantify the raptor migration through Belize.
- Learn if species that were thought to be sedentary are truly migratory (e.g. Hook-billed Kite) and quantify their migration.
- Understand the seasonality of little known migratory species.
- Fill a void of knowledge in raptor migration in Mesoamerica.
- Establish a long-term Raptor Watch.
- Participate in multinational conservation by monitoring migratory raptors that pass through multiple countries and two continents.
- Raise research and conservation awareness of raptors and migratory birds to the region to ultimately help protect both migratory and resident raptor populations.
- Build local capacity in conservation through this community based project.
- Train future biologists and conservationists in research and conservation.
- Build a community bird observation platform to benefit ecotourism and education of biodiversity in the region.
Questions to be answered:
- What species annually migrate through Belize and what is their abundance?
- What are the age structure, morph structure and sex ratio of each species?
- When is peak migration for each species and is there any variation between years?
- How many Hook-billed Kites pass through Belize?
- Is the Hook-billed Kite migration annual or is their variation from year to year?
- Are there any trends in seasonality of migration?