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Raptor migration studies have been conducted in the Middle Keys for nearly a quarter century, and a number of individuals, projects and organizations have played an important role in furthering the knowledge of birds using the Florida Keys during their migrations. Historically, avian migration research in the Florida Keys has focused on raptors.

Boot & Grassy Key Studies

The Middle Keys were first studied starting 1989, when single-day raptor migration counts were organized in Boot Key during October. Wayne Hoffman – ornithologist, then with National Audubon Society – coordinated the event over several years at the private key (currently closed to the public) about 7.2 km (4.5 miles) southeast of the FKH monitoring site. The single-day count of 1,820 migratory birds of prey in 1991 and 1,003 birds the following year brought the Middle Keys to broad attention.

Following that study, full-season censuses at Grassy Key (adjacent to Little Crawl Key, the location of Curry Hammock State Park and FKH) and roost surveys at Boot Key were conducted during 1996 and 1997 by Cindy Brashear, graduate student at Florida International University, and Philip Stoddard. Their study (2001) demonstrated that the Florida Keys were a significant migratory hotspot for 8 raptor species, whose season totals were equal or higher than the respective totals at recognized migrations sites elsewhere in North America. Capturing most attention, their study revealed that more Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) were observed during a season at the Middle Keys than had previously been counted at any other raptor monitoring site in the continent.

A photo from October 1991, during National Audubon’s Boot Key hawk count. Wayne Hoffman is in the blue shirt,  R.J. Sawicki is the watcher on the right. Florida Keys Hawkwatch Archives. This was a fantastic 129 Peregrine Falcon day, not to mention the 993 Sharp-shinned Hawks!

The Florida Keys Raptor Migration Project

Starting the fall of 1999, HawkWatch International carried out full-season counts of migratory birds of prey at Curry Hammock State Park. This count site was designated to document long-term trends in Peregrine Falcon populations as well as population trends for the 7 other common diurnal raptor species observed in the Florida Keys (Lott 2006). These systematic counts were organized and coordinated by Casey Lott for HawkWatch International from 1999 to 2008, resulting in the first 10-year raptor migration dataset for the state of Florida, establishing the southernmost long-term monitoring site for birds of prey in the U.S. Several significant findings were championed at this site, primarily regarding the assessment of Peregrine Falcon population trends along the Florida Keys flyway.

The Peregrine Falcon experienced dramatic declines in North America during the period following World War II as a result of overt use of organochlorine pesticides throughout the continent. It was listed as an endangered species in the 1970 Federal Register. As a result of a continent-wide effort, the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon became one of the greatest conservation stories in U.S. history. The species was removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants due to recovery in 1999. Ten years later, the species was removed from Florida’s list of imperiled species. As required by the Endangered Species Act, a plan was developed to monitor Peregrine Falcons 5 times at 3-year intervals beginning 2003 and ending in 2015.

Sites such as the monitoring station at Curry Hammock have been and will continue to provide critical data to the ongoing Peregrine Falcon population assessment. Along with a raptor monitoring site in the Guana Reserve, near Jacksonville, the Florida Keys Hawkwatch remains one of only 2 sites in the entire peninsula that provides seasonal censuses of migrating raptors.

The 10-year period under HawkWatch International helped establish the Florida Keys Hawkwatch as the highest Peregrine Falcon season in the U. S., (2858 in 2003) and the highest daily Peregrine count in the world, with 638 birds on October 11, 2008. Additionally, from 1998 to 2003, the organization conducted a banding station within the same state park, hoping to shed light on the origins and destinations of the raptors migrating through the Keys. In parallel, an array of environmental education programs were made available to the Keys community from 1999 to 2004. All these components formed part of what was known as the Florida Keys Raptor Migration Project. HawkWatch International ceased involvement with the monitoring of raptors in the Keys at the close of the 2008 fall season.

Many other individuals should be thanked for laying down the foundation for this important monitoring site, primarily Casey A. Lott, who dedicated 10 years to the Florida Keys Raptor Migration Project. For a more complete list of past acknowledgements, please refer to the following publication: Lott, C. A. 2006. Systematic monitoring of peregrine falcons and seven other diurnal migrant raptor species in the Florida Keys. Final report. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tallahassee, Florida, USA.

A New Coalition Going Forward

The hawkwatch fell into a dormant state following 2008, as previous organizing bodies redirected their efforts and funding elsewhere. Unfortunately, no count was conducted in 2009. Under the danger of falling in too great a gap that might have rendered the prior ten-year period ineffective, an effort was commenced by the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), with the assistance of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, to reestablish the Florida Keys Hawkwatch as an all-volunteer site starting 2010.

To ensure that no future fall migration season goes unmonitored at the Curry Hammock site, the project has been reorganized and redefined as a “locally-owned” operation committed to the long-term sustainability of a raptor migration site, rebranded as the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, under the auspices of Tropical Audubon Society and Florida Keys Audubon Society. A coalition of regional and national organizations has rallied in support of the project, which has been organized by Rafael Gálvez since 2011.

For a list of current partners and sponsors of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, visit our SPONSORS page.

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