Scanning the sky for hawks a fall rite

Birds: Baltimore Bird Club members say Kevin Graff's keen eyesight gives him great ability to count birds in flight. He is one of between 15 and 30 people who record data on hawk migration in Maryland.

October 20, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

He cannot hear their calls, but Kevin Graff watches hawks cross the sky, well, like a hawk.

From his back yard in Northeast Baltimore, Graff, 21, patiently watches the sky, counting and cataloging the thousands that fly by during the fall migration, which runs from mid-August to mid-December.

From Canada and the northeastern United States, hawks head southwest as far as Latin America, says Graff, who has 90 percent hearing loss. What matters most, he says, are his eyes, which enable him to fulfill his passion.

"Some people have trouble seeing hawks in a clear sky," Graff says to a visitor who could see only gray specks in the blue. By their silent silhouettes, he identifies the species of each kettle, or group, which can number more than 50 birds.

He has become a recognized expert among serious bird-watchers. Every kettle of hawks he spots is meticulously reported on the Internet, providing hawk flight information to the Maryland Ornithological Society and a University of Arizona network that tracks migration patterns throughout the country.

"Once in a great while, somebody manages to spot one before he does," says Peter Webb, a fellow member of the Baltimore Bird Club, for which Graff has held hawk-watches. "He counted more last September than anyone else in the state." With Graff, Webb says, 15 to 30 regular hawk-watchers record data in Maryland.

His family house on White Avenue in Hamilton is ideal for hawk-watching because it is 150 yards from the first land ridge west of the Chesapeake Bay, which Graff estimates at 12 miles away.

Graff spends hours every day scanning the sky with binoculars.

"Northwest is the best wind for them," he says.

Four days a week, he watches half the day because he works part time at a Fallston veterinary clinic -- a step toward his goal of becoming a Baltimore Zoo keeper in the aviary. He says the best day this season was Sept. 18, when he sighted about 7,000 hawks between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.

It takes more than enthusiasm to see so many hawks in a single day. It takes keen vision. While Graff's eyes can't compete with those of hawks, which see about eight times better than humans, he awes others with his powers.

While it is hard to read the sky with complete accuracy, Peter Lev and other club members say that Graff has learned to count and estimate quickly.

"Let's say there's a sky full of birds, and he's telling you there are 321," Lev said.

Another member, Elliot Kirschbaum, concurs. "He's got great eyes and sees them before anybody else," he said. "He will just point, naked eye, and others can't see with binoculars. He has just amazing ability. He's at that level."

"I can tell by style, shape, body, how they fly," Graff says, whether it is a broad-winged, red-shouldered or a rough-legged hawk -- even a bald eagle on a good day. He tracks 16 of the 26 standard hawk species. Last season, he once saw a rare Swainson's hawk, usually found in the West.

His parents, Geoffrey and Kathleen, say that hawk-watching means a great deal to their son. The avocation has brought him out of his shell and put him in touch with other bird lovers and into public speaking situations. They first noticed his interest in birds when he made intricate drawings of them as a child.

Since joining the bird club as a teen-ager, his talent for observing birds has flourished. In 1992, at 14, he started a hawk journal

"Kevin has found a few things in life that are his," says his father, a right-of-way agent for the State Highway Administration. "Birds are definitely one of them."

Graff lives near the Atlantic Flyway in what bird experts call the "I-95 corridor", the path birds take south along the coastal plain -- which highlighted something club members didn't know.

"We weren't really aware this particular spot was so good for fall hawk migration until Kevin called attention to it," says Lev.

Graff has his eye on acquiring and turning 5 acres of undeveloped privately owned land in his neighborhood into a bird-watching sanctuary, with a tower for hawk-watching. Club board members said they plan to study the proposal, estimated at $250,000.

Graff has something that he loves to do every day until Dec. 15 -- the day the season ends.

Pub Date: 10/20/99

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