What is a kettle, and how do I count it?

The definition of a kettle can depend on the location of the site, average numbers usually seen at a particular site, as well as the personal interpretations of each counter. There are a few general categories that seem to remain true, no matter where the kettles are occurring. For instance, at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, a large kettle of Mississippi kites might be 50. At Hazel Bazemore County Park, 50 Mississippi Kites in a kettle would be considered a small kettle. At the Hazel Bazemore Hawk Watch, we tend to use the following general scale when describing our Broadwing Hawk  kettles:
"Good" kettle Any number of hawks in a kettle!
"Small" kettle 500 hawks or less
"Large" kettle 500-5000 hawks
"Super" kettle 5000-10,000 hawks
"Mega" kettle 10,000-40,000 hawks
"Ball of gnats" kettle Very dense ball formation
"Swirling/swarming" kettles Any size with hawks doing a blender imitation
"Get off your duff, it's huge!" kettles  Here they come; no end in sight; move it!
"Oh my God!" kettles  Super & mega kettles that cover north to south or east to west horizons; alternating between streaming rivers and funneled kettles
"Holy smokes, you won't believe this!" kettles All horizons are covered! Rivers & funnels everywhere!

And, our personal favorite .....
"OH! OH! OH!" kettles Words fail at the sight! There can't be that many hawks in the world! All horizons are covered, and the hawks just KEEP COMING! These flights can easily last 25 to 35 minutes or longer and have been known to contain 80,000 to 120,000 or more hawks. Oh, the aching neck and arm muscles!

Test your skills! How many hawks do you see in this kettle cross-section?

Answer:  ... stay tuned!
(Okay, okay! There are 557 raptors in this kettle cross-section!)

How about this one?

Answer: over 400! (To be exact, 432.)

So, now that you've seen some cross-sections of a kettle, you might be wondering just how we count ALL those cross-sections of ALL those kettles flying by at what sometimes seems like Mach 3 across the watch site. Well, it takes some practice, and it takes some experience to get a feel for what we have come to call "gridding" .... the art of using your binocular's or scope's field of view as a snapshot of a cross-section of a kettle.

Let's try a count. Imagine you are looking at one of these photos above through your binoculars.

Okay, now, QUICK! Get a rough count based on the density and the depth of field of the group (in real life, the hawks are three dimensional, of course, and so are their flight paths. Watching them a second or two before starting to "grid" the kettle will allow you to get a feel for the "thickness" of the kettle; how many layers of raptors are in the kettle, and the depth of the hawks within the layers. Once you get a feel for the layers, so to speak, and the motion and density, you factor that into your equations and voila! You now have a "snapshot" of your cross-section of the kettle.

Now, before those raptors get out of sight, move your binos across the sky, tracking the movement of the kettle, and count the number of fields that are covered by your field of view. Take into account the changes in the densities and depths of field, and multiply the numbers out ("x" number of fields by 400 raptors; "x" number of fields by 200 raptors, etc.) and add them all up. Congratulations! You have now counted your first kettle!

And ... you've done it in less than two seconds!

Oh .... not quite 2 seconds, you say? Are you thoroughly confused now?! Don't worry! So were the rest of us, the first times we tried it! You'll actually be doing it in split seconds, once you get the rhythm and feel of it. So take heart!

And don't worry! Everyone starts out this way. But it's a good illustration of what is probably the hardest thing to teach:   how do you know how many raptors are in your baseline portion of your field of view, and that your count is accurate? Notice I said "accurate" ... and not "exact". I don't believe there is any way humanly possible to count those huge kettles to the exact number as they streak overhead, but you'll find as you get used to using the gridding method, you WILL be able to count the kettles of hundreds and thousands very, very accurately, and darn near close to exact!

Glenn Swartz and John Economidy have trained us over the years at Hazel Bazemore to start small. Most of us learn gridding by learning what a block of 10 raptors looks like in a field, then multiplying that field by however many blocks of ten raptors we count. As you get comfortable with that level, gradually increase your baseline to count by groups of 20, 25, or 50, and so on, as you start to cover bigger and bigger chunks of the field of view, and as you become more accustomed to what that number of raptors actually looks like in the kettle or stream (learning how to gauge on the fly the average distance between individuals in your field of view, for density, etc.). You'll find this technique, of course, works for any bird in any kind of numbers (although anyone able to count those massive flocks of shorebirds whizzing by at Mach 8 just two inches off the terrain or surf should be elevated to sainthood, in my humble opinion).

What baseline you settle on will depend on your comfort level with what you're seeing. But remember, that might change with each kettle, depending on the speed it's moving and the style of movement the raptors use as they pass overhead (streaming out in long lines versus kettling in tight balls of gnat-like formations, versus a seemingly random flight through the sky as if to figure out just where they are). We constantly adjust our baselines according to what we're seeing. That, too, comes with practice. And, now you know another secret:  why we have all those click-counters going off like little castanets when those kettles are streaming by. For those really intensive counts, some of us use multiple counters, automatically assigning one clicker to count by, say, 400 raptors, and another maybe to count by 10's; maybe yet another to count by 100's or maybe even 1,000's, if a super- or mega-kettle is in the air. It's a constant process of adjustment that you eventually don't even consciously think about, once you get "into the zone."

This is yet another reason I like to see and strongly urge folks at watches to log and monitor counts of Anhingas, Wood Storks and White Pelicans. Not only do those birds provide excellent practice at counting kettles and streams, but they also are what we call "indicator birds" or "buddy birds" .... they will often precede or be joined in flight by raptors, since they migrate on nearly the same timetables, using the same thermal lift techniques to soar and fly . (Next time a flock of Anhingas goes overhead, check it out closely; you're just as likely to see some raptors among them; maybe Mississippi Kites; maybe Broadwinged Hawks, maybe Red-tailed Hawks; could be anything!)

In closing, this brings to mind probably the most important lessons of gridding and counting hawks I can think of ... 

The Basic Rules of Hawk Counting Etiquette:

Rule #1:  Do NOT count out loud! For ANY reason! Counters do not take kindly to hearing play-by-play counts of what others are seeing when they're trying to do counts of their own! Don't risk becoming hawk bait by distracting the counters; let nothing pass those lips other than appropriate sounds of awe and wonder! Or to point out the rarity raptor that is winging by solo, while everyone else is stuck on the kettles.

Rule #2:  Do not stand in front of the counters. This is a good way to get run over during the mad dashes to keep up with the kettles' movements.

Rule #3:  Do not tug on the counter's sleeve during a live count and ask "How many have you got so far?" while counters are tracking kettles overhead. See "hawk bait" reference in Rule #1.

Rule #4:  Do not get hit by passing cars while trying to pace the kettles flying overhead. It's messy and makes it hard to get accurate counts while traveling down the road on someone's windshield.

Rule #5:  However, it IS all right to lay down flat on the ground, on a picnic table or any available flat surface, in order to preserve the count and your neck vertebrae as the mega-kettles of hawks pass by. We do suggest, however, that you avoid lying in fire ant nests while doing so; they have a dim sense of humor about that sort of activity. The leaf-cutting ants are a little more tolerant, but only barely.

Rule #6:  Eating while counting and gridding hawks is permissible (and helps keep the out-loud counting to a minimum), but only if you are consuming the appropriately approved foodstuffs known for certain to bring in even higher numbers of hawks. In order of effectiveness, they are:  1) chocolate in any form, the purer, the better; 2) homemade chocolate chip cookies (Glenn Swartz's recipe is soon to be patented as guaranteed hawk bait); and 3) homemade brownies (see item 1); and possibly a new player:  4) homemade ice cream and/or sherbet (really good for those days of 112-degree heat indices!). Choking on said hawk baits while counting is discouraged.

I hope you've enjoyed this little impromptu mini-workshop. While we do take the counts extremely seriously, we also believe in enjoying the experience and each other's company while doing it. We enjoy our watches and find humor a powerful therapy to help make it through those long, slack periods. Hey, if nothing else, at least now you'll know what food to bring to hawk watches to bribe, er .... assist ... the counters!

Cheers, and start doing those neck stretching exercises early!

Patty Waits Beasley
Hazel Bazemore Hawk Watch
Corpus Christi, TX - 1998

Kettle photos courtesy of John M. Economidy.
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