Thursday, April 30, 2009

Raptor Rapture

The other day, I wrote about a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks that I see almost every day on my morning drive (read it HERE). That got me to thinking about the number and variety of birds of prey (called raptors) that I see in my neighborhood on a regular basis. Though raptors are not as common as many of our birds, they are there if you know where and how to look for them. On a typical day, I’ll see a dozen or more individual birds of prey around my neighborhood, around town, and even in my own yard.

What’s out there? Well, our most common daytime raptor in Connecticut is probably the Red-Tailed Hawk, a big, robust buteo, or soaring hawk, that has a striking orange-red tail. This is the chunky, brown-and-white hawk that can often be seen perched on a light pole or exposed branch along the sides of highways and other major roads. In and around my neighborhood, I know of at least four established pairs of Red-Tailed Hawks. I enjoy checking in on them as I drive about the area. Another less-common buteo in our area is the Red-Shouldered Hawk, slimmer than the Red-Tailed and with chestnut shoulders and a snazzy striped tail. Keep an eye out for this beautiful bird in swampy areas, including wet areas near roads; it enjoys frogs and snakes. Our smallest buteo, the Broad-Winged Hawk, is just now returning to our region after having spent the winter months in warmer climes. Look for this smallish hawk soaring overheard with wide-spread wings and boldly striped tail. Listen for its plaintive whistle; look upward once in a while!

Our “roadside raptors” prey on rodents that are feeding on the garbage that so many people throw from their cars. Unfortunately, they are often struck by cars when they swoop down on their prey. Please — don’t throw garbage or trash, even biodegradable food items, from your car.

If you have bird feeders in your yard, you may have seen a Sharp-Shinned Hawk or its larger and almost-identical cousin, the Cooper’s Hawk, as they snatch smaller birds from on and around feeder areas. These are both accipiters, or true hawks, skilled in high-speed flight and able to maneuver quickly in forested areas and around the feeders. They can take birds right out of the air, and will often pluck and eat them on the spot. This is fascinating to watch! Read HERE about encounters that I’ve seen at my backyard feeders between these hawks and some smaller feeder birds. Once or twice, always in the winter, I’ve seen a Northern Goshawk, the rarer, larger cousin of the two mentioned above. Big, pearl grey, fast. A silvery streak through the trees…

Last week, just a few miles from home, I spotted my first-of-the-season Osprey, a specialized raptor that feeds on fish that it takes live from rivers, lakes, and brackish waters. After it spots a fish — which it can do from 30-40 feet above the water — it dives feet-first into the water and grasps the fish with specialized talons that are equipped with very sharp claws and sharp spiky structures on the “palm” of its foot which help it to grip the slippery fish. After it rises from the water, the Osprey maneuvers the fish so that it is held in an aerodynamic head-forward position, making it much easier to carry the load back to the nest. We live near a large river and several lakes that offer great habitat for a good number of Osprey families.

The river is also a place to see Bald Eagles, mostly north and west of town, as they commute between river fishing areas and lakeside nesting areas. And one day last fall, I was stunned and delighted to see a Golden Eagle as it migrated south. During last year’s spring migration, I spotted a Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk) in its tip-tilting low flight over the meadows, where it was probably hunting field mice. We see Harriers most often over salt marshes.

Of all the raptors, the falcons are my favorites. Our town includes some extensive agricultural areas, and I often see an American Kestrel, or Sparrow Hawk, when I drive through that area. Kestrels are becoming increasingly scarce as their preferred grassland habitat disappears to development. You can read about this situation in an article I edited for the Hawk Migration Association of North America; the article was originally published at the Environmental News Network (www.enn.com), but I think the only place you can read it online now is at http://tinyurl.com/cvzgfb

Once in a great while, I see a Merlin, a fairly-common medium-sized falcon that preys on small birds. Last fall, I was lucky enough to surprise a dark-plumaged juvenile Peregrine Falcon, and had some excellent close-range looks as it circled around me then took off in a big hurry. Peregrines, once nearly extinct, have rebounded nicely and can now be seen in many cities, where they nest on the tall office buildings that closely resemble cliffs, their preferred wild habitat. In downtown Hartford, a pair is busy right now incubating four reddish-brown eggs. You can follow the progress of this nest via a webcam at http://falconcam.travelers.com/

We often forget about the raptors that populate our neighborhoods at night – owls. Perhaps because we so rarely see them, some people think of owls as mysterious or even spooky. Take a few minutes to learn about owls; they are fascinating! In the summer, we often hear a Screech Owl or two in our backyard; their call is the most amazing tremulous glissando! Several weeks ago, I saw what looked like a large splash of thick white paint on our deck; it was owl feces, often called “whitewash.” Some large owl, perhaps the Great Horned Owl I hear occasionally, had been in the tree that overhangs our deck, probably hunting mice that were picking up seeds around our bird feeders. Or maybe it was a Barred Owl; I hear their who-cooks-for-you-all calls pretty regularly, and just a few weeks after seeing the whitewash on the deck, I spotted a large and beautiful Barred Owl down the street.

All the birds I mentioned here were seen in my yard, in my neighborhood, or within a few miles of my home. Raptors are all around us…do take time to look for them! They are an important part of our ecosystem, keeping populations of smaller animals in check. They are beautiful to look at and interesting to watch, too.

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