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The Regal Raptor

October 21, 2010

As the weather cools in the Great Basin the raptors respond. Swainson’s hawks, ospreys, and turkey vultures are gone or mostly so. Bald eagles, rough-legged hawks, and merlins will soon replace them and will remain until the warming of the earth begins anew and the changing of the guard again occurs. Some species seem largely indifferent to the seasonal changes. The local accipters – sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, and the occasional northern goshawk – remain, hungry as ever, although as the foothill forests fall silent they begin to prowl the neighborhood feeders like feathered sharks in search of blood. Red-tailed hawks and golden eagles continue to haunt the hills and fields in fair weather and foul, occasionally resorting to dinners of road-killed animals when times are hard.

A notable aspect of autumn is the seeming sudden appearance of ferruginous hawks, Buteo regalis. It is, of course, an illusion. They breed in the deserts and the foothills, often choosing an isolated cottonwood or juniper in open country with a commanding view of the surrounding terrain. Their nests can be imposing structures, like those of their aquiline cousins. In many cases the nests are re-used year after year and are sometimes large enough to hold a human. Ferruginous hawks are notoriously wary during breeding season. But once the task of parenting has ended the birds seem to relax, if only a bit. They can be seen on fence posts, power poles, and even hunting from the ground in the fields, grasslands, and sagebrush country. They soar, but at times they flutter, hovering, suspended between heaven and earth, intently watching for their next meal. With their large size and imposing bill they are sometimes confused with golden eagles, even though they are substantially smaller. The snowy white plumage of light phase individuals is also conspicuously different from the dark coloration found in golden and bald eagles. These summer recluses sometimes make social calls to town during the cold months. I’ve caught them watching me from a nearby pole while I fill my car with gas and spotted them eying the parade of shoppers into and out of the local supermarket. It is known that northern populations migrate south during winter. The behavior of Great Basin birds remains something of a mystery. It is known that they wander. Where, by what route, and for how long, are questions unanswered.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2010 9:11 am

    Here along the Atlantic Coast, the Great Migration is taking place. Last weekend I watched as numerous raptors flew overhead, at Cape May Point State Park in New Jersey.

    I saw Sharp-shinned Hawks, Merlins, Ospreys, Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, Chimney Swifts and numerous Tree Swallows.

    Cape May Point, at the very tip of New Jersey, is the last stop before migrating birds either cross the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay or circle back to follow the land.

    Monarch butterflies also are migrating. They stop in Cape May Point to sip the nectar of the few blooming Seaside Goldenrods and New England Asters before flying onto the mountains of Mexico.

    This Great Migration takes place over Metropolitan Philadelphia and along the Jersey Shore. Us city folks only have to look up.

  2. Lu Giddings permalink
    October 22, 2010 11:13 am

    Donna, its nice to read that you find yourself in a very fortunate situation. I’ve heard of Cape May and I always read of it with envy but I’ve not yet been there. Hawkwatch maintains monitoring stations in the Wellsville Mountains about 100 miles north of my home and also in the Goshute Mountains a bit further from home in eastern Nevada. I know that at the peak of the migrations large numbers of birds are reported at these sites, but I don’t think they approach those observed at Cape May. The most spectacular displays of migrating raptors are said to be seen in Veracruz with their “rivers of raptors.” Take a look at the following 2009 field summary from Hawkwatch and compare the results at the various sites:

    http://www.hawkwatch.org/images/stories/Conservation_Science/Current_Projects/Migration_Projects/2009_count_table.pdf

    The numbers are interesting, and those from Veracruz are amazing!

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