The Regal Raptor
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.