Birds of prey a diverse bunch
If you’ve been driving or spending time outdoors in the Vail Valley over the last few weeks, you should’ve noticed that many hawk-like birds have arrived on the scene.
You can watch for these birds of prey – including hawks, eagles, falcons and vultures – either soaring or perched.
Individual species occupy a specific niche – an osprey hunts fish, a red-tailed hawk hunts rodents and a peregrine falcon hunts birds. To find these birds, visit areas rich in prey and the predators should be there, too.
For example, if you know where there’s an area thick with ground squirrels, hang out nearby in your car and watch for a circling red-tailed hawk, a soaring golden eagle or a cruising prairie falcon.
The first step in identifying these raptors is by habitat in which you see the bird. Is it soaring over pastureland? Is it perched in the forest? Or is it cruising fast and low over alpine tundra?
Then, ask yourself, “What is the bird doing?” A good description would be as follows: “A fairly large hawk which was first perched on a fencepost and then took off, and was coursing low, riding on wind currents over a shrubland. With wings held in a V-shape, it descended upon a rodent from three feet above.”
These observations tell us a lot. If add details like blue gray color and a vivid, white rump patch, you’ve got a perfect description of a northern harrier.
Now, contrast the above description with the following: “I was sitting on a rock in a thick forest, quietly drinking a cup of coffee at sunrise, when suddenly a small to medium-sized hawk darted into the scene. It then sat motionless on a concealed perch in some thick pine branches. It was gray with orange horizontal barring on its chest, prominent banding on its long tail and a red eye.”
This observation perfectly describes on of our forest hawks. Known as accipiters, these fast maneuverable hawks flush and hunt other birds while in hot pursuit through thick forest. Forest hawks include the sharp-shinned hawk (small), Cooper’s hawk (medium) and the goshawk (large).
Identification of accipiters is largely a matter of size. Females are larger than the males in each species. So what raptors are we most likely to see? The most common hawk here is the red-tailed hawk.
Red tails are hawks of the open field, often seen circling above while they use their keen eyesight to locate prey, such as mice, ground squirrels, rabbits or snakes. Red tails are easiest to identify in flight, as they circle on rising hot air thermals. It’s a good idea to wait for the sun to provide perfect lighting to make the reddish-orange tail glow.
Another good hawk of the field to keep your eyes peeled for is the Swainson’s hawk. This well-traveled flyer is due back from its winter tip to Argentina – 15,000 miles of global navigation is no problem for this bird-brain.
The Swainson’s hawk is easiest to identify while it is perched on a pole, tree or fence post. It is a slender hawk with a white face and a cinnamon brown bib.
All predators, including birds of prey, are opportunistic. What does this mean? Imagine yourself stranded in the woods and the only food available is what you could hunt and gather. In this situation you may collect berries from the trailside, noodle a fish from a stream or throw a stone at a grouse.
Being opportunistic means you take advantage of what comes along in your travels.
The American kestrel is a great example of an opportunistic hunter. This small, colorful falcon commonly perches on a wire and waits. Like many other raptors, the kestrel’s eyesight is six times more powerful than our own. What does this visually magnified world bring? To the kestrel, it is often a bounty of insects, small birds, lizards and mice.
Vultures are the epitome of opportunistic hunters. In fact, they exclusively feed on carcasses of already dead animals. They locate the dead bodies by smell and their featherless heads are perfectly adapted for plunging into a maggot-filled carcass.
Road kill, dead animals left by mountain lions or the rotting carcass in the rancher’s field are all fair game for the vulture.
The local turkey vulture has wings that are lifted in a steep V-shape while soaring and the bird tilts back and forth while in flight. Turkey vultures rely on hot air thermals for efficient flight, so we only see them here in the late spring and summer.
What’s in a name?
Lastly, always remember the golden eagle, a year-round resident of the valley. The golden is the king of raptors, with a golden head and dreadfully powerful talons.
Weighing 10 pounds with a seven foot wingspan held in a shallow-V while soaring, the golden eagle is capable of breaking the neck of a red fox, scooping up a ground squirrel or knocking a bighorn lamb from a high cliff.
The golden eagle is the largest and most aggressive raptor in North America and can easily spot prey from a mile away.
As with all bird watching, observing raptors is challenging. Binoculars or a spotting scope bring a magnificent creature up close enough for you to enjoy its complex plumage, the glaring look in its eye, and its graceful motion.
When viewing a bird, wait for the prime lighting conditions to occur, in order to get the best information on color. Be patient and you can learn about the bird over a period of several minutes of pleasant viewing.
Remember, in birding it is observing the beauty and fascinating behavior of birds that is the best part of the activity – naming the species may be secondary. Above all, enjoy being outside and immersed in the peacefulness of a scenic landscape, with our friends, the birds.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are the owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, birding, and wildlife watching tours. Contact Trailwise at (970) 827-5363.