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Curious Nature: How to watch for birds of prey this month

Golden and bald eagles from as far as Alaska are known to winter in Colorado.
Special to the Daily

The Xfinity Birds of Prey World Cup races may be canceled this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the raptors for which the world-famous downhill course is named.

Throughout the fall, the gathering of migratory birds into flocks as they head south for the winter are common sights. Canada geese and other waterfowl may be some of the most visible examples to those of us on the ground, as they tend to fly low and make frequents stops in ponds and reservoirs. As any avid bird-watcher will tell you though, raptor migrations may be some of the most exciting to observe.

We tend to think that all migratory birds leave us behind in the autumn for warmer climates. While some summer populations of northern harriers and Swainson’s hawks may leave the state in autumn, many birds from farther north make Colorado their winter home. Golden and bald eagles from as far as Alaska are known to winter in Colorado.



The state’s populations of North America’s two largest hawk species, red-tailed and ferruginous hawks, actually peak in the months of January and February. Rough-legged hawks are normally uncommon in Colorado and can almost only be found here in winter months.

Part of what makes raptor migrations so exciting to bird-watchers is that this is one of the best times to observe birds of prey in high concentrations. While you won’t find hawks flying in the “V” shaped flocks typical of migrating geese, many raptors follow the same flight paths.



Soaring birds, like ravens and golden eagles, take advantage of a phenomenon called ridge lift at all times of year. Ridge lift is an updraft of air that occurs when wind close to the earth’s surface hits a mountain range or ridge and is directed upwards. The energy saving advantages of ridge lift for migrating raptors are immense and many species of birds of prey can be observed flying along ridges that run north-south in spring and fall.

If you want to watch birds of prey this late fall and early winter, take a hike or have a picnic on a hill or ridge line. Keep your eyes on the sky and watch for the silhouettes of large birds that soar and flap their wings infrequently.

If you want to better identify the birds you see, take along a pair of binoculars and a field guide for birds. Pay special attention to the shape of the bird’s wings and tail. Does it have a long, straight tail and slightly pointed wings? If so, it is likely a member of the genus Accipiter, like a Cooper’s hawk or goshawk. If it has a relatively short tail and broad wings it is probably a Buteo, like a red-tailed or ferruginous hawk, or maybe an eagle if you’re lucky.

If you are feeling down about not getting to watch our hometown ski races this year, learn a little about the real birds of prey soaring and sailing over us this winter. Next year, their namesake run will seem more aptly titled as we are celebrating at Beaver Creek again.

This article was written by Pete Wadden and originally published in 2011 for Walking Mountains Science Center. Today, Pete is the town of Vail watershed education coordinator.

 


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