Friday, January 28, 2011

Peregrine Falcon in the Snow

In January and February we travel back roads in western New York’s Amish country looking for wintering Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and whatever else might be out there. Sometimes in one circuit of our approximately 60-mile route we’ll see as many as a dozen rough-legs and even more red-tails.

About a week ago, half-way through our rounds, we’d seen a bonded pair of red-tails and a few rough-legs, a rather disappointing sum of raptors, possibly because of the heavier than usual snow cover we’ve had over the last few months. Then, with light snow falling, we saw something very different from our usual raptors, a large, long-winged, pointed-winged, rapidly flapping bird coming toward us from a few hundred yards away. Suddenly, the bird wheeled in a full soar, not on a plane parallel to the earth, but, incredibly, on a plane perpendicular to the horizon, then plunged straight down as if to impale itself in the snowy landscape.

Our first winter-peregrine in western New York farm-country, far away from our southern Lake Erie raptor migration route, where we see a handful each year at our spring hawk watch, had taken a pigeon. We were able to get closer and watch from our car as the peregrine ate hungrily in the shallow cave she had made with the pigeon in the snow.

The excitement of a first sighting was over-shadowed by our awe at the quickness of the dramatic display of the falcon’s aerobatics. After the pigeon was taken, we had a chance to watch the feeding bird over several minutes, but the essential experience was our brief glimpse of the physics-defying flight of the plunging bird. What a wonderful moment!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Two Red-tailed Hawks and a Bald Eagle

Last week I was watching a pair of local nesting and wintering Red-tailed Hawks. The pair nested in a large white pine nearby last year, successfully raising one chick. During the summer, after their young had fledged, they built at least two additional nests, one of which at least was done with the active assistance of their recently fledged bird.

The pair has apparently remained near their nesting territory during the fall and winter and, over at least the past two months at least, the male has broken off branches (see photo above) and carried them to multiple nests, where he alone appears to place and work the branches into the nest. (Not very assiduously, however. Not much time is spent working the stick around the nest, and I have not seen the female land in the nest to rework the sticks at all during non-breeding season.) Their attention to their nesting territories is merited because I have seen at least 5 other Redtails in the immediate vicinity, including four birds that appear to be western-type Red-tailed Hawks, likely winterers from eastern Canada (they are much darker overall, with dark throats, heavy rufous bibs, much heavier belly bands, and much darker backs.)

I was particularly intrigued last Tuesday when I was observing the local male (and vice versa; he clearly recognizes and tolerates me). Suddenly he took off, flying low over me and small but dense woods in the direction of a nearby dam. I just figured he was gone hunting. Within seconds, however, I had a subadult Bald Eagle fly right over me at treetop level, followed by the male adult Red-tailed Hawk, flying low right behind the eagle like a school principal ready to crack down on the intruder if it did anything wrong. It was acting like a Red-winged Blackbird that attacks a passing Red-tailed Hawk in spring, except this time the hawk did not make direct contact with the eagle. On a highway, however, the hawk would have been arrested for tailgating.

As the birds got about 30 yards down from me, the male veered off from direct pursuit and turned to kite into the wind over the primary nest tree while his somewhat larger mate shot out of the woods and replaced him on the eagle’s butt. The female adult Redtail escorted the subadult eagle out of sight, but reappeared quickly over the trees and soared up to an altitude somewhat higher than her mate, where she kited into the wind high above her territory and her mate. The two birds “hung” there for what seemed several minutes. The eagle did not reappear.

This reminded me of last March, when the last migrant Bald Eagle that I saw locally that season, flew up along the east side of the lake, just above the treetops. As the eagle passed, Red-tailed Hawk after Red-tailed Hawk came out of the woods along the lake edge and hung in the sky, kiting into the wind, clearly making their claim to the territory beneath and warning the eagle to keep moving. It reminded me of the “dirigible wall” used in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century to warn of and discourage approaching enemy aircraft. It was almost comical. This time, however, I was impressed to see the Red-tailed Hawks’ aggressiveness in protection of their nesting territory early in January! Watching this pair of suburban Red-tailed Hawks year-round is fascinating.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Last Chance for Florida Birding with HMANA

There is still time to join HMANA this February for their Winter Raptor and Birding Tour through South Florida. The tour will run from February 5-12, 2011 and will visit all the top birding hotspots in southern Florida. Whether you’re a regular to that area or are looking for a new destination, this will be a fun and active week observing lots of wintering raptors and Florida specialties.

Please hurry! This Wednesday, January 5 is the LAST DAY for sign ups! Please see for itinerary and more details or my recent blog post of December 1, 2010. Contact Julie Brown at to sign up. Hope to see you there!
photo: White Ibis by David McNicholas