by Denny Olson
We are now in the middle of the Jewel Basin Hawk Watch season, and things have begun to heat up — but the numbers of migrant raptors are slightly lower than recent years. Like true geeks, a number of us have been pulling up multiple weather forecasting websites every day, looking for those sunny, southwest breeze days following a cold front. We are closing in on those fairly consistent triple-digit days, with dreams sugarplums and winning the “lottery”, being there on one of those 400 – 500-bird days.
Last year, we had a 400-plus day, and in 2020 our record day of 595 birds flying by! At least six observers were there, barking out species and age class, some taking written notes because they were flying by a half-dozen at a time. Poor Lisa Bate, who actually “lost” the lottery by being the primary data recorder (and never being able to look up and enjoy the birds at eye level)! Some days are beyond the normal “magical” days on the ridge. If you are at all physically able to be there — even at a turtle pace — you have to see it to believe it! We always love company up there.
Last month I talked about the nuances of identifying accipiters and buteos in flight and at a distance. Here’s the second installment:
The speedy falcons, who are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks, come in four sizes. What they all have in common is narrowing, pointed wings, and speed. From when they are first spotted to zooming overhead, they get there quickly and directly.
Kestrels have shallow, rapid wingbeats and seem light and buoyant (which they are) wandering vertically and horizontally. Females flash more orange than males on the whole underside, and males have a much brighter orange tail than body. From the side, with a decent (but quick!) view, they show a double dark sideburn/moustache.
Merlins have a stronger, direct and speedier flight — hardly ever wandering — and have a flat to slightly drooped profile from directly ahead. They look buffy and streaked from below, and have a weaker “moustache” than the other falcons. Many have a pugnacious “Napoleon complex” and have a hard time resisting a swipe at our owl decoy.
Peregrine Falcons are, of course, the epitome’ of speed. They are almost always never-messing-around direct in flight, and their rowing, whipping, powerful wingbeats can help them accelerate in seconds to the highest speeds of any bird. As they pass by, the large dark cheek “sideburn” is a giveaway. Adults have a dark head as well and the body feathers have a light-colored “checkered” look from overhead.
Prairie Falcons are slightly larger than Peregrines, which is impossible to see while they fly at falcon speeds. They are lighter brown (tannish) than the darker, grayish Peregrines, and have a buffy moustache. The big key is that overhead, they are darkest in the “armpits” close to their body, and the juveniles are quite a bit darker there than the adults.
Harriers are slender-bodied ,with long narrow wings and tail. They usually have a dihedral “V” shape on their open-country hunting grounds, but on migration that changes to a bowed-wing flatter profile. The long tail is still distinctive, and when they do a turn, the white rump is a dead giveaway. Males are much lighter (gray-white) than females (mottled brown).
Bald Eagles are year-round residents, so identifying a migrant demands watching them for as long as we can, to make sure they have that “on a mission” look flying directly south. Identifying adults with their white head and tail is a no-brainer, but it gets trickier with first-through-fourth year immature birds. The most common mistake is calling a first year Bald eagle a “Golden” because it is so dark. First year juveniles have a dark body from below, with varying degrees of seemingly random white mottling on the underside. Juvenile Golden Eagles have a distinct white spot in the center of their underwing, and the inner tailfeathers are also white. No white elsewhere! Bald Eagles have increasing amounts of white (including their body feathers) as they age (2 – 4), and have an almost white head and tail by age four.
Bald Eagles fly with a totally flat frontal profile, and Goldens have a slight dihedral, with the outer primary “fingers” slightly upturned. A Golden Eagle on migration is a hair-raising sight to see, wings folded slightly back and not moving even a twitch at 100-plus miles an hour, tacking like a sailboat on southwest headwinds.
Lastly, Ospreys fly with their distinctive arched and crooked-at-the-wrist long wings. Heir wingbeats have been described as slow and “mechanical”. They have a dark wrist and outer primaries, but otherwise are whitish with their distinctive dark eye-stripe from the side.
Happy hawking this fall!