The Raptors of Fall

Monday night’s joint meeting of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association was centered on the status and outlook for the wildfires of our summer in Paradise.

After the meeting, several of us talked about impacts on wildlife.  One of the members asked me about watching raptors up on Red Top.  She wondered if it was true that one could see plenty of birds and be lost in their use of the thermals up there or if her buddy was just putting her on.  After all, she figured, we have hawks all year long, so what’s the big deal?  And should she really get the family up there?  The whole thing got me thinking about raptors and fall.

Of course, we do have year-round eagles and vultures and hawks and falcons.  And some individuals of a given species will hang out through winter supervising our bird feeders and fields.  Others may migrate a relatively short distance to regional winter habitat, but large numbers of our summer raptors head to Mexico or farther south.  It is largely those birds which you may find riding the rising warm air (thermals) of our regional migration routes over Red Top, Chelan Ridge or another particular locale almost any day in early fall.

This is migration time, and birds preparing for a fall trip south migration are gathering in large numbers over certain areas which are not difficult to reach.

I invited my doubting friend to consider the possibilities.  What would be more fun than a sky of soaring Buteos, swooping Falcos or dashing Accipiters—our hawks of summer?  Take a good guidebook and go look.

Identifying raptors is not all that hard, really.  Start with shapes of wings and tails in flight and you will quickly have a sense of hunting patterns, speed and diets.  (Males in virtually all birds of prey, by the way, will be smaller than females.)

The Buteos are the largest hawks.  They are soaring birds with broad wings and tails, to swoop down on ground‑based prey (generally rabbits, rodents, snakes, frogs, insects and an occasional bird).

Many of the Buteos in the thermals will be heading south.  The ferruginous hawk (buteo regalis) will winter in Central Mexico and be back in April. Swainson’s (buteo swainsoni) will have the longest migration, flying clear to the Pampas of Argentina, then back to our country in spring.

The speed merchants are the Falcos, with their trademark long, pointed wings and narrow tails.  With blazing speed and maneuverability, they catch and kill birds and insects in flight, with an occasional rodent, rabbit or other ground‑runner.

Many falcons will be found in the state year-round, and some will head south.  American kestrels (falco sparverius) will be common in town at our feeders, but others of them will head off to Panama.  Peregrines (falco peregrinus) may migrate over the Cascades or head to Panama, while prairie falcons (falco mexicanus) may come to the east side or join the peregrines on their fall journey to Central America.

The Accipiters are in‑between hawks.  Their short, rounded wings and long, stabilizing tails enable them to dash after prey in and around trees.  They take mostly birds, but also rodents, rabbits and other ground prey.

Among the Accipiters now gathering, Cooper’s hawk (accipiter cooperii) or the northern goshawk (accipiter gentilis) may stay for the winter, or head for Mexico and Guatemala.  The sharp-shinned hawk (accipiter striatus) may find your bird feeder or take off for Panama.

More than a dozen different species of birds of prey have already been observed above Chelan Ridge of Manson, and over Red Top Mountain along Teanaway Ridge off Blewett Pass.  You will see many more than the few mentioned here.  Both ridges are natural migration corridors for eagles, hawks, and falcons in September and October.

By the way, that migration urge is probably triggered by photoperiodism‑‑the changing length of day and/or amount of sunlight reaching some critical level.

Once they head out, exactly how they find their way over thousands of miles—or even just over the mountains—remains a mystery.  More and more evidence is pointing to fairly high intelligence and good memories.  Birds, in general, seem to acquire navigation information from the stars, sun, the terrain they fly (including wind direction), earth’s magnetic field and scent.  The long-lived raptors seem to remember migration routes and landscapes.

Grab a good field guide, such as The Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest, or The Birder’s Handbook by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.

Red Top Mountain is on Teanaway Ridge, west of Mineral Springs Resort off the Blewett Pass road (FS road 9738 to 9702).  You may find raptors rising over the Saddle Mountains, Yakima Ridge, and Rattlesnake Hills, too, as well as Harts Pass (off State 20) and the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier.

Take a kid.  Watching birds of prey on the wing is as close as many of us will get to touching the sky.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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