Winter is a great time of year to see several raptors in our region. Raptors are birds of prey that primarily hunt other animals like mice, rabbits, waterfowl, fish, and several other birds.
Raptors include several families of hawks like the accipiters, the buteos, the falcons, and harriers. Owls, ospreys, and eagles also are raptors. Many other birds, though not considered raptors, also feed on small animals, crayfish, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.
I will do a very brief overview here to help you sort out some of the birds of prey that you may see as you drive the country roads or look out your living room window this winter. Most any raptor can show up anywhere, but most of the time, habitat and location help narrow down what species of bird you are seeing.
Let’s start with the accipiters – a family of three species of swift flying long-tailed and short rounded winged primarily bird-eating hawks which are the ones that raid your bird feeding station. Of the three species, the middle-sized one is called the Cooper’s Hawk and is the most common. All three look very similar. The largest is the goshawk which is very uncommon and the smallest is the sharp-shinned and is quite common. You will need to study all of them in your field guide.
Several people often think that red-tailed hawks are the ones that are chasing the birds in their back yards, but that would be very unusual. Red-tailed hawks are in the buteo family which are generally huskier hawks with broad wings. The red-tail is big and prefers hunting in the open fields and mixed woodlands. It has a nice rusty tail and a necklace-like breast band. You often see them perched along the interstate highways and they are very common.
Another large buteo that can be seen only in winter is the rough-legged hawk which migrates here from the north. A couple of characteristics include a distinct white rump and its habit of hovering in one place. Generally, they are much darker than a red-tail and they do not have a red tail. Other local buteos generally migrate south for the winter.
The falcon family has several members in our region. The most common by far is the kestrel which is a robin-sized bird that primarily hunts from a perch like a utility wire. Some spend the winter here and often can be seen day after day hunting from the same perch. They do this as they watch for meadow voles and mice in the meadow below them. They become very familiar with what is going on in the mouse community below as they occasionally surface above the matted grass and snow. It’s quite a phenomenon. Other falcons are around which include the merlin and the peregrine, which loves to hunt other birds – especially pigeons in the cities and in the gorges like at Niagara Falls and even at Letchworth Park.
The final family of hawks is harriers. Our only one is the northern harrier (formerly called marsh hawk) which likes to hunt over meadows and marshy areas. It too has a distinct white rump; however, its flying behavior and pattern is very different than the rough-legged hawk I mentioned above which also has white rump. Harriers tend to fly low and very actively weave around in a zig zagging pattern. They do this to make a sitting rabbit think that the hawk sees it, then the rabbit makes a move, and then the hawk catches it! These are really beautiful hawks and when you see one, you’ll know what I mean!
Bald eagles have become quite common in recent years as more and more are nesting in our region. They especially like to use large trees along rivers and near lakes. Generally winding rivers and large creeks have big old trees present. Eagles spend the winter here and begin nesting rather early. Remember that the immatures don’t get a white head and tail till about 4 or even 5 years old. Roadkill deer have helped the eagles through the winter months. Golden eagles are occasionally spotted along Lake Ontario in migration.
Owls are also great birds of prey. At any given time in winter, you may spot a snowy owl often perched on top of a utility pole generally in open farm country, but have been seen perched on hotel roofs and along piers of the Great Lakes. Our resident owls are present all winter such as the great-horned owl which makes the normal hooting calls, the small screech owl, and the barred owl which has several calls, but has a trademark call which sounds like, “Who-who who cooks for you?” It’s a woodland owl whereas screech and great-horned also like mixed and open country.
Another owl that migrates to this region in winter is the mid-sized short-eared owl. They can be seen flying (hunting) over meadows right before dusk and at dawn. Often there are several in a group. Last Saturday we flushed one from its roost in our evergreen patch here on the farm as we went to clip some evergreen boughs for our 4-H Evergreen Centerpiece class in Warsaw. I told my wife, that seeing the owl was our reward for digging the greens out of the deep snow and ice!
So, like usual, I’m out of room, but as you can see, there is much raptor action to be seen in winter! It takes a little extra effort to identify them, but hopefully the above discussion helps! Keep those binoculars handy and enjoy the wonderful world of so many beautiful birds of prey in our region. You may want to clip this article and use it as a quick reference guide to sorting out the next few raptors that you see!
Feel free to call or text me any time if you have questions at 585-813-2676 or email email@example.com.