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Birds of prey

Places and activities    Nature guides    Birds of prey

Metro naturalist James Davis expounds on eagles, hawks and falcons and gives bird watchers advice on the best times and places to see these "action figures" of the bird world.

rough-legged hawk

By Metro naturalist James Davis

Brrrrrr. It’s a cold, overcast day in January. The trees are bare and nature is asleep, waiting for spring. Boy, is this a day to hunker down inside, maybe build a fire. Not so! Now is the time for some of the most exciting bird watching of the year.

The middle of winter actually is the best time of year for seeing two groups of birds – waterfowl (e.g., ducks, geese, swans) and the action figures of the bird world, the raptors. “Raptors” and “birds of prey” are interchangeable terms describing two groups of birds: the owls and all the hawk-like birds such as eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, kites and accipiters. Owls always are hard to observe, and winter doesn’t help much in that difficult endeavor. But for most of the other raptors found in our region, winter is the primo time to see them for three reasons.

Why are raptors here and easy to see in winter?

One reason is the mild, winter weather of the Willamette Valley. Sure, it’s rainy and cold, but compared to the interior part of the country and farther north, it’s downright balmy here. For birds that can easily fly a couple of thousand miles in a week, it’s worth the trip to the Willamette Valley. Just think what Fargo or Edmonton are like next time you think it’s a cold day in Portland.

The second reason to make the journey is food. The mild winter also is a boon to all the furry little prey animals in the valley such as mice, rabbits and squirrels. Valley grasslands, including many fallow farm fields, can be crawling with voles (also known as meadow mice). And where there are brambles bordering grassy fields, there’s a rabbit factory.

Even more abundant is the bounty of tasty waterfowl. Just as the huge winter population of waterfowl provides human hunters with food, it is a major food source for our largest hawk, the bald eagle. Important wintering sites for bald eagles in the lower 48 states are often near wetlands with big wintering populations of waterfowl. Bald eagles are major scavengers of dead and dying waterfowl, as well as occasional predators. Peregrine falcons also eat waterfowl, and their smaller cousin the merlin is particularly fond of the shorebirds that winter in valley wetlands.

The third factor that makes winter so great for raptor viewing may seem silly. With all the leaves gone from the deciduous trees, it is just a lot easier to see the birds in the trees! This includes the ones that are here all the time. The riparian woodlands of black cottonwoods along rivers and in wetlands are particularly popular perches and very productive places to look.

What will you see?

The red-tailed hawk, our most common year-round bird of prey, just gets more abundant in winter. Have you ever driven down I-5 from Portland to Salem in winter and wondered “Whoa, what are all those big birds on the power poles and fence posts?” The vast majority are red-tailed hawks, just as they would be in the summer. However, there is another buteo (large, broad-winged, short-tailed, soaring hawk) that you may occasionally see called the rough-legged hawk. Rough-legged hawks look a lot like red-tailed hawks except that their head and upper breast will be mostly white or very light. They can look like a mini-bald eagle or a dark ice cream cone with a vanilla scoop on top.

The most noticeable winter raptors are bald eagles because . . . well, because they’re bald eagles! Few people fail to recognize an adult bald eagle the first time they see one because they are huge and a national icon. But many folks don’t realize that bald eagles do not get their all-white head and tail until they are 4 or 5 years old. You may see immature bald eagles that look very much like golden eagles; basically big, dark buteos. But because golden eagles are rare west of the Cascades, you are usually safe in assuming that any huge, solid dark bird you see here in winter is a young bald eagle.

The number of bald eagles living year-round and nesting in the region continues to increase, so our national bird is no longer just associated with winter. But many additional bald eagles still join our local residents in the winter, making this the best time of year to see them.

The falcon “grand slam”

With very good luck, you could have a falcon grand slam and see all five North American falcons. The American kestrel, America’s smallest falcon, is one of our most common valley residents year-round, so you always have a good chance of seeing a few of these colorful raptors. The slightly larger merlin spends the winter in Western Oregon and can show up in any open country. Merlins are not common and are very hard to separate from kestrels. But merlins never have any of the cinnamon color on their backs that kestrels do.

The fabulous nesting population of peregrine falcons on Portland’s bridges has made the world’s fastest animal a permanent resident here. There are probably a few additional birds added to the small local population in winter. Once again, there is another very similar relative, the prairie falcon, that can be hard to distinguish from the peregrine. Prairie falcons almost always strike observers as some shade of brown, while peregrines are shades of gray and usually very dark. Then there is the big prize for birders seeking rare birds. In some winters the world’s largest falcon, the gyrfalcon of the Arctic, turns up in the valley. This is always exciting news among birders and the word gets out quickly. Any gyrfalcon sighting almost will certainly be on Audubon’s Rare Bird Alert; call 503-292-6855 ext. 200.

Three more winter hawks

Three other hawks are year-round residents but may be more common locally in winter and are seen more frequently during migration. The two accipiters or “bird hawks” are the jay-sized sharp-shinned hawk and the crow-sized Cooper’s hawk. Both could show up just about anywhere at any time and they are notoriously hard to tell apart. But after seeing either of them repeatedly, you can get a sense of the accipiter looks – short, broad wings and long, thin tail. These are the hawks that sometimes snatch smaller birds off backyard bird feeders. Although this provides an excellent opportunity to see these raptors at work, not everyone is thrilled to have such a close look at predation.

Our last common winter hawk is the Northern harrier, often called by its older and more intuitive name, marsh hawk. They can be seen flying very low over marshland and wet fields with their wings held up at an angle. The bright white rump patch is usually obvious and makes this one of the easiest birds of prey to identify. They are easy to see in the wetlands that are the winter home to thousands of waterfowl.

Okay, now you have plenty of good reasons to put on your warm clothes, bundle up and head out for some winter raptor watching. But don’t forget about hunting season. There never is legal hunting of birds of prey, of course, but there is waterfowl hunting in many of the choice wetlands where birds of prey can be found. Waterfowl hunting runs from about mid-October to the end of January. During that time, be aware of where hunting may take place and find out when, especially at places like the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area or national wildlife refuges such as Ridgefield. A great guide to bird watching and other wildlife watching in the region is “Wild in the City” by Michael Houck and M. J. Cody, available at many Portland area bookstores.

See for yourself

For more information about bird watching and other chances to Metro parks and greenspaces with a naturalist, read the Metro GreenScene... More

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