Though the report was depressing there were two bright spots that provide hope and can guide us from grief to action. The report includes this happy news: Ducks increased 56% and raptors 200% thanks to our intervention.
Ducks were in such steep decline in the early 1900s that hunters banded together to reverse the trend. The main cause of decline was habitat loss — the disappearance of wetlands — so they worked to pass wetland protection laws in the U.S. and Canada and migratory duck protection in Mexico. People gave of their time and money to build wetland habitat for waterfowl, especially through Ducks Unlimited. Their effort paid off.
Meanwhile, by 1970 peregrine falcons were extinct east of the Mississippi and bald eagle populations had crashed. The cause was a pesticide — DDT — that was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972. With Endangered Species Act protection and the work of recovery programs, peregrine falcons and bald eagles made a stunning come back.
The recent decline in North American birds has its root in the same problems we solved for ducks and raptors: habitat loss and pesticides. We solved it before, can do it again. We can turn our grief into action.
Our actions can be small scale or large — from our own backyards, to local schools and parks, to the national level.
On a local and national scale we can work to restore habitat and reduce pesticides through conservation organizations and our local Audubon and birding clubs (see list at end).
And finally, we can work to change attitudes toward nature and we can vote. Wetland protection and pesticide laws were key to saving ducks and raptors. Every level of government — from school board to nation — makes decisions that affect birds.
After an interval of grief, we’ll have a lot to do. We can do it. We just have to try.
(red-winged blackbird photos from Wikimedia Commons; 7 Simple Things from Cornell Lab of Ornithology; click on the captions to see the originals. Ring-necked ducks by Steve Gosser, peregrine falcon by Peter Bell)
p.s. Pittsburghers, here are some land and bird conservation organizations, mostly local:
Young bald eagles can be hard to identify because they don’t have white heads and tails. To complicate matters, our field guides show a very similar bird, the golden eagle. How can you tell if a large dark bird in western Pennsylvania is a bald eagle? Here are some tips, plus a comparison to golden eagles.
First, make sure the bird is not a turkey vulture. See V Is For Vulture for details.
Second, the location, time of year, and habitat are your best clues to its identity.
Location and time of year:
Bald eagles are year round residents of Pennsylvania. Their population is booming.
Golden eagles are rare in eastern North America and only seen at Pennsylvania hawk watches during fall and spring migration.
Bald eagles eat fish and are found at rivers and lakes. They are tolerant of human settlements and will nest in suburbs or towns near water.
Golden eagles eat meat and are found in open country such as mountains, cliffs, tundra, grassland and deserts. They avoid human settlements.
Third, you’re ready to look at plumage with this caveat: I am not an expert at aging immature bald eagles. If you have tips, photos or corrections please leave a comment.
BALD EAGLE FIRST YEAR PLUMAGE: (“first year” and “juvenile” are synonymous)
In their first year of life juvenile bald eagles have dark gray beaks, dark brown feathers overall with variable white mottling under their wings and tails. The photo at top by Annette Devinney shows the white mottling seen in flight.
SECOND AND THIRD YEAR PLUMAGE: (called “immature” birds)
In their second year bald eagles turn whiter with additional mottling on their backs, bellies and wings. Still mottled in their third year, their bodies darken while their heads and tails turn whiter.
Second year birds may show uneven trailing edges on their wings because first-year flight feathers are longer than those of older birds. This bird shows a mix of old and new feathers.
FOURTH YEAR PLUMAGE: (nearly “adult,” may nest at four years old)
Bald eagles complete their adult plumage in their fourth year. Their heads and tails have a slightly dirty appearance due to a few dark feathers. In 2013 the new Harmar female had some dark tail feathers, below. She was probably only four years old.
FULL ADULT PLUMAGE: (fifth year and beyond)
Adult bald eagles with white heads and tails cannot be mistaken for any other North American bird. In the photo below, the Hays female carries a fish to her young.
COMPARING GOLDEN AND BALD EAGLES:
Juvenile bald eagles resemble golden eagles in size and coloration. However …
Golden eagles are dark brown with golden feathers on the nape of the neck. Adults have completely dark underwings and tails. Immatures have a white band at the base of the tail and dark underwings, not mottled, with either a white line down the middle of the wing or a white half moon at the wrist (see below). Golden eagles’ heads look smaller than bald eagles’ because their beaks are smaller. Here are two photos of golden eagles in flight at the Allegheny Front by Steve Gosser.
Finally, golden eagles are extremely rare in Allegheny County, even as flyovers, while bald eagles are resident year round if the rivers don’t freeze. An all-dark eagle near Pittsburgh is most likely a juvenile bald eagle. It may have been born here.
Learn more about aging bald eagles and comparing them to goldens at these links:
Most owl species have camouflage-colored bellies, but most barn owls (Tyto alba) do not. Though their backs blend into their surroundings, the majority have brilliant white faces, bellies, underwings and legs. The rest are better camouflaged in rusty red, below.
The white color stands out in moonlight but is this visibility a disadvantage? Does the white owl’s prey see it coming and escape? Are reddish owls more successful on moonlit nights? Researchers ran tests to find out.
In a barn owl study in Switzerland, scientists have been tracking plumage, prey availability, moon phases and breeding success for over 20 years. When they correlated moon phase with hunting success, they found that reddish barn owls have lower success on full moon nights than white ones.
This seemed very odd so they set up an experiment with full moon lighting and two taxidermied owls posed in flight — one white, one reddish. When a vole was placed in the “moonlit” room and presented with a flying (stuffed) owl, it froze in place for an extra 5 seconds when it saw the white one. Those 5 seconds were just enough time for the white owl to pounce. The reddish owl was out of luck. Apparently the glowing white plumage has its advantages.
Every year, beginning in late August, broad-winged hawks (Buteo platypterus) head south on a 4,500 mile journey from their nesting territories in North America to their winter grounds in Central and South America. It’s a journey many of us witness at Pennsylvania hawk watches.
Unlike other hawks, broad-wings usually travel together. Though not in organized flocks they cue off each other to find the best travel conditions. This brings them together on migration.
The Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1.5 hours from Pittsburgh, saw 119 broad-winged hawks last Saturday but will peak September 13-15 with close to 2,000. Other Pennsylvania hawk watches will count even more.
Visit Hawkcount.org to see the latest statistics and find a hawk watch near you. Plan a visit soon.
Meanwhile, keep looking up. There’s a good chance you’ll see a broad-winged hawk overhead in the next couple of weeks.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
In this short film, Shawn Hayes describes his relationship with birds and how he became a falconer. His co-star in the film is an immature prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) that he’s working with to orchestrate the perfect flight.
About the bird’s future he says:
The day that I release my bird back out to the wild I know that bird is going to survive. I know that bird is going to go out and probably get a mate and produce other birds in the wild. And I was part of that.
Shawn Hayes, “How One City Man Found His Calling in the Wild”
“Falconry is not a sport, it’s not an art — it’s a way of life.”
If I had to pick a Best Bird on my trip to Alaska it would be the long-tailed jaegar (long-tailed skua, Stercorarius longicaudus), the most graceful arctic predator.
Long-tailed jaegars are the smallest of skuas, a genus of predatory seabirds that range from pole to pole. In flight their long tails and flowing movements remind me of swallow-tailed kites as they float over the tundra in pairs and loudly defend their territories. On the hunt they can hover like kestrels, as shown in the video below.
Though long-tailed jaegars are seabirds, their favorite foods in Alaska are collared lemmings.
How does a seabird without talons capture rodents? Well, he doesn’t use his feet.
Birds of North America Online explains his hunting technique …
Long-tailed Jaeger hunts these lemmings by hovering or poising in a headwind at height of 1-10 m [3-30 feet] (usually about 4 m) above tundra, like a kestrel unlike other jaegers, and by watching from perches on small rises or frost mounds … Having detected prey, often pursues it on foot and pecks it until it is dead; never uses feet to capture prey.
Alaska Birding with PIB: Nome to Anchorage 23 June 2019
Most people never see a wild gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), the world’s largest falcon and most northern diurnal raptor. Though gyrfalcons have a circumpolar distribution through North America, Greenland, Iceland and Eurasia, they rarely come south, even in winter. Their remoteness protected them from the past persecution of raptors and made them prized as falconers’ birds.
Compared to peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons have larger heads, thicker necks, bulkier deep chests, shorter and broader wings, and a longer tail. Gyrfalcons look like powerful prize fighters, peregrines are sleek and fast.
Gyrfalcons need this bulk because their prey items are much larger birds than peregrines eat. Gyrfalcons can kill cranes and Canada geese but their primary prey are ptarmigans, especially rock ptarmigans. In some regions the gyrfalcon population is cyclic in response to the ptarmigan population. Climate change is affecting the ptarmigan population — bad news for gyrfalcons.
We think of gyrs as white falcons because that’s what we see in the media but there’s a lot of color variation. Many are brown-speckled, like the bird in Iceland on the right.
Most gyrfalcons in North America are a uniform dark brown, like this one that spent the winter of 2001-2002 at the Black Falcon Terminal (dock) in Boston, Massachusetts. This bird was so famous and so reliably found that 17 years later there are still photos of it online. Glen Tepke took this picture on 16 February 2002.
I mention this individual bird because I traveled to see it — the only gyrfalcon I’d ever seen until my trip to Alaska. It shows how rare they are in the eastern U.S.
Gyrfalcons live in Alaska year round and breed here in early summer. Yesterday we saw a gyrfalcon family with 3 or 4 young in the nest. The young were nearly ready to fledge — at the ‘pantaloons’ stage — very dark brown. They were definitely Best Birds!
Last year a pair nested in Nome, photographed in June 2018 by Mick Thompson.