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.
Andean condors usually nest on inaccessible cliffs 16,000 feet above sea level so it’s a real treat to see a pair nesting on camera at the National Aviary. The condor pair, Lianni and Lurch, expect their egg to hatch June 6-9.
Native to the Andes and nearby Pacific coast, Andean condors (Vultur gryphus) are the world’s largest flying bird. Their 10+ foot wingspan allows them to ride thermals in search of the carcasses of large animals that they scavenge. The condors are so majestic that they’re the national bird of Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador and a national symbol throughout the Andean states.
Because the adults have no natural predators Andean condors have evolved to live long a long time (more than 70 years!) and reproduce slowly (only one egg every 1.5 to 2 years).
Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and secondary poisoning from hunted animals, the species is threatened in the wild and critically endangered in Ecuador. Zoos worldwide are participating in an Andean condor breeding program. Lianni and Lurch’s chick will increase the wild condor population.
Yesterday, 23 March 2019, was a big day at the Hays bald eagle nest. At 8:48am Audubon of Western PA confirmed a pip in one of the three eggs. The egg hatched at 1:14pm.
As usual, the mother bald eagle supervised the hatching process while the father waited for her to tell him ‘all clear.’ What does a father eagle do while he’s waiting? Dana Nesiti of Eagles of Hays PA was on the trail yesterday morning and saw a behavior new to him. He wrote:
… the male grabbed a branch, dropped it while flying and then swooped down and caught it out of the air. Never saw that before.
Tropical islands always have lots of seabirds but are often missing entire families of land birds. Sometimes a family is represented by just one endemic species. In Hawaii this is true of both crows (Corvidae) and hawks (Accipitridae). There is one endemic crow, the Hawaiian crow, and only one endemic hawk.
The Hawaiian hawk or i’o (Buteo solitarius) is in the same genus as our red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) but he evolved to eat birds, such as rails and ducks, because there weren’t any small mammals on the islands. When humans brought rodents, lizards and game birds to Hawaii many of the hawk’s original prey disappeared so he switched to hunting introduced species.
The Hawaian hawk comes in light morph and dark morph plumage. Dark morphs are dark chocolate brown. Pictured here are light morph individuals — an adult above, a juvenile below. You can tell the males and females apart not by plumage but by size. Females are 50% heavier than males, the most sexually dimorphic of all buteos.
As with red-tailed hawks, juvenile i’os are easier to get close to.
The i’o is a loud bird whose Hawaiian name imitates his voice: “I’o.” “Eee Ohhh.” He often calls while soaring. Click here to hear.
The Hawaiian hawk used to inhabit four islands but is now found only on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The population declined for many years but is making a comeback. That’s good news for Hawai’i. This hawk is important to Hawaiian culture and a symbol of Hawaiian royalty.
(photo of adult (striped) hawk by Bettina Arrigoni on Flickr, Creative Commons license; photo of juvenile (pale) hawk from Wikimedia Commons. click on the captions to see the originals)
Tour Day 5: Travel from Kauai to the Big Island of Hawai’i, Kealakekua and Pu’u Anahulu