Probably the last of this waxing moon we’ll see this month, due to the coming storm. Beautiful night.
As I was winding down my day while traveling in southern CA recently, I had the pleasure of watching a showdown between a juvenile red-tailed hawk and an adult Cooper’s hawk (likely a female). When I got back to the house where I was staying, I noticed the juvenile red-tailed hawk perched in a relaxed manner on the peak of the house next door, watching the sun go down.
This hawk is most likely about 1 year old, quite an accomplishment to have survived its first year (raptors have mortality rates in the first year as high as 70%!). Juvenile red-tailed hawks lack a red tail, often have lighter colored eyes than adults, and have some spotty patterns on the belly band (versus more streaking in adults). It seemed relaxed as it faced the setting sun, evidenced by its fluffed-out feathers and its left leg lifted up into its belly feathers. You can see on the right leg, there appears to be a band on this bird – possibly it was caught and banded during the migration last year.
I relocated to a second-story balcony which afforded better views of the bird, and as I stood there watching suddenly another raptor appeared on the scene! On a power line at about eye-level to me, an adult female Cooper’s hawk alighted and assumed a similar relaxed pose to the red-tail, with one foot up as it surveyed the area.
Cooper’s hawks are part of the Accipter genus of birds in the Accipitridae family, and can be extremely difficult to discern from their close relative the sharp-shinned hawk – a smaller version of this bird. Most raptor species exhibit reverse sexual dimorphism, meaning the females are larger than the males. What makes the identification of a Coopers versus a sharp-shinned hawk especially difficult in addition to very similar plummage is that a male Coopers can be about the same size as a female sharp-shinned hawk. In the above picture, there are some really helpful features that help key this bird as a Cooper’s hawk.
rounded termination of the tail feathers (versus more straight across in sharp-shinned)
dark “cap” on the head feathers (versus more of a full hood on a sharp-shinned hawk)
eyes are placed more towards the front of the skull (sharp-shinned hawks’ eyes seem almost in the center of their skull when viewed from the side)
thicker tarsus, or leg bone (sharp-shinned get their name from having an incredibly thin tarsus)
I am not 100% certain that this bird is a female, but that is my initial guess based on size relative to the red-tail (which I thought could be a female based on her large size – but again, no great scale for reference).
The Cooper’s hawk didn’t remain relaxed for long – as soon as it spotted the red-tailed hawk perched above it became much more alert, dropping its leg down and staring intently (though, to be honest, all these birds seem to only have a single facial expression – and if there is one word for it, it is “intense”).
She relocated to a place on the power line closer to the red-tail to get a better look …
In the above picture, you can see the white feathers that protrude below the tail on its ventral side. This is a helpful feature to identify accipiters in the field from a distance, but one needs to be aware that Northern harriers have a similar white patch that appear on their dorsal side.
Finally the Cooper’s hawk decided to move in on the red-tail – likely it has a nest in the area and did not like the red-tail hanging around too close. The Coop flew up on top of the chimney, and the showdown began. You can see the size difference fairly well in this photo (with the Coop on the right).
At this point, the red-tail took notice of the Coop but still had a leg up (no pun intended) and was facing away from it. In what had to be some sort of bird statement, the red-tail proceeded to slice (poo) in the direction of the Coop!
Casually, the red-tail then turned to face the Cooper’s hawk, then took off right in its direction flying just to the north of it. The Coop jumped off right after the red-tail and pursued! At first the red-tail tried to do some circles and gain altitude, but it eventually became a full on chase. There wasn’t much actual contact, but the Cooper’s hawk made its point and the red-tail seemed fine with relocating to a tree not too far away.
Awesome to see these birds and witness this close encounter!
No, they weren’t misbehaving.
Bald eagles take five years before they grow their adult plumage, and in the early years many people can mistake them for golden eagles since they don’t acquire the characteristic white head and tail until adulthood.
One bird was perched on a branch very close to the road, and we spent a long period of time together at a very close distance. The bird preened and seemed relaxed (which let me know I wasn’t too close, something I’m always ultra-sensitive to – I try to always be far enough away that the wildlife feels comfortable and not threatened). This bird appears to be a young bird in its second year of life (now approaching its second birthday) – wearing what is referred to as a Basic I plumage (1st year, or hatch year is called a “juvenile,” second year is Basic I, then Basic II, Basic III and adult). The feather pattern for each year are variable but generally unique, combined with beak and eye coloring, and help to distinguish the age.
Nearby was another young bird, and this one had plumage that was different than the first – indicative of Basic II plumage (a bird in its third year of life).
Along this same part of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, there was a solitary treeline that had almost 15 bald eagles in it – along with many red-tailed hawks and one golden eagle. A ranger I spoke to said that two weeks prior, he counted over 60 bald eagles (and a golden eagle) in the immediate area of the treeline! The density of birds makes it such that species that usually don’t tolerate each other in close proximity end up roosting right next to each other, as did many bald eagles and red-tails that I witnessed over the two days (though occasionally a red-tail would go after an eagle, just to remind it who was in charge).
Being in an area like this really allows for a deep study into field identification of birds because there are so many species in the area.
A great time of year to visit is in February during the Winter Wings Festival – events are planned over a long weekend catering to raptor viewing, including guided trips in the Basin, education programs, vendor displays (optics mostly), and more. This year it takes place the weekend of February 11-14, 2016.
The Klamath Basin area is home to multiple National Wildlife Refuges (six of them!), and is a major stop-off for migrating water fowl along the Pacific Flyway during the autumn and spring. This flat high desert area (around 4000 feet elevation) straddles the border of Oregon and California and is just east of the Cascade mountain range. It is also host to a lot of agriculture, using waters diverted from the Klamath River to irrigate fields. The Basin sits in view of several volcanoes that are part of the Cascade range, and the area is of volcanic origins. It is truly a magical landscape. Recently it has become even more exciting as there are now two small wolf packs that call the Cascades just west of the Basin home (one of which is the famous OR-7 wolf, who at one point traveled to California and became the first confirmed wolf in CA since the 1930’s)!
The wetlands themselves are estimated to be only 25% of what they once were, due to appropriation of land and water to agriculture. Many interests share this region, and it is often the subject of debate on how to best share the resources among all them, including Wildlife/Plants, Indigenous People, agriculture, hunters, birders, fishing folks, etc.
During the winter months, there is a very high population of raptors that migrate here to wait out the winter due to the availability of prey (and it should be noted that agriculture fields that are dormant often provide a home to many rodents, thereby attracting more raptors). Here during the winter can be found the highest density population of bald eagles in the continental U.S. outside of Alaska! I have been there previously and seen around 50 eagles in one 360 degree view! Not only that, there are a lot of northern migrants such as rough-legged hawks and ferruginous hawks, species not often seen this far west or south. Those in addition to golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, assorted falcons, many owls and more can be seen here.
I braved some cold temperatures, especially the first day – it was near 0 deg F. A ranger I spoke to said that in the morning he had seen a northern pintail (type of duck) that came out of some reeds and couldn’t get its wings to extend – they had frozen to its body during the night! That’s cold (it eventually did free its wings). Needless to say there weren’t many people out there besides me, but I was able to see some amazing sites and sights (which I’ll highlight over the next few blog posts).
A few of the birds during the trip:
My final picture of the first day is a great summary of the area. The sun had set over a half hour before I took this picture – I saw these birds sitting in a tree as I was driving out. My old jeep was not doing a great job of keeping the cold out, but despite my numb fingers and toes I got out to snap this shot. As you can see, the area does not have many trees, so they are coveted by many different birds. Because of the density of prey and lack of trees, often I see multiple species sharing a tree or telephone pole – a necessary truce. The large forms in the tree are a bald eagle on the left, and a red-tailed hawk on the right! They are buddies! At least for the night (usually I see red-tails chasing and harassing bald eagles). Sprinkled among mostly the tree on the left are many red-winged blackbirds as well.
Some great resources to learn more about the area:
Winter Wings Festival – http://winterwingsfest.org/
This February weekend (this year it is Feb 11-14 2016) focuses on raptors in the Klamath Basin area and attracts many people to the area. Tours and guides are available, as well as many other events. Definitely worthwhile!!!
Lava Beds National Monument is nearby, and Mount Shasta is not far to the south. The whole area is really magical, any time of year.
More to come …
What an absolutely amazing place – the Oregon / Cali border, specifically the Klamath Basin area. I did my own version of a takeover of a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon the past two days, but it was all peaceful, and I think much more exciting.
One of the especially amazing sites from my trip … just your typical scenario of a coyote and a golden eagle randomly next to each other (story to follow soon):
The quantity and diversity of raptors found in this one area during the winter is astounding!
Happy New Year – more pictures and details on this trip coming soon …
I was driving down a road in Sonoma County today and noticed a large kettle of turkey vultures flying above an agricultural area – probably numbering almost 40 birds! It was somewhat unusual, and certainly not something I’ve seen yet this year. I pulled over to take another look, knowing that often golden eagles will “hitch” a ride along with a group of vultures. As I was counting the vultures, boom!
I followed the kettle, which conveniently for me also was following the road in my direction! I made a number of stops as I followed it, and during my final stop the Eagle was kind enough to turn around and do a fly-over for me.
Such a beautiful bird – as I observed it I noticed that it lacked any under-wing white patches, but its uniform feather coloring and uniform-length flight feathers indicated that it was probably a first-year hatch bird. It appears it has lost one of its left secondary feathers, which initially made me think perhaps it was older and undergoing a molt, but I still think this bird is a hatch year bird (meaning it hatched this spring).
As it glided back past me and rejoined the group of vultures, a dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk took exception to its presence and launched after the Eagle from its perch among a grove of eucalyptus trees, screaming loudly as it flapped quickly towards the larger bird …
The Red-Tail launched into the kettle and did a few dives at the Eagle, but they were half-hearted attempts – more bark than bite. The kettle of vultures, with the Eagle still flying in it, slowly floated away from the Red-Tail’s territory as it retreated back to a perch in the trees.
Here in the West, especially towards the coast it seems, we have more frequent occurrence of “dark morph” Red-Tails (they have a very diverse variety of feather patterns and tones), and often I’ve seen people mistake these birds for Eagles. To the untrained eye, this is totally understandable. But when you see the two together, there is little doubt about the ID. Golden Eagles are quite a bit larger, have distinctly different plumage when observed closely, different wing shapes, and different shapes/silhouettes when viewed from below. Turkey Vultures are only slightly smaller than Eagles, and both can hold their wings in a slight dihedral shape when soaring – to the naked eye they can appear very similar – but upon viewing them with binoculars, they also have very different silhouettes and feather colors, and an experienced observer can distinguish the two from each other even without binoculars.
It was really fun to see all the Vultures, the Eagle and the dark Red-Tail on this beautiful NorCal “summer” day.
beautiful day up on hawk hill, filled with friends, hazy blue skies, and a good number of migrating birds and butterflies.
as i arrived there we had a great look at a merlin that flew not too far overhead (a merlin is a type of small falcon, larger than a kestrel but smaller than a peregrine falcon) – it appeared to be a juvenile. they are fairly uncommon here in the bay area, but they pass through during migration time from their breeding grounds to the north – and in the time of short days we get a boost in the population as some choose to spend the winter here.
the humans congregated on top of the hill with their scopes and binos, calling out every moving bird within a couple of miles. it’s a rather bizarre experience, to see all these people perched on the high hill for hours at a time every day for three months of the year, but wonderful that so many committed volunteers take their time to do this. as everyone was focused afar, two resident ravens, a male and female pair, landed very close by to watch the watchers.
we chuckled as we realized that i was watching the birds, who were watching the other people, who were watching the other birds! these two hung around for quite a while, intrigued by the activity of the people (and likely looking for some dropped food as well). occasionally they would come very close to each other, making quiet croaking noises as one of them would groom the other’s face area. it was so endearing. and at such close quarters, in the bright sun, i could really see the intelligence in their eyes. amazing, beautiful animals.
we saw a lot of accipiters today, as expected, but were also treated to a number of ferruginous hawks, several merlins, and some late-in-the-day peregrines. after most people had packed up for the day and i was leaving the hill, a red-tail floated overhead to hunt the area and allowed for some really fun pictures …
the colors on this bird are amazing, and for an adult it has a very light eye (iris). so beautiful. thank you, my good friend!
as always happens when one packs up to leave, birds start showing themselves and tempting you to stay. as i started down the trail, one last juvenile northern harrier tried to keep me on the hill.