Beaks and Bills
Birds According to Peterson
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and also serves the chapter as newsletter editor and birding programs coordinator. He has been watching birds for more than 50 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 30 years. He has written more than 100 articles for Whatcom Watch.
Part IV: Birds of Prey Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons
To many birdwatchers, from casual and intermediate to advanced, no other group of birds is as exciting as the birds of prey that make their living by eating other birds and mammals, as well as fish and anything else they can sink their talons into on any given day. There’s no doubt that these are birds of action and the appeal increases when you observe any of them when they’re simply eking out an existence.
The birds included in this group are the epitome of avian action figures — eagles, falcons, and hawks, as well as ospreys and those masters of the night – the owls. The appeal of these birds to all birdwatchers is embodied in the intense light in their eyes. In the case of owls, we see a lot of ourselves in the forward-facing eyes that are one of their characteristic features. Birds of prey, also known as raptors, are well represented in Whatcom County by a number of species in a variety of habitat types.
Most of the larger hawks that we see are members of the genus Buteo, which is the Latin word for buzzard. These birds are still called buzzards in the Old World but the mere connotation of that word has little or no appeal to the discerning North American bird watcher. Buteos have long, broad wings which are suited for soaring during the daytime. As thermals rise over the open areas which they prefer for hunting, buteos can be seen soaring as they wait for a glimpse of their prey. These active hunters seem to have a preference for a wide variety of rodents but any small animal is fair game.
When many of us think of hawks, the first species that comes to mind is the red-tailed hawk, probably the most common and most widespread hawk throughout North America. Red-tails can be seen locally throughout the year, usually perched in conspicuous places like trees, utility poles, and fence posts. With their keen vision, they patiently wait on their elevated perches and watch for any sign of movement from suitable prey species. Red-tails build large stick nests and usually return to old sites unless the nests have been taken over by other species like great horned owls.
In late fall and winter, local hawk watchers often mark the changing of the seasons with the arrival of a special visitor from the north, the rough-legged hawk. Roughies, as they’re commonly known, are birds of the Arctic and sub-Arctic and they migrate south to escape the harsh winters and find more available food sources. Like some of the smaller birds of prey, rough-legged hawks often hover above open fields before pouncing on an unsuspecting meal.
Some of the more active and exciting birds of prey are the three species known as accipiters, which range in size from the large northern goshawk to the Cooper’s hawk and the still smaller sharp-shinned hawk. These hawks, unlike the buteos, prefer wooded habitats and with their shorter, broad wings and long tails, are quite adept at pursuing prey in dense vegetation. Most prominent locally are the Cooper’s and the sharpies, both of which nest in the area. Cooper’s hawk nests can be found in several locations along the Whatcom Creek trail from Lake Whatcom all the way into the downtown area, and in many local parks.
The open fields in the county, most notably the Lummi Flats, are the best places to see northern harriers. Harriers are medium-sized hawks that are a delight to watch as they float and glide, often just above the ground, before pouncing on any suitable prey they might find. Harriers nest on the ground and are thereby vulnerable to any number of land predators like coyotes.
Unique among birds of prey is the osprey, known in some places as the fish hawk, for obvious reasons since their diet consists almost exclusively of fish. Ospreys usually nest near water and successful osprey nests are often a good indication of a healthy body of water. The fishing technique of ospreys is to plunge feet first, with talons extended, to snare their preferred prey. Sometimes they submerge completely to get to fish that might be below the surface.
Another interesting trait of ospreys is the technique they utilize to carry their catch to a perch or back to the nest to feed their young. Once a fish has been secured in its razor-sharp talons and the osprey leaves the water, it will turn the fish so it’s facing forward to reduce the aerodynamic drag. It’s very impressive to watch if you ever see ospreys fishing and a testimonial to the intrinsic intelligence of wildlife. Osprey nests are large collections of sticks and other nesting materials and are usually quite open to viewing. The pair that nests on Whatcom Creek has returned for the third year in a row.
Whatcom Hosts Bald Eagles
We are quite fortunate to share our little corner of the world with one of the most magnificent birds of all – the bald eagle. Our national symbol is a major part of one of the most dramatic stories of wildlife conservation. This species was on the brink of extinction in the mid-20th century, but after the combination of federal protection and the banning of DDT in 1972 bald eagle populations began a long recovery. Because of these actions, the species has now been removed from the list of endangered species.
Whatcom County has a number of nesting pairs of bald eagles so we have the opportunity to observe them throughout the year. In late fall and winter, large numbers of eagles from Alaska and Canada come down to this area to feast on spawning salmon. The Nooksack River salmon runs provide food for more than 500 bald eagles, primarily on the North Fork of the river upstream from Deming. Few things are quite as exhilarating as a large gathering of eagles on a cold winter day in January.
In the world of birds, the family of falcons is noted primarily for their speed, and the peregrine is the champion in this category. Peregrines are the fastest-moving creatures on the planet, having been recorded at speeds of 200 miles per hour during their dives in pursuit of prey. This speed combines with extremely keen eyesight to make it one of the most formidable of all avian predators.
Locally, birdwatchers rejoice in a five-falcon day in winter, just south of the county line on the Samish Flats south and west of Edison. On occasions when wintering shorebirds and other prey species are numerous, peregrines will be joined on the flats by American kestrels, merlins, prairie falcons, and the magnificent gyrfalcon, the largest member of this family. Any gyrfalcon generates excitement in the birding community but the ultimate for many bird watchers is the sighting of a white morph gyrfalcon, a falcon that is roughly the size of some of the large buteos.
The birds of prey are fascinating, leading dynamic lives that revolve around the pursuit and capture of other living things. The word raptor comes from the Latin word, rapere, which means to seize or take by force, and that’s precisely what they do. With their speed, aerial maneuverability, and their keen eyesight, they are all marvelous examples of adaptive evolution and they never fail to impress their bird watching fans.
Part V: Owls