The Hunters -fast and fearless

The phrase: “birds of prey” usually brings up images of hawks and falcons and maybe eagles as well. But in reality if you are an earthworm the American Robin bob-bob-bobbin’ in the yard is a real predator. I guess that “birds of prey” might include thrushes, flycatchers, loons, all diving ducks, sandpipers, and most other birds as well. Very few eat only fruits, grains, or vegetables. But here we will look at some of the hunters, the killers, the swift, and merciless. Perspective is always important – remember that there is no right or wrong way to live or behave; opportunity and the resultant evolution drives and determines behavior. Those best adapted and most able, survive to breed. If you see the world from a plants perspective (and we will look at that in upcoming posts) almost everything seems to be a threat or a predator. But, again, perhaps as usual, I digress.

The images below are of a few local birds of prey – many of the images were taken in our yard and many of them, as well as a few others, are likely to be part of your daily life as well. Look around, you’ll see things.

There are several major groups of hunting birds; those with tearing beaks and sharp talons. The owls and hawks and falcons and osprey and eagles are very similar in many ways and different enough to be individually recognized by a third grader and separated by experienced taxonomists.

The first two images are of a Red-tailed Hawk (RTHA). This is a Buteo and is one of the most common birds of prey in North America. There are many populations across the continental US (and in to both Canada and Mexico) and most are recognizable by plumage differences; lighter colored birds here in the east and various darker groups to the west.
Like many of our hawks they are largely, but not universally, migratory. Though they will often “rebond” with the same bird at the nest site in the spring. They do not migrate together nor winter together in the south. In many species the females are larger and the males smaller. This is true with the Red-tails. When seen soaring together in the spring as they court and prepare to nest, the male is obviously smaller.
Another of the Buteo hawks is the smaller Broad-winged Hawk (BWHA). This is a bird of the woodlands and is both a nesting species and passage migrant here in northeastern USA. They migrate in dense flocks and high numbers into Central and South America in the fall and return to the US over the Texas border in mid to late April. Many years ago while leading a birding tour for Mass Audubon, along with the great Jim Lane, I once saw tens of thousands of Broad-wings returning into the US on the southerly wind. They were hung in the sky, traveling on the wind, in such numbers that they appeared as do the Northern Lights. The sky was draped with them. Obviously a memorable occurrence.
The lead image of this post is of a Broad-wing overhead here at the house – a pair was scouting a yard tree for a nest. They chose somewhere else.
This lean bird of prey belongs to another group, the Accipiters. This is a group that hunts other birds. To that end they had shortish broad wings and a long tail. These features allow them to fly into and through woodlands turning and wheeling as they must in order to chase down smaller birds. This image and the one below are of a Cooper’s Hawk (COHA). This bird has become quite common in the east. It’s smaller cousin, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, was very common until about 30 years ago and in the last few decades the Cooper’s has increased and the Sharpies have declined. They have a larger cousin called the Goshawk and that bird can catch and kill birds as large as chickens – a feature that has made them persona non grata in farmland.
This Cooper’s Hawk is on a limb with a bit of food between its feet. I am not sure what it has caught but it looks like a young crow that it took from a nest. I see these Accipiters zipping past the bird feeders a couple times a week. They may do it every day for all I know. In the past three weeks we have had Mourning Dove (MODO), Downy Woodpecker (DOWO), and Northern Cardinal (NOCA) feathers strewn about.
The Peregrine Falcon is a living icon. Conservation, speed, and skill all have peregrine references. It is a sleek and powerful bird. It will eat a variety of things but it is another bird-catching specialist. It will rise up and dive down in a blinding stoop (dive) taking birds near the ground. It is said that their diving speed can approach 200 miles per hour!! Hard to imagine – until you see one chasing a flock of Red Knots (REKN) or Green-winged Teal (GWTE). Wow.
This last image is of a tiny falcon, the Merlin (MERL). It is a bird that nests in the northern forests and migrates deep into the south. It measures only 9″ (22cm) and is fearless. This particular one let Fran walk up to it and take a series of images. They are bird and insect eaters and take their prey by flying straight at it and catching it with a final flourish. They are bold little guys unafraid of any other bird and will harass peregrines, eagles, and hawks. The belly often appears dark both in flight and when perched.

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