December 17, 10 am.
Today is a damp and foggy autumn day. The rain over the weekend and last night has soaked the ground and caused the creeks to rise. It is not cold and I am anxious to get walking out on the valley floor. This is the time for migrating raptors to arrive and I want to photograph the differences between the migrant, nonresident buteo called a Ferruginous hawk, Buteo regalis and one of our resident buteos, the Red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaciensis. Buteos are soaring hawks with broad wings and short, wide tails. The Red-tailed hawk is common and widespread in North America. It loves open country and woodlands at the edge of the valleys. It is seen on telephone poles and makes a loud screaming call when agitated. The most distinguishing characteristic, its red tail, takes a few years to develop. Here is a description from the book, “Lives of North American Birds” written by Kenn Kaufman:
“Most Red-tailed Hawks are rich brown above and pale below, with a streaked belly and, on the wing underside, a dark bar between shoulder and wrist. The tail is usually pale below and cinnamon-red above, though in young birds it’s brown and banded. “Dark-morph” birds are all chocolate-brown with a warm red tail. “Rufous-morph” birds are reddish-brown on the chest with a dark belly.”
Red-tailed hawks can be hard to identify because they are so variable in color but they will always have a belly band and a dark bar between the shoulder and wrist.
The second buteo I want to talk about is one of our awesome migrants. We get a few of these each year coming from the north, maybe as far as Montana or Wyoming, that spend 2 to 3 months in our valley during the fall and winter months. I always look for a very light buteo, with no dark belly band, standing on top of one of the telephone poles along Reynolds Highway. They are a little larger than the Red-tailed hawk but just as noisy when they scream!
This is the beautiful Ferruginous Hawk, Buteo regalis. It usually lives in the wide skies and windswept plains of the west, but in the winter hangs around pastures and open fields in our area. It seems to be curiously unafraid of humans and will sit on its perch undisturbed for what seems like hours! It can be regular in its habits too and be found in the same place at the same time the next day! This buteo hunts for similar food as the Red-tailed, squirrels, rabbits, and other small mammals, snakes, other birds, even insects. This bird I have seen doing something that is called “kiting” that other birds like White-tailed Kites and American Kestrels do. They use their wings to hold them in one place like a kite, as they look down to find a rodent or rabbit on the ground. It was surprising to see this large, long-winged raptor doing this type of hunting.
We have at least 3 Ferruginous hawks in the valley and I am always thrilled to see one of them!