What to watch for in November: Wintering Raptors

Here’s the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon

Raptor Rapture

What birds are considered raptors? To most of us it means birds of prey – birds that kill vertebrates. These birds often exhibit sharp talons, hooked bills and keen eyesight. However there are many other species of birds, like jays and shrikes, that kill vertebrates, and some birds of prey that don’t have talons, nor especially good eyesight or hooked bills. A more precise definition of raptor includes species that evolved from a raptorial landbird lineage, even though some may not exhibit characteristics historically associated with raptors. Vultures, for example, are considered raptors even though they are mostly carrion eaters. Other birds of prey such as eagles are scavengers. Ultimately, the following birds are defined as raptors: hawks, eagles, kites, harriers, osprey, vultures, owls and falcons.

People find birds of prey fascinating. Watching one hunt is nature in action, and reminds us that life is going on all around us, outside the human sphere. Most of those raptors that were migrating south into Central and South America moved through during August – October. The ones that have stayed plan to spend the winter in Central Texas, joining others that reside here year-round. The diurnal raptors (active in daylight) that have adapted to humans in urban and suburban settings include, from largest to smallest, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks and American Kestrels. Let’s get acquainted with these.

Red-tailed Hawk – COURTESY: James Giroux

Many people notice raptors that are perched on light poles, particularly along freeways that have grassy medians separating traffic lanes. These are most likely Red-tailed Hawks, probably North America’s most common hawk. They are watching and waiting for prey to move. Red-tails have broad, rounded wings, and short tails. When they fly you might see dark bars on the leading edge of the underwing. Making it a little more challenging to identify them, not all Red-tails have red tails. For fun, the next time you take a road trip, count the number of hawks you see perched on poles or wires- they seem to evenly space themselves, about one per mile, so that they each get a decent hunting territory.

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a bird of your neighborhood wooded greenbelt. It will perch out in the open on wires, but more often is seen perched on a shaded tree branch where it blends in quite well. It especially likes to be creekside or pond side. Red-shouldered Hawks eat a wide variety of prey items, including snakes, mice, lizards, frogs, crayfish and birds. The adult birds are richly red on their breast and bellies, with strongly barred black and white rather long tails that they spread in flight. Red-shouldered Hawks are quite vocal, so listen for their repetitive kee-yah call.

Red-shouldered Hawk – COURTESY: James Giroux

Unlike the Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, which take a wide variety of prey items, the Cooper’s Hawk is a bird-eating hawk that hunts and terrorizes smaller birds. It has shorter wings than the Red-tails and Red-shouldered and a very long tail. These give it maneuverability as it weaves between trees and shrubs to pursue and catch its prey. It is not unusual for a Cooper’s to perch on a backyard fence waiting for unsuspecting birds. (It will take birds as large as doves.) If one takes a liking to your backyard bird buffet, take down your feeders for a week or so, which should encourage it to look elsewhere. The adult Cooper’s Hawk has a fierce appearance, with reddish orange eyes. It has a gray-blue back and white underparts with beautiful rufous barring. Cooper’s Hawks used to only be winter residents here, but over the last several years some have stopped migrating, since they have a year-round reliable source of food. Unlike many species of birds, Cooper’s Hawk numbers have increased over the last fifty years.

Cooper’s Hawk with Grackle- COURTESY: Chris Harrison

The last common wintering raptor is the American Kestrel, a charismatic small falcon that is about 9 inches in length. Kestrels’ preferred habitat is short grassy areas with few trees. Open areas of parks and pastures are appealing. They will perch on wires and cell phone towers, and also hover facing into the wind, before they fly down to pounce on prey. Their diet is mostly insects like grasshoppers, dragonflies, and cicadas, but they also take small birds and rodents. One of the kestrel’s nicknames is sparrowhawk.

Male American Kestrel – COURTESY: James Giroux

The American Kestrel male and female look different. The male has a rusty orange back with some black barring, blue-gray wings, and pale underparts. The female’s upperparts are all orange with blackish barring. Both have two black sideburns or whisker stripes on their faces which sets them apart from other North American falcons that have only one black sideburn. While most of Austin’s kestrels are here just for the winter, there is a pair at 45th and Guadalupe that has nested and successfully fledged young in the past. Other places in Austin that usually have a wintering kestrel include Roy Guerrero Park, Commons Ford Ranch Metro Park, Lake Travis Windy Point, and the agricultural roads of Northeast Travis County. Listen for the klee klee klee call often given in flight.

Everybody has a raptor story. What’s yours?

Upcoming Travis Audubon Events – Check the events calendar for upcoming events, field trips and classes. Most field trips are free and require reservations. Classes are fee based.

Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer