Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hawk Watching

Raptors are among my favorite birds to watch. They are regal and so graceful as they soar through the air. We make a trip each January to Western Kentucky to see the Bald Eagles who winter on Kentucky Lake. This is how I learned to use binoculars to find a football shape in the trees that might be an eagle. The State Park which organizes the weekend usually has a raptor rehab program bring in other birds for us to admire as well. At the Falls of the Ohio, I always watch for the Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons, and, of course, the Vultures. At Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia, however, they take their hawk watching very seriously during the fall migration. On the elevated platform, at least one person is on duty each day, and he is joined by any birders who come by, whether they are experts or amateurs like us. One kind expert even explained to us how she can tell the difference between a Sharp Shinned Hawk and a Coopers Hawk at 5 miles and 1,000 feet! It was truly amazing to see kettles of these birds soaring in the air and start counting how many could be seen at one time. The watchers cheered when clouds started rolling in because it gave a "sky-mark" to help locate the birds. I don't think they can collect any sort of Worker's Comp for the stiff neck they must have at the end of the day. We learned to bring a small folding camp seat next time we try this. The highlight of our hawking was the day Joe captured a Red-tailed Hawk who required a size 7E band (really big, he said) and brought her over to the platform for us. Just look at the size of her legs, especially compared to some of the warblers who have legs smaller than toothpicks! What a great opportunity to see the variety of feathers on this magnificent bird's wings and head, and the subtle color variations. Now I know where the phrase about having one's "feathers ruffled" comes from. This was one angry bird who never took her eyes off Joe. Even though she has some film on her eye, Joe said she could see OK, and she didn't hesitate a bit to fly away from us as fast as she could when he released her. Just click on any picture to enlarge it. But the best part was finding and watching raptors on our own, a little closer and easier to see. The Eastern Shore NWR had a female Kestral who claimed the top branch of a cedar tree as her perch, just outside their observation room. For two days, she would leave to catch a juicy dragon fly, then resume her perch to eat it. By the time I went for my camera and set it up, she left and didn't come back. We then drove down a country road among the farms, and saw more Kestrals just floating in the strong head wind, and a Northern Harrier who skimmed only a foot or two above the crops. We recognized the white spot on his rump. Of course, Ospreys are always my favorites and we saw them everywhere. publishes the statistics for the hawks observed in migration. In the last five days alone at Kiptopeke, they counted 539 Ospreys and 494 Kestrals!

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