Winter Raptors Signal Spring

These January days are cold and the nights even colder, but the promise of spring is in the air, in spite of the frigid temperatures. Now that the sun has risen a little in the sky, the days are getting longer. We humans may not notice such subtle changes but the wildlife feels these changes with each passing day. For some, the added daylight has triggered their instinctive, seasonal clocks and they feel spring’s first romantic surges in their hearts. For them, love is in the air and they sing their courtship songs through the snow-covered valleys.

The Red fox has found his vixen and together they play in the moonlight, tossing and playing with a mouse he has caught for her. Soon they will mate and stay together even after the kits are born in March or April. Their spring has started and their winter burdens are no longer a top priority. The little red fox raises his face to the moon and yelps out his love song for all to hear.

The coyotes are also feeling the urges of courtship, and they, too, will be pairing up soon. I hear them every night as they sing to each other, bonding together to ensure their future on the land.

Red-tailed Hawk

Tonight at twilight, I heard a song that always reminds me that spring comes in January. From the silence, a soft song drifted down the valley. “Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo hoo.” The song of the great horned owl was a pleasant surprise. I’ve heard them only a few times in the many years I’ve lived in this valley, but never before in January. My thoughts turned to the old stick nest on the east ridge, built high in the oak tree many years ago by a pair of Red-tailed hawks. The hawks don’t start their nesting duties this early, and the owl may be thinking of taking over the nest. Great horned owls don’t build their own stick nest but rather find one already built. The hawks are no match for the powerful owl, and if the owl wants to use the nest, he will. His song came from the same area where the nest is, although it was already too dark to see him or the nest. Horned owls are among some of the first birds to start nesting each spring. The female could be incubating her two eggs by this time of the month. I’m hoping they stick around—it would be nice to hear the songs of the great horned owls in the valley.

Great Horned Owl

The birds that come to the bird feeders have been kind of nervous lately, and with good reason. There’s been a little sharp-shinned hawk paying a visit to the yard at least once a day for the past couple of weeks. The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest of the family of hawks known as Accipiters. The little adult male hawk isn’t much larger than a blue jay and is fast enough to catch any bird at the feeders, from the tiny chickadees to the jays. I looked out the window when I heard the birds flush for cover and the only bird to be seen was Mr. Sharp-shin standing belly-deep in the powdery snow. He stood for 10-15 seconds before flying off to the trees—that’s when I saw the small dark junco that he was carrying. His success rate isn’t that good, but he must eat every day in the winter to survive. It’s not easy to get a picture of one of these very quick hawks, so I try to keep the camera within reach.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Later in the day I took a ride out to the top of the ridge road to watch the sun on the winter landscape. The land up here is nearly treeless and the rough-legged hawk I saw had no place to hide, so I got a good look at him. The large colorful hawks are about the same size as the local resident red-tailed hawks. They both belong to the family of hawks knows as Buteos. The rough-legged hawks visit here only in the winter months, then return to their summer homes on the northern tundra. The red-tailed hawk possesses large powerful feet and long sharp talons capable of grasping and dispatching prey as large as itself. The rough-legged hawk, on the other hand, has rather small feet and talons in comparison to his bulky size. His hunting technique is to hover high above the open land, then quickly fall to his prey below. His main food source on the tundra are small rodents like voles and lemmings. He really doesn’t need to have large feet for such small prey.

Rough-legged Hawk

This particular hawk was nice enough to let me get a few fairly good pictures before he flew off. I could just make out a leg band on the hawk’s lower left leg. This bird had a history with humans and was banded by someone who records the hawks’ movements. To find out who this person is, I would have to be able to read the number on the band. He was too far away for me to get that information.

The deer seem to be doing pretty good, and in spite of the cold and snow they look healthy—for now.

Taking winter one day at a time—

Naturally yours,