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SAN LUIS NWRC: Winter Raptors Provide Amazing Wildlife Watching Opportunities at San Joaquin Valley Refuges
California-Nevada Offices , February 2, 2016
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Adult red-tailed hawks are easily identified by the red upper surface of their tails.  Drive down any roadway in the Valley and one is certain to see red-tailed hawks perched atop telephone poles, fence posts, sign posts and trees.
Adult red-tailed hawks are easily identified by the red upper surface of their tails. Drive down any roadway in the Valley and one is certain to see red-tailed hawks perched atop telephone poles, fence posts, sign posts and trees. - Photo Credit: Rick Lewis/USFWS
Another photo from photographer Rick Lewis' sequence in Oakland reveals that the red-tail was eyeing a western fence lizard.
Another photo from photographer Rick Lewis' sequence in Oakland reveals that the red-tail was eyeing a western fence lizard. - Photo Credit: Rick Lewis/USFWS
A red-tail hawk looks up from his prey, a ground squirrel.  Red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, American kestrels and other winter raptors are frequently and easily observed from the auto tour routes and nature trails at the refuges of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
A red-tail hawk looks up from his prey, a ground squirrel. Red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, American kestrels and other winter raptors are frequently and easily observed from the auto tour routes and nature trails at the refuges of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. - Photo Credit: Rick Lewis/USFWS
Red-tailed hawks prey mostly on rodents and other small mammals which make up about 75 percent of their diet, but they also eat birds, reptiles, and carrion.  Nature photographer Rick Lewis recently took this photo of a red-tail on the hunt at a park in Oakland, CA.
Red-tailed hawks prey mostly on rodents and other small mammals which make up about 75 percent of their diet, but they also eat birds, reptiles, and carrion. Nature photographer Rick Lewis recently took this photo of a red-tail on the hunt at a park in Oakland, CA. - Photo Credit: Rick Lewis/USFWS

By Madeline Yancey

The Refuges of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in the San Joaquin Valley of California protect more than 45,000 acres of wide-open grasslands and wetlands crisscrossed with riparian woodlands and dotted with lone cottonwood, willow, and oak trees. These landscapes are home to a diverse assortment of species of birds of prey or “raptors” throughout the year. Eight raptor species reside on the refuges during the summer, but that number swells to nearly double when the food shortages of winter bring six other species down from the northern latitudes and higher elevations to take advantage of a robust food supply.

Whether summer or winter, the refuges’ most numerous raptor is the red-tailed hawk. As with raptor diversity, the abundance of red-tailed hawks increases in the winter when the migratory populations spending the summer breeding in Alaska and Canada fly south to join the resident birds for easier times. Adult red-tailed hawks are easily identified by the red upper surface of their tails. Drive down any roadway in the Valley and one is certain to see red-tailed hawks perched atop telephone poles, fence posts, sign posts, and trees standing alongside fields and roads.

Red-tailed hawks have keen eyes and are top predators. They are “perch” hunters, preferring to position themselves on a high vantage from which to watch for prey. Red-tailed hawks prey mostly on rodents and other small mammals which make up about 75 percent of their diet, but they also eat birds, reptiles, and carrion. When a suitable target is spotted from their perch a “red-tail” attacks in a slow controlled dive with its legs and talons outstretched.

Recently, Rick Lewis, a local nature and wildlife photographer captured an “extraordinary” series of photos of a red-tailed hawk in action. Lewis shared that he had watched this particular red-tail hunting in the grass for several hours when he finally witnessed the predator playing “cat and mouse” with its prey in a game of catch-and-release that went on for about 40 minutes. The prey – a Western Fence or “blue belly” lizard!

In addition to being the most abundant raptor on the Complex – and possibly in all of North America – the red-tailed hawk is one of the largest birds in North America. One might think it odd to see one of the largest birds on the continent eating a tiny lizard, but perhaps it is that broad prey-base that has made the red-tailed hawk one of the most abundant raptors, as well.

Red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, American kestrels and other winter raptors are frequently and easily observed from the auto tour routes and nature trails at the Refuges of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Persistence and patience will also reveal the less common, more seasonal birds of prey like peregrine falcons, white-tailed kites, and merlins.

Lewis’ photos demonstrate that one does not need to search the farthest reaches for the rarest creatures to witness unforgettable wildlife moments. Just go outside, open your eyes, spend a little time – and you will see them.

 

Madeline Yancey is a visitor services specialist at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Los Banos, California.


Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov



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