bearriver Blog : Hawk

"Raptor's Delight!"

Tuesday, Janary 8, 2013Bald eagle

RAPTOR'S DELIGHT   -  Bear River Gang

"I said a hick, a hawk, a rough-legged hawk 

I said a hick, a hawk, and you don't stop, til you get a Red-tailed hawk!"

O.K. For anyone not around for the early ages of rap, that lil ditty might be completely over your head...and even IF you were around, it is most definitely silly, I admit.  But my recent trip around the Refuge and the surrounding promontory mountains was SO FILLED with raptors that I just couldn't help myself in changing Rapper's Delight to RAPTOR'S DELIGHT!

As part of the Mid-winter Bald Eagle Survey...I got the chance for a chilly drive to search for eagles and raptors...and my, they didn't disappoint.  My tally by the end of the survey was well over 100 raptors seen of 9 different varieties!  We'll start with the most famous...Bald eagles.

I spied 14 Bald eagles, 9 adults and 5 juveniles, along my route. Did you know you can tell the youngsters apart?  You can!  Bald eagles do not become mature adults, with fully white heads (where the name Bald comes from) and white tails til they reach four or five years of age.  Before this - they are very splotchy and patchy with white and brown feathers all over..and their beaks lighten from dark to the famous bright golden yellow.  Bald eagles love it here in Utah in the winter - hunting for fish along open areas in the ice and congregatting in tall cottonwoods along the rivers.

Their slightly larger and darker cousins, Golden eagles, stay in the area year-round.  Golden eagles are named for the golden colored plumage on the backs of their heads when they are adults, but again - when they are younger - they have some white feathers in large patches under their wings.  Unlike Bald eagles who prefer to eat fish, Goldens prey on mammals in the open grasslands like rabbits, marmots or even baby deer or sheep. They also rarely nest in trees, but prerfer cliffs and rock ledges.  I was lucky enough to see 5 of these majestic raptors along the route.

Along with the eagles...this route is an excellent place for other raptors, such as owls, hawks and falcons.  I spied one Prairie falcon and many American kestrels... our smallest falcons.  Peregrine falcons are also seen along this route frequently...but I was not able to find one out there today. Peregrines are known for their 200mph stoop, or dive, to knock their prey right out of the air!

I mentioned owls...and they did not elude me today. I was able to spot two Great Horned Owls. These are the earliest breeders of the owls - already setting up pairs and nests and calling constantly to each other at night.  Another owl species that was spotted is the short-eared owl. This little owl is diurnal as well as nomadic...sometimes around in big numbers and other years there may be none at all - all depending on the availability of food sources like mice and voles. This year in northern Utah - it has been a GREAT year for the short-eareds. Almost every trip around the Auto Loop provides a look at several.

And last but not least, is the larger hawk species such as the common Red-tailed hawk and the winter visitors from the Tundra - Rough-legged hawks. These two large Buteo hawks are easily spotted, usually perched atop a telephone pole or tree-top, watching calmly for a small rodent or bird to make a mistake and fly too close or move too slowly. Adding these two species together made up over half of my survey count, totalling 51 birds seen!

So you see- Raptor's Delight is definitely an apt description of the Refuge and northern Utah in the winter months!  I hope you get a chance to experience it!

 - Happy Birding,  Jason

VOLE FOR LUNCH! - by Kristin Purdy

(Sunday, January 16, 2011)

Today’s rain after the snow gave the refuge a foggy, dreamy look, and because of the wet snow muffling the sound of tires on the auto tour loop, the place seemed utterly insulated from the sounds of man. Most of the Rough-legged Hawks I saw today exhibited the species’ characteristic wariness by flushing long before I was close. But one adult male standing on the ground along the west side of the auto tour loop held his position as I approached. Perhaps my quiet approach helped explain why he stayed; the other reason lay in the dark pile of fluff atop the snow next to which he was standing. He was pulling flesh from an object pinned beneath his feet. I had found the bird at his dinner. He tugged a few more bits from his prize and then stomped away from the dark pile like a person learning to walk on snowshoes for the first time. The heavy feathers on his legs looked like pantaloons streaming behind him and under his tail. The bird stood quietly, not concerned about my presence, and took in the gray scene around him. Several times, he leaned down and swiped his beak in the snow; once, he drove his face into the snow and swiped his whole face from side-to-side. I was watching the equivalent of a human dabbing his napkin at the corners of his mouth.

Once his post-meal primping was complete, I began to ease forward in my vehicle to get a better look at him and the remains of his prey. The bird was relaxed enough to stand on the road until I was about 25 yards away, then, he flew into the murk. That gave me the chance to study the scene of his meal.

The hawk had taken a vole. The dark pile of fluff was the plucked fur of the creature, punctuated with odd curlicues and S-shaped segments of entrails that were staining the snow yellow. A deeper depression where the hawk had been standing when I first saw him tugging bits of flesh was bloodstained. The vole’s head remained in the pile, bright orange incisors obvious within the gray fur of the face. The hawk’s tracks, smaller than the many pheasant tracks that formed a crazy latticework all over the refuge this morning, led from the depression and to the main tire track of the dike road where he had swiped his beak.  It was also easy to see where the hawk had struck the vole and to imagine the bird dropping out of the sky onto his prey.


I did not see another human visitor on the auto tour loop this morning. While poor weather discourages visitors, the birds must continue with their struggle for winter survival and great wildlife watching opportunities exist even in rain and fog and snow.

 - Kristin Purdy