Local Birds of Prey

Since 2009, SYRCL has partnered with the Sierra Nevada Alliance to form the Sierra Nevada AmeriCorps Partnership (SNAP), a program in which AmeriCorps members increase community stewardship by conducting watershed restoration and ecological monitoring, watershed education, and volunteer recruitment and support.

Each year these AmeriCorps members arrive with a their own interests and gifts and we are the lucky recipients of their knowledge. Aliya Ingersoll, our Restoration Coordinator, has a particular interest in birds, which she’ll be sharing over the course of her term. Here, she offers insights into some of our local birds of prey. Read more about Aliya below

Identifying Bird of Prey in the Yuba Watershed

In Nevada County, we are lucky to live among diverse habitats including grasslands, oak savanna, chaparral, mixed coniferous forest, wetlands, meadows, and more. If you’ve ever been out enjoying any of these landscapes, you may have spotted a large, charismatic bird of prey and wondered to yourself, “What kind of hawk is that?”

Birds of prey have drawn many a curious person into the world of birding because they are easy to spot due to their size. Your first instinct upon seeing a hawk may be to conduct an image search or consult a field guide, but it can be challenging to identify a hawk solely based on its markings. The bird may be too far away and the markings unclear, even through binoculars. Additionally, many species have individuals who are uncommonly pale or dark (referred to as dark or light morphs). Luckily, there are several other characteristics you can take note of to improve your bird identification skills.

Tips for Bird Identification

  1. Behavior: what is the hawk doing? What does its flight look like? Is it soaring? Diving? How far is it from the ground when in flight? If it’s perched, where is it perched
  2. Location: what kind of habitat are you in? What kind of habitat is directly nearby?
  3. Season: what time of year is it? Some hawks are migratory. Determining which hawks may be local during which seasons can help you narrow down your identification.
  4. Appearance: look for key features. What shape are the wings? What position are they held in while the bird soars or glides? What shape is the tail? In flight, where is the head in relation to the shoulders and wings. 

Through careful observation, you can identify a hawk with ambiguous markings purely based on its presence in a certain habitat at a certain time of year, exhibiting a certain specific behavior.

The following list features birds of prey likely to be observed in the Sierra Foothills of Nevada County. These include the larger hawks known as Buteos (in the genus Buteo), which have wide, fanned tails and broad, rounded wings; eagles; vultures; accipiters, smaller hawks with sharp wings and long, narrow tails for maneuverability; falcons; and others.

Click on image to see larger version.

Common Large Raptors

Red-tailed Hawk

Image: PEHart

Golden Eagle

Image: Wendy Miller

Turkey Vulture

Image: Jamie Chavez

Cooper’s Hawk

Image: Robert Adams

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Northern Goshawk

Northern Harrier

Prairie Falcon

Image: Wendy Miller

Contributor: Aliya Ingersoll, AmeriCorps Restoration Coordinator

Aliya grew up in Nevada City and spent her childhood backpacking with her family in the Sierra, swimming in the Yuba, and occasionally ditching class to go backcountry skiing with her dad after a good snowstorm.

She holds a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the UC Santa Cruz, where she studied coevolution and mutualism between insects and plants in the John Thompson Laboratory. She fell in love with botany while completing a field research project on serpentine endemics in Big Sur, and she has since worked as a botanical technician and scientific communicator at Joshua Tree National Park and for the BLM throughout the sage steppe of eastern Oregon.

Aliya is delighted to be back in Nevada County working in the Yuba watershed with SYRCL, an organization that she has long admired. When not serving the Sierra, Aliya can be found gardening, playing her fiddle or banjo, baking bread, painting, tinkering with code projects, and dreaming of building a cobb house.

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Local Birds of Prey

Local Birds of Prey

In Nevada County, we are lucky to live among diverse habitats including grasslands, oak savanna, chaparral, mixed coniferous forest, wetlands, meadows, and more. If you’ve ever been out enjoying any of these landscapes, you may have spotted a large, charismatic bird of prey and wondered to yourself, “What kind of hawk is that?”

Birds of prey have drawn many a curious person into the world of birding because they are easy to spot due to their size. Your first instinct upon seeing a hawk may be to conduct an image search or consult a field guide, but it can be challenging to identify a hawk solely based on its markings. The bird may be too far away and the markings unclear, even through binoculars. Additionally, many species have individuals who are uncommonly pale or dark (referred to as dark or light morphs). Luckily, there are several other characteristics you can take note of to improve your bird identification skills.

  1. Behavior: what is the hawk doing? What does its flight look like? Is it soaring? Diving? How far is it from the ground when in flight? If it’s perched, where is it perched
  2. Location: what kind of habitat are you in? What kind of habitat is directly nearby?
  3. Season: what time of year is it? Some hawks are migratory. Determining which hawks may be local during which seasons can help you narrow down your identification.
  4. Appearance: look for key features. What shape are the wings? What position are they held in while the bird soars or glides? What shape is the tail? In flight, where is the head in relation to the shoulders and wings. 

Through careful observation, you can identify a hawk with ambiguous markings purely based on its presence in a certain habitat at a certain time of year, exhibiting a certain specific behavior.

The following list features birds of prey likely to be observed in the Sierra Foothills of Nevada County. These include the larger hawks known as Buteos (in the genus Buteo), which have wide, fanned tails and broad, rounded wings; eagles; vultures; accipiters, smaller hawks with sharp wings and long, narrow tails for maneuverability; falcons; and others.

Large Raptors

Image: PEHart

Red-tailed Hawk

Locally common, widespread across the US. Large, dark hawk with a pale underside and a distinctive broad red tail. Often seen soaring above open fields or perched at the top of a telephone pole or tree.

Image: PEHart

Ferruginous Hawk

This winter resident of the Sierra Nevada Foothills is the largest hawk found in north America. Similar soaring habit to that of the red-tailed hawk; distinguish it by its gray head, red shoulders, and gleaming white underside. Darker color morphs can be hard to identify; pale color morphs are very striking and distinctive. Look at the legs: this hawk has feathered legs all the way down to its toes. The rough-legged hawk and Golden Eagle are the only other American hawks to display this feature.

Image: Bill Damon

Rough-legged Hawk

Winter resident of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. Hovers by facing into the wind, a similar behavior to the American Kestrel and White-Tailed Kite (though it is much larger than these). Boldly patterned on the underside of the tail and wings, often with a black patch across the belly. Legs are feathered all the way to the toes. 

Image: K Schneider

Swainson’s Hawk

Grey to dark brown hawk with dark eyes. Wings are narrower than those of the other buteos, with wingtips that appear narrow and pointed. Underside of wings often displays a distinct white patch on the leading edge. Tail is banded with narrow stripes of white and black.

Image: Wendy Miller

Golden Eagle

One of the largest birds in North America. Dark brown with a golden-bronze sheen to the head and nape. Wings are broad and longer than those of the red-tailed hawk. Underside of tail is dark. The beak to head ratio appears much greater than that of the hawks.

Image: Rich Miller

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is very distinctive with a dark brown body, white head, and large yellow beak. The bald eagle predominantly eats fish, a diet primarily maintained through harassing other birds (such as ospreys) and stealing their kills in mid-air.

Osprey

The Osprey is a large black and white bird that dives into water to catch live fish, a behavior unique among North American raptors. Ospreys are dark with a white head, a black mask, a piercing yellow eye, and a dark beak. Underneath, they are mostly pale with black forewing patches and subtle banding on the wings and tail. Ospreys are most often sighted along lakes, rivers, and ponds, where they perch at the tops of trees or patrol the shoreline for prey.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey vultures are scavenging raptors whose keen sense of smell guides them to the carrion on which they feed. Often seen soaring in circles as they ride thermals up into the sky, turkey vultures hold their wings in a v-shape (rather than straight out to the side) and have a teetering look to their largely unflapping flight. In flight their featherless pink head does not extend much past the line of the wings, giving them a “hunched” look. The tail is narrow and not fanned.

Medium - Small Hawks

Image: Robert Adams

Cooper’s Hawk

A gray woodland hawk with a white underside and a chest banded with rosy horizontal stripes. The eyes of adults are red-brown, and the tail is long and narrow with thick black and white bands. The Cooper’s hawk is an impressively maneuverable and acrobatic flier, an ability that is put on display when it chases smaller bird through dense foliage. Difficult to distinguish from the sharp-shinned hawk, which looks quite similar but is smaller.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

This tiny hawk strongly resembles the Cooper’s hawk, but is much smaller. The sharp-shinned hawk has long legs, short wings, and a long tail, traits which aid it in its acrobatic, top-speed pursuit of songbirds and rodents.

Northern Goshawk

The northern goshawk is extensively patterned underneath with variable cream and gray plumage that gives the appearance of mixed speckles, stripes, and fine bands. The bird is dark gray above, with a distinctive strong white eye bar above the orange or red eye. Northern goshawks typically live in large tracts of mature forest, and they share the short broad wings, long, rudder-like tail, and predatory habits of the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. 

Northern Harrier

The northern harrier is a distinctive bird. It can be spotted in smooth, constant flight over grasslands and marshes, where it hunts for rodents. The northern harrier’s V-shaped wing posture and its white rump patch are good indicators of its identity. Like owls (to which it is not closely related), the northern harrier has a flat, disk-shaped face with stiff
feathers to direct sound to its ears.

Falcons

Falcons are distinguishable from hawks by wing shape, which are narrower and pointed at the end.

Peregrine Falcon

Small and incredibly fast-flying, this falcon nests in cliffs and, more recently, on the sides of tall buildings. The Peregrine falcon catches other birds by diving steeply, reaching up to 200 mph. The bird has a dark gray back and head, a yellow eye ring, a white or buff chest patch, and black and white barring underneath.

Image: Wendy Miller

Prairie Falcon

The muted brown, gray, and cream plumage of this falcon can make it hard to identify, but its dark brown “armpit” patches, dark malar stripe extending downward from the sides of the beak, and white eyebrow are distinctive. The chest is cream with brown streaks, and the skin around the bill (cere) and legs are both yellow. Prairie falcons are found in grasslands and shrubby deserts, where they glide above the foliage searching for prey.

Share
This entry was posted in . Bookmark the permalink.