Local Birds of Prey

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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


Image: Nicole Beaulac

Turkey Vulture

Image: Jamie Chavez

See more and read about some of our common large raptors here.

Common Medium – Small Hawks

Cooper’s Hawk

Image: Robert Adams

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Image: Jerry McFarland

Northern Goshawk

Image: Jerry McFarland

Northern Harrier

Image: Nicole Beaulac

See more and read about some of our common medium to small-sized hawks here.

Common Falcons

Peregrine Falcon

Image: Rick Leche – Photography

Prairie Falcon

Image: Wendy Miller

See more and read about some of our common falcons here.

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.

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