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WARNING to all who venture here: this is a VERRRRY looong, very image heavy post…!
I feel very fortunate to live in an area served by dozens of raptors, especially Red-Tailed Hawks. In what I call “my beat,” shown on the map below, I am fortunate each winter to be able to identify several different individuals. 2015-16 provided four RTHAs and one very friendly female American Kestrel. (UPDATE: she has found her mate and is frequently copulating.) I’m pretty sure I’d be UNable to differentiate so well at The Coast, given that I had to drive to find hawks and kestrels. Here, they’re only five minutes’ walk away, or, in many cases, a glance outside the window from my computer. We also see Bald Eagles frequently, and I’ll include them at the end….
We’ll start with the maps: first, the area, then the birds’ territorial map:
And now for the raptors:
Kessie, the female AMKE covers the territory of all the hawks west of the creek that is the basis of Thomson Marsh. I’ve been interacting with her since January 2015; she’s very friendly, of her own accord (i.e. no one’s baiting her or doing anything to entice her). She’s simply comfortable around people and cameras, and will often fly with me on my walks. She’s quite willing to look right at me when I whistle, and on lots of occasions has flown from distant locations to much closer perches almost as if she wants to be photographed. I’ve featured her before on this forum, but I want to add a couple of new photos from this year:
I thought this was a pretty good look, but then I realized that I wasn’t happy with the branches and told her so, telepathically. So she backed up to a better perch, gave me time to crunch up through the crusty snow and take more than 50 shots.
The first shot:
and the improved perch on a different tree:
Kessie makes my day….
Recently, I watched and worked with her for twenty minutes while she scanned the area searching for lunch. Eventually, she caught a vole, flew up to one of her lamp post perches, and took her time dining, before retiring to a Cedar shrub….
Kessie enjoys a lite lunch….
Resting after lunch….
Interaction like this would be enough to make any day special!
But I promised you RTHAs, so let’s begin with a newcomer and my favourite, and a familiar greeter of so many of the folks who walk their dogs and their kids and spouses ’round the perimeter of the Rec Fields. I credit Mel Hafting (Birdergirl) with identifying Whitey as a Buteo jamaicensis harlani—a Harlan’s subspecies or possibly separate species depending on whose authority you adopt. Whitey arrived sometime in December. I didn’t realize that he was here for the winter until December 22, when I got a series of shots as he perched on a large dirt pile behind the Capital News Centre Rec Facility about 300 meters from home. He allowed me to walk up to within 30 meters, and we’ve been good friends ever since.
I have many precious images of him, whether at a distance in the Raptor Tree across the Marsh or in various parts of his southern and eastern range as shown on the map we started with. Here are some of my favourites:
and some close ups near the entrance to Mission Rec Fields, just south of the CNC arena:
On this day, he hunted the same area from his lamppost:
and was successful:
Whitey can spot competition a couple of hundred meters away. It seems that the only threat he really cares about is at the eastern fringe of his territory. When Harri or Sunny dare to cross the invisible boundary, Whitey is likely to fly over and let them know who’s boss. I’ve not seen actual combat, but its always the other birds that retreat to their own territories. On the other hand, Re’ddy, who encroaches from the north, usually by roosting on one of the giant field lights that illuminate the Rec Fields, is never challenged by W, nor does R challenge W. (Actually, Re’ddy is a bit of a chicken hawk, it seems to me). R and W simply ignore each other.
Recently, as it appears that Harri has left the area (more on him in a moment), I see Whitey exploring more of the the eastern side of the territory, even perching occasionally on the fence posts that Harri had called his own….
A better indication of Whitey’s perching skills on his eastern perimeter….
Now, I expect most of you can see that Whitey’s colouration and territorial range make him easy to identify, and I suspect that many are wondering how I can be so sure about the other three…. Turns out there are both physical features and, more importantly, behavioural idiosyncrasies for each one that make the job fairly easy. Keep in mind, too, that I can often see all four hawks at the same time!
I’ll start with Harri, because I really don’t have decent photos of him. He rarely crosses the marsh into the Rec Fields. Instead, he cruises, Harrier-like (hence the nickname) along the fence line and through the great field on the east side of the Marsh, usually five to ten feet off the ground. When he does perch on a post, he takes flight as soon as he senses a camera being raised in his direction. He has a beautiful red tail (though it’s white underneath), and a light front that makes him a very desirable subject. On a scale of 1—10 for accessibility, where ‘1’ is “wrapped in the cloak of invisibility,” he’s a 3! Here’s the best I’ve been able to do with him so far:
Reddy Eddy is a different character! He has been around for the past two winters. Like Harri, he hates to see a piece of glass, especially if it’s a camera lens; he’s even nervous about binoculars. He has three preferred roost locations, two in the Raptor Trees on opposite sides of Michaelbrook Marsh, and several of the giant field lights). I can see Re’ddy almost every day, but it’s usually a lot of work to chase him around and get a photo although he’s slowly adjusting to birder-paparazzi. He used to simply fly away; now, he’s more willing to fly up and find a thermal or even fly over me to a distant perch. Like Harri, and unlike Sunny, he has, besides a quite light breast, a white throat, and this spring, a red tail. These features, together with his intense need for privacy, makes him a character easy to ID.
This is Re’ddy being attacked by a Red-winged Blackbird on March 25, 2016 — before he acquired his red tail. Click on the photos for captions and to enlarge. To close the expanded window, click on the small x in the top right corner.
All I wanted was a shot of Re’ddy in flight (after he’d eluded me all winter), and what I got was so surprising and much better! You can’t wish for opportunities like this!
Finally, allow me to present Sunny, a newcomer last autumn who occupies the northeast quadrant of the map. On that 1-10 scale mentioned above, I rate him a 7.5. He’s camera tolerant but doesn’t really care to be stalked. When hunting, however, he maintains his focus pretty well and tolerates the yelps of dogs and people from the Dog Park while he hunts in the fields and mounds to the east. Recently, he seems to have expanded his territory, especially towards the Casorso Bridge and the Traplandia Farm. Sunny has a darker head than Re’ddy, a dark throat, and dark eyes.
Why Sunny? Because my first photo of him was this one in early November 2016; click to enlarge these photos:
He’s handsome and he knows it; clap your hands!
And then we get the occasional interloper that just doesn’t quite fit. I used to think this was Sunny, but the flight photos clearly show a white throat and a dark tail just beginning to turn red.
He can’t be Re’ddy (he didn’t behave like R. at all!) and the white throat doesn’t fit Sunny either (although I realize that there are plumage changes as juveniles age). As well, he’s way out of Harri’s range, and doesn’t fly like him. So, for all my certainty, there are still mysteries to be explored….
A lot of photos and explanation. For the few who took the time to read to the end, I hope you enjoyed the tour of my Red-tailed Beat….
Oops! Almost forgot I’d promised eagles. Here’s a couple of shots I waited all winter to get:
This one and its mate were hanging out near the old nests just north of Mission Creek. Sadly, no sign that they’ll use them this spring.
To all who stayed in for the whole show, thanks for your patience!