Three Raptors

By Dan Weisz

In the Clusters Neighborhood, the most common raptor around is the Coopers’ Hawk.  The second most often seen is the Red-tailed Hawk, and we also have the Peregrine Falcons here in the winter.  Occasionally other raptors fly over or through our neighborhood.  Below are photos of a common hawk for us, and two hawks that are seen in Southern Arizona.

In the last series of photos I sent out, I included a photo of the back side of a Red-tailed Hawk.  Here is the front view of another noble looking Red-tail.  Most red-tailed hawks are rich brown above and pale below, with a streaked belly (or belly-band).  While the birds’ colors are quite variable throughout the country, this is the hawk you are most likely to see atop telephone poles as you are driving along.  These birds live year-round in Tucson but the population swells during wintertime.  We love our snowbirds!  

A close-up of the same photo allows you to see the “brow” that hawks have to help shade their eyes from the sun. Think “visor”.  The gray bill is also notable when spotting these birds perched.  And of course, all raptors have a curved, hooked bill.  When Red-Riding Hood said, “Why Grandma, what a curved bill you have”, Grandma answered " the better to tear you apart and eat you with."

Another raptor common to southern Arizona as a permanent resident but whose numbers do increase in the winter is the American Kestrel.  This is the smallest of North America’s six species of falcons and perhaps one of the best looking raptors around.  Quoting from the allaboutbirds.org site, “the American Kestrel packs a predator’s fierce intensity into its small body. It's one of the most colorful of all raptors: the male’s slate-blue head and wings contrast elegantly with his rusty-red back and tail; it is roughly the size and shape of a Mourning Dove.  American Kestrels occupy habitats ranging from deserts and grasslands to alpine meadows. You’re most likely to see them perching on telephone wires along roadsides, in open country with short vegetation and few trees.” Because they prefer “open-country”, they are not common in the Foothills but they certainly are around the Tucson valley’s outskirts. The birds below were seen in Pinal County’s Santa Cruz Flats this week:

This aged telephone pole is the perfect perch for spotting prey from.  The rough texture the pole contrasts with the smooth beauty and colors of the kestrel

And telephone wires are also common hunting perch spots:

After a successful hunt (usually a quick flight to take prey from the ground), the bird returns to a favored spot to dine.

Looks like this snack was once a grasshopper!

The third raptor featured today is a Crested Caracara.  These birds are very exotic looking.  While they are as large as a Red-tailed Hawk, they are not hawks but are cousins to falcons.  They are common in Mexico and range down through South America, and are rarely seen in the US living mostly in southern Texas, southern Arizona.  For some reason there’s a small group in central Florida.  In Arizona, they spend summers on the Tohono O’odham Reservation and can be seen along the highway through Sells.  During winter, they move a tiny bit north and can be found in Pinal County agricultural areas.  The bird below is a juvenile.  Adults are black with white throat feathers.

Below, this same bird is not singing his heart out.  He’s likely trying to 'cast a pellet’.  Birds of prey regurgitate the mass of undigested parts of their food.  Depending on its prey, this can include the bones, fur, feathers, claws, etc. of their prey.  Pellets form in the birds’ gizzard and are expelled hours after they eat their meal.  (Many elementary students have had the delightful experience of dissecting owl pellets in science lessons.)  I watched this bird make several attempts at coughing up its pellet, raising its head up and shaking or ‘coughing’.  While I was sadly unable to witness the pellet come flying out before the bird took off, I was excited to see this little part of nature unfold in front of my eyes.

A few more photos to follow!!!!