Roadside Raptors

One of my favorite things to do in winter is to go out “car birding,” mostly to look for birds of prey. It’s often bitterly cold, the roads are icy in places, and the relentless cloud cover can make for challenging photography conditions. But many raptors are easier to see this time of year, and the car can make a great blind. Often, I find little more than one or two common species, or sometimes, nothing at all. But I never know what may show up. It might be the Short-eared Owl perched on a power line in the photo above. Or, as in the picture below, I see a dark shape on a pole far down the road.

I drive closer and then ease the car over onto the narrow shoulder of the highway. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing: a Gyrfalcon!

The light is dim, and a power pole is not the most picturesque setting, but I’ll take it. In a lifetime of birding it’s only the third wild Gyrfalcon I’ve ever seen. After a nice long visit, she takes off, lining up for an attack on a flock of ducks in a flooded field a quarter of a mile away.

Like a missile, she’s gone. A couple of seconds later a cloud of ducks erupts from the field. I cannot see the falcon among the thrashing wings. A sighting like this stays with me a long time. Usually though, I meet with more familiar friends, like the Bald Eagle in the next photo, below, gliding in the gray sky, its tail tipped with the mud of the soaked fields.

There might a Harrier quartering over the fields in the distance, or a Great Blue Heron standing watch for voles in the withered grasses.

On New Year’s Day there is a beautiful adult Cooper’s Hawk (below), framed by electrical wires.

Down the road from the Coop is a Red-tailed Hawk (below), probably the most common and widespread North American raptor. Hardy, tough, and adaptable, it takes a wide range of prey, up to the size of jackrabbits and pheasants. But it usually prefers rodents.

After the birds, I park at one of the wildlife units maintained by the game department for duck hunters and birders. It’s time to warm up with a cup of strong black tea poured from the thermos—no milk!


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