Winter raptor watching

Winter is the perfect time to get out with the family to watch for eagles, owls, hawks and other raptors in their nautral habitat. The lack of foilage in winter gives you a great view of these magnificent creatures. Janice Bangs was joined by James Davis, Park Naturalist for Metro and Karen Munday, Urban Wildlife Specialist for Audubon Society of Portland and some fine feathered friends on Sauvie Island.

What are raptors?

“Raptors” means the same thing as “birds of prey” and it is the name for two groups of birds, the owls and the “hawks” – which includes birds called hawks, eagles, falcons, osprey, harriers, and a few other close relatives.

Although owls and hawks are not related they are grouped together because they have the same basic adaptations for catching and killing fairly large prey such as rodents, rabbits, fish, and birds. The two most obvious shared characteristics are their huge, strong claws, called talons, and their curved, hooked beak.

One of the biggest differences between owls and hawks is that hawks are active and hunt during the day while owls are well-known for being the night-time hunters. It is as if they have the same job, only one is the day shift and the other is the night shift.

Why are raptors important?

Raptors are very important all over the Earth as major predators of rodents and rabbits, two groups of mammals that can have huge population increases if not kept in balance by predators. Since rodents and rabbits are among our biggest competitors for our food crops, raptors are extremely beneficial for human agriculture.

Since raptors are at the top of many food chains, they serve as important monitors of the general health of ecosystems. The accumulation and deadly effects of  DDT in raptors was a major factor in  the ban on DDT use in the United States. If the population of raptors declines in an area, it may be an important indication that something is wrong in the whole food web.

Why is winter such a good time to see raptors?

One simple answer is that with the leaves off the trees it is just plain easier to see birds perched in trees. But the main reason is because there are a lot more raptors in the Portland area in the winter, and there are two causes for that.

The most common reason you will find animals concentrating in a particular area is because there is a lot of food. Since much of the Willamette Valley is agricultural land, during the winter when most fields are fallow or have cover crops the fields and surrounding hedgerows are crawling with rodents and rabbits, the primary food of many birds of prey. In addition, the rivers, lakes, and wetlands of the region are the winter home of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl – ducks, geese, and swans. Bald eagles in particular eat lots of waterfowl so they concentrate in these areas. There are several thousand more bald eagles in Oregon in the winter than in the summer.

Weather is the other factor for a big increase of raptors in winter. The Willamette Valley  has relatively mild winter weather, especially compared to the arctic and other places further north but also compared to the east side of the Cascades. Birds of prey can escape extreme winter weather by coming to our region during the coldest months.

It’s no surprise at all that there are more birds of prey here in the winter when you realize there is more food and better weather than there is in most of the  Northwest.

What’s the best way to enjoy winter raptor-watching?

Metro, Audubon, and other organizations offer classes and field trips that focus on birds of prey during the winter months. You can find out about all these on their web sites, given at the end of this segment.

To go by yourself you need to find out about the best places to go, and there are books and information on line about these “raptor hot spots.”  Two excellent places in the Portland region are where we are now, Sauvie Island, and Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge just north of Vancouver, Washington.

If you are going out bird watching in winter it is, of course, important to dress right for whatever the worst weather might be. Gloves are especially important if you are bird watching since you have your hands out holding binoculars all the time. Binoculars and a spotting scope give you the best looks at the birds. Unless you are already a bit of an expert, you will want a good field guide for bird identification with you.

The Portland Audubon Nature Store is a good source for books and binoculars and two useful books for where to go are The Northwest Nature Guide by James Davis and Wild in the City by Mike Houck and M.J. Cody.

What can people do to help birds of prey?

The best way to help any wildlife is to protect habitat. Since most people can’t manage large amounts of habitat by themselves, they can support organizations like Audubon and agencies like Metro which is protecting thousands of acres in our region through the voter approved bond measures.

For more information on raptor watching call Metro at (503) 797-1700 or go to their website by clicking here.

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