Birds of Prey

It’s been a tough winter. Fortunately a mid-January thaw (referred to as “wintermission” by The Weather Network and virtually no one else) brought about a temporary rise in temperatures and spirits two weeks ago. I managed to remove the sheet of ice that covered my driveway as a result of the freezing rain we received earlier in the month, and have been able to walk on the sidewalks without fearing I might fall and injure my bones, joints or back. Unfortunately the thaw ended about a week ago, temperatures dropped, and winter returned. We got more snow last weekend, and this week the deep freeze returned.

Because the weekends have been either brutally cold or snowy and messy I have not been able to add many birds to my year list. It took me 15 days into the new year to add American Goldfinch to my list, when I found a group of four of them sitting in the tree next to the bus stop. That brought my year list up to 33, and I didn’t add another bird to it until the following Saturday when I found some Golden-crowned Kinglets at Sarsaparilla Trail.

Sunday was much better for birds, though the weather was still lousy – scattered flurries throughout the day, starting in mid-morning. I thought I could get out early enough to beat the snow, but I had only been gone for about 20 minutes before a heavy curtain of snow descended, putting an end to my hopes of searching for raptors and shrikes in the open fields of Ottawa’s west end. I managed to check the Trail Road Landfill before calling it quits, where I found a single Red-tailed Hawk and several crows. Then, as I drove north toward Jack Pine Trail, I recalled a report of a juvenile Northern Goshawk from the day before and decided to take a chance and stop in. I had seen my first (and only) goshawk there almost exactly three years ago, a beautiful adult with a steel-gray back and white supercilium dining on a small bird in the middle of the trail. With no knowledge of where the juvenile goshawk had been seen, I decided to check out the feeders and the area where I had seen my first goshawk.

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

The feeders were quiet, so I continued on my way. I heard a Common Raven calling near one of the boardwalks and went to check it out. I found two ravens sitting in a tree at the edge of the marsh, calling intermittently. Then a third bird burst out of the trees and flew over the boardwalk. The ravens took off in pursuit, and when the first bird flew right above me I knew I had found the goshawk. It was a big, bulky bird, slightly larger than the ravens, and it was heavily streaked from its throat to its leg feathers. That was all I had time to see before the goshawk flew back into the trees. The ravens flew over the woods, and lost it.

I was happy I had found the goshawk so easily and thought I would have to be satisfied with that brief view. I decided to leave, and followed the trail back into the woods. The snow was still coming down fairly heavily, and I was worried I would have to dig out my car if I stayed too long. I rounded the corner of the trail, and stopped suddenly when I saw a huge bird sitting on a tree branch right next to the trail!

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

The goshawk was sitting right at eye-level and didn’t see me standing there. I was stunned and thrilled at the same time, and slowly took my camera out of my bag and started taking a few pictures.

Although the three juvenile accipiters look strikingly similar, there are a few field marks that can be used to identify the goshawk. The first is the white supercilium above the eye. It is more pronounced in goshawks, and widens toward the back of the head. The juvenile Northern Goshawk also has a dark brown patch on its cheek (called an auricular patch, visible in the photo above) which the Cooper’s Hawk lacks. Goshawks have a white bar on their wing coverts and a strongly patterned upperside; Cooper’s Hawks have brown wings and little patterning on the upperside. Finally, the tail-bands are uneven in juvenile goshawks, creating a zig-zag appearance when the tail feathers are spread. Each dark band is bordered by a thin pale band; the Cooper’s Hawk tail-bands are distinctly two-toned, with no pale edges.

I heard another camera clicking and saw someone on the other side of the trail photographing the goshawk. The goshawk was aware of him, too, and flew up into a taller tree. I got this photo just as the hawk was about to fly, which shows the extensive streaking on its underside.

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

The person came up to me and told me that the goshawk has been hanging around for a while now, likely feeding on a nearby deer carcass. I found the deer carcass, made a mental note for later, and left as the snow was still falling heavily.

After running some errands, the snow eased up enough to make it worthwhile to return to the deer carcass in order to get some better pictures of the goshawk. As I was passing by one of the marshes I happened to look up and noticed a hawk perching in a tree high above the trail. It was an adult accipiter, and fortunately it had its back to me, allowing me to see the dark gray hood of a Sharp-shinned Hawk! The Sharp-shinned Hawk noticed me and flew off. I continued on my way to the boardwalk, and after waiting there for ten minutes and by the deer carcass for another twenty I gave up and left.

With two new additions to my year list, and both of them accipiters, I decided to try for the Rough-legged Hawk that has been hanging around Brophy Drive. I drove straight down Moodie, and found a Northern Shrike sitting in a tree close to Fallowfield Road. Although these birds have been moving through the region in small numbers, I haven’t seen one since the end of December. This was another year bird for me. I continued all the way to the end of Moodie Drive. Just as I turned the corner onto Brophy I couldn’t help but notice a large raptor hovering in the field on my right. It had large black and white patches on the underside of its wings, leaving no doubt in my mind that it was the Rough-legged Hawk I was looking for.

By then the snow was coming down again, so I turned around and went home, thrilled with everything I had seen. I had brought my year list up to 38 birds and found a total of five birds of prey: Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Northern Goshawk. I think that must be some kind of record for me!

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10 thoughts on “Birds of Prey

  1. That is a truly fantastic record to have. Love having falling snow in the photos too. We actually got some this past week and it was still on the ground this morning!

    • Hi Jason! Thanks for the compliment…it was a truly fantastic experience! Glad to hear you got some snow. You’re welcome to take some of ours, too….the snow bank along the edge of our driveway is now as high as my shoulders. 😦

  2. Awesome shots. I love the effect of the snow, I think it adds to rather than detracts from the photos, even though the hawk ends up blurred a bit.

    A very lanky, big-looking fellow…I don’t think I’d even need to study the fine points to call it a goshawk based on size and shape alone. Of course, it’s easy to say that now 🙂

    I only recently heard about this bird and haven’t had a chance to go look for it yet. Hope it sticks around.

    • Thanks Suzanne!

      Yes, size is a factor, too, but I left that out because I’m a poor judge of size for birds I don’t see very often, or birds that are too far away. For instance, while I can now ID a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker at a medium distance based on size, I have trouble telling a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a Cooper’s Hawk at the same distance. I didn’t think the Sharp-shin I saw was small enough, to be honest, but it had the tell-tale hood.

      I hope the goshawk is still around, but I haven’t heard of anyone who saw it after the 20th. I was lucky and picked a morning when there were very few people around; when I went back the same afternoon, it was much busier and the gos was nowhere to be seen. Good luck!

    • Thanks Paul! The snow made focusing on the bird a bit of a challenge, especially when I tried to zoom in on its face, but I’m happy with the photos I got. They will help cement the experience in my memory for a long time to come!

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