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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Raptor Roundup: Crested Caracara, Red-shouldered Hawk and Burrowing Owl

[SW Florida. December 2014]

The Raptors comprise a fascinating group of species including:
  • Eagles, Kites, Harriers, and Typical Hawks (Accipters)
  • Buzzards and Buteo Hawks
  • Osprey
  • Vultures (both Old and New World)
  • Falcons, Kestrels, and Caracaras
  • Owls
Shrikes, though no less in ferocity as hunters, are not included in the birds of prey classified as raptors.

A winter sojourn in Southwest Florida afforded an excellent opportunity to savor a small sample of species in this distinctive group:
  • Northern Crested Caracara (fka Audubon's Crested Caracara)
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
We start with the Caracara:

Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd

Caracaras are large, imposing falcons of the New World; and, as of just a hundred years ago, there were 3 Caracara species on this planet: Northern, Southern, and Guadalupe. The Guadalupe species was shot and poisoned to extinction by farmers who believed their goat herds were at risk of predation and the Guadalupe Caracara went from being Common to Extinct in a remarkably short span of time. 

The final coup de grace, however, was unwittingly delivered by the American ornithologist Rollo Beck (of Beck's Petrel fame) who "collected" most of the last remaining survivors in 1900 (a pattern he regrettably and infamously repeated by "collecting" 3 of the last 4 Pinta Island tortoises with identical results).

Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Although belonging to the Falconidae, the Caracara is neither a formidable hunter nor a a swift, aerial missile like other "true" (Falco) falcons such as the Peregrine. It is, however, a large scavenging raptor, weighing up to 3 lbs with wings that span over 4 ft in length.

Immature Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Thanks to an invite from master photographer and wildlife enthusiast, Bob Pelkey, this blogger arrived at a prime area for Crested Caracara, Western Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher -- known in the local birding community as "Church Rd". This hotspot is located about a mile west of where Rt. 29 and Church Rd intersect in Hendry Co.

Northern Crested Caracara seen at and in Church Rd -- proving why road fatalities are a major concern
In Florida, it is estimated that there are about 500 breeding pairs of Crested Caracara and the species is listed as "Threatened". The Florida population is a distinct population segment (DPS) separated from their kin in Texas since the last glacial age.

As the picture above shows, Caracaras are frequently found by the roadside where they benefit from easy access to roadkill. Unfortunately, this is a deadly blessing -- in one study, up to 55% of tagged Caracaras died from vehicle collisions (FWS Study).
Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Threats to the US population aside, globally, the numbers of Northern Caracara are increasing and the species is listed as "Least Concern".

Unlike the Caracara, the Red-shouldered Hawk is no scavenger but a formidable hunter:

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The Red-shouldered embodies all the characteristics we would expect from a Buteo hawk -- a compact, sturdy build, broad, rounded wings and a comparatively short tail.

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
This particular hawk devoured a Grey Catbird with great gusto and efficiency in precisely 18 minutes and 50 seconds resulting in both horrified amazement and awe on part of the observer.

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
This is a colorful hawk but most of us will not see this when the hawk is either soaring or perched standing still. The full beauty of the Red-shouldered Hawk is more easily appreciated at close quarters when the strongly contrasting checkered tail and wings, finely barred front, rufous streaking on the face, head and breast, and scalloped back are more clearly visible.

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
After completing its hearty meal of Grey Catbird, this Red-shouldered Hawk proceeded to call loudly -- this is courting season for the hawks and they are getting ready to nest.

Unlike Hawks, most Owls are nocturnal raptors. However, the Burrowing Owl is active during the day more than most:
Burrowing Owl seen at Cape Coral
Another example of why Florida is unique in birding, the Burrowing Owl, like the Caracara, is found only in the Western US other than in the state of Florida.

Burrowing Owl seen at Cape Coral
This uniquely terrestrial owl is hanging on in Florida in the face of rampant development.

Burrowing Owl seen at Cape Coral
While the Osprey is commonly called a "Fish Hawk", it is not a hawk -- indeed, it is placed in its own Family.

Osprey seen at Harns Marsh
The Osprey, like the Peregrine Falcon, is a truly global raptor found widely in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Osprey seen with nesting material at Bunche Beach
While a handful of subspecies are recognized, it is quite possible that they will be awarded full species status in the future given their isolation. Indeed, the Australian Osprey which is the smallest and most distinctive, is already recognized by some as a full species known as "Eastern Osprey".

Finally, our National bird -- the Bald Eagle:

Bald Eagle seen at Bunche Beach
The perils confronted by the raptors are very real -- toxins, human persecution, and loss of habitat. However, the comeback of the Bald Eagle from near extinction is a telling example of the success that conservation efforts can achieve.

1 comment:

Bob Pelkey said...

Very much enjoyed the edification on the caracaras, Hemant. On a follow-up visit to Church Road with Frank Constantin a Crested Caracara was observed in the middle of the road investigating an empty bag of potato chips. I can't recall for sure if that was the same day the species was observed pulling the hair out of a very large feral pig that had fallen on the north side of the road.

Thanks to Tom Wymelenberg for his recent direction to view a video about the Florida Scrub Jay from Archbold Biological Station . . . It was noted in the film that hawks are a predator of the jays. Your account of the Red-shouldered Hawk and the Catbird at Corkscrew is astounding and in expected factual detail in your reporting.

I recall in my research on the Florida Burrowing Owl that the male is typically the one at the entrance to the burrow and will have its feathers "bleached" by the sun making it more distinguishable from the female (when they are seen together at least).

Wonderful captures of the wildlife seen.