WHAT were those indignant sounding screams coming from a raptor circling high in the sky above Maplewood Conservation Area one crisp winter morning?
A close look showed it to be a red-tailed hawk. Since the dawn of recorded time there has been a special fascination with raptorial birds - the predators. Much of this can be attributed to their beauty, flying and hunting skills.
We are fortunate on the North Shore to have a good diversity of habitats to observe raptors, from the mountains to tidal flats and forests. Even backyards, especially where there are bird feeders, have regular raptor visitors.
When attempting to identify raptors it helps to first put them into "natural" groups. It also helps to know what species are to be expected locally. You wouldn't expect to see a roadside hawk in southwest B.C. unless it's an escape from captivity. We shouldn't discount the possibility of anything showing up. There have even been authentic records of caracaras in B.C. - the national bird of Mexico.
Our local raptors fall neatly in the following groups (with examples): New World vultures (turkey vulture); buteos (red-tailed hawk); accipiters (Cooper's hawk); harriers (northern harrier); falcons (peregrine falcon); eagles (bald eagle), and osprey (osprey).
New World vultures include the California condor, black vulture and our local turkey vulture. The turkey vulture winters in central and south America. Look for it in early spring as they pass through our area, although there seem to be more summering individuals than I recall from past years. In flight, look for the contrasting grey and black underwings, wings held in a V shape and a tiny peanut-sized head.
Buteos are the typical broad-winged, broad tailed raptors that make "lazy circles in the sky," according to the song. The red-tail is our typical resident buteo - and well named too with its brick-red tail. Alas, not all red-tails have a red tail (like immatures), but a white chest and dark belly band will serve to help in identification.
In winter we get a rare northern buteo - the rough-legged hawk, locally.
Raptors like buteo have colour morphs (forms), ie. dark, light, etc. A bird like the red-tail has many, sometimes confusing variations. The usual rough-legged seen locally is the light morph.
Accipiters are long-tailed hawks with short, rounded wings built for ambush. Cooper's hawk is the most commonly seen; it and the sharp-shinned ("sharpie") are frequent visitors where there are bird feeders. The largest of this group is the northern goshawk. All three have been observed at Maplewood Conservation Area. Also, watch for the goshawk in the North Shore mountains.
We have only one harrier species, the northern harrier. It occurs where there is meadow habitat like old fields where it can catch voles. In fall, the harrier is sometimes seen in the local mountains. Its long tail, white rump and wings held in a V help to identify the harrier (formerly the marsh hawk).
Falcons with their pointed wings and long tails are the real speedsters of the bird world. The peregrine falcon and merlin are the two species most commonly seen on the North Shore. Rarely seen are the American kestrel and gyrfalcon. The peregrine should be watched for along Burrard Inlet. A good spot to watch for it (and lots of other birds too!) is Maplewood Conservation Area's Osprey Point. It may be hunting over the flats or perched on a dolphin. The merlin is a small brownish falcon that hunts smaller prey like birds, rodents and dragonflies in the summertime.
The white headed adult bald eagle is familiar to everyone. It takes about four years for the bald eagle to attain its white head and tail. The brownish-mottled immatures can be mistaken for a golden eagle, but for their bare legs (the golden's are feathered). Did you know that the "bald" in the eagle's name means piebald (white)?
The osprey or fish hawk is the sole living member of its family. The osprey winters down south where it's sunny and warm in winter but by April it should appear on the North Shore. From Maplewood's Osprey Point, you can observe Ospreys at their nest on an offshore dolphin. The osprey feeds almost exclusively on fish. It needs to be alert because a bald eagle may swoop down and steal its catch.
Keep an eye open for early spring migrants like yellow-rumped warblers, shorebirds, vultures and bluebirds. And soon the rufous hummingbirds will be back from their Mexican wintering grounds. Watch for them at salmonberry and red flowering currant flowers - an early favourite of theirs.
Al Grass is a naturalist with Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, which will host a walk this Saturday, March 9 at Maplewood Flats, 2645 Dollarton Hwy. Meet at 10 a.m. to learn more about raptors.