Community Papers

Raptors warm to Okanagan winters

Rough-legged hawks (left), while similar to red-tailed (right), do differ as seen in these two photos.  Note particularly the “belly-band’ on the red-tailed hawk whereas the Rough-legged hawk has a wider band across the lower body.  In North America the general rule of hawk identification is that any large hawk you see is most likely a Red-tailed hawk until you have evidence to the contrary.  Red-tailed hawks occur year round in the South Okanagan whereas rough-legged hawks are late fall and winter only birds. - Bob Mckay photo
Rough-legged hawks (left), while similar to red-tailed (right), do differ as seen in these two photos. Note particularly the “belly-band’ on the red-tailed hawk whereas the Rough-legged hawk has a wider band across the lower body. In North America the general rule of hawk identification is that any large hawk you see is most likely a Red-tailed hawk until you have evidence to the contrary. Red-tailed hawks occur year round in the South Okanagan whereas rough-legged hawks are late fall and winter only birds.
— image credit: Bob Mckay photo

Last month I wrote about the snowy owl “invasion” occurring in the South Okanagan — an extremely rare event. There is another “invasion” taking place this winter that is not at all rare — it occurs like clockwork every winter, and that is the arrival of numerous raptors (birds of prey) in the South Okanagan.

Actually, invasion isn’t a really good description as it implies that all of the birds have come from somewhere else and that is only partially true. Nevertheless, winter is a great time to get out and see raptors in our part of the valley. Partly it appears to be an “invasion” because with many bare trees, the perched birds are much easier to spot.

Bald eagles are particularly abundant in the winter here with at perhaps four to five times the summertime number. Red-tailed hawks are relatively abundant all year round but as I say they appear more common in the winter. On the Penticton Christmas bird count of Dec. 16, a total of 11 different species of birds of prey were seen, with red-tailed hawk and bald eagle tied for most abundant followed by sharp-shinned, Cooper’s and Kestrel. Not so abundant, but perhaps more interesting, is the Rough-legged hawk which is never seen in our part of the valley in the summer. It is similar in size and appearance to the red-tailed hawk; consult a field guide to see the differences.

The influx of bald eagles generally is a result of the birds moving down from the north or from higher elevations where the colder winters freeze the lakes and rivers, making food gathering just that much more difficult. I would speculate that if the effort underway to re-establish sockeye salmon in Skaha Lake is successful (and so far it appears to be), bald eagles might become even more abundant in the fall and winter as there will be an abundant supply of food for them.

Rough-legged hawks breed across northern Alaska and northernmost Canada and move south to winter across southernmost Canada and the continental U.S. In the South Okanagan in winter you will see about 10 red-tailed hawks for every rough-legged hawk that you see. Probably the best place to see rough-legged hawks in our area is the open grasslands of the White Lake area although I did see one on the Penticton Golf course on Dec. 31. Actually the White Lake grasslands are good for many other raptors as well. Other great places for raptor watching in the winter are along the Okanagan River Channel from Skaha Lake north to about Green Mountain Road and the KVR Trail in the Kaleden area and south to Okanagan Falls. Backyard bird-feeders can also be a good spot for seeing the smaller hawks such as sharp-shinned, Cooper’s and Merlin since they find the song-birds lined up at the feeders relatively easy pickings.

So make use of this time of year to get out and see some raptors. The SONC birding group resumed their Thursday outings on Jan. 10. See www.southokanagannature.com for details.

Just as I was about to send this in, I received a phone call about another snowy owl in Penticton, and on Jan. 6 I finally saw my “lifer’ snowy!

The next monthly meeting of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club will take place on Jan. 24. Eva Antonijevic, community programs director for the Friends of Summerland Ornamental Gardens, will give a historical overview of the gardens, followed by a presentation on the Pilot Water Conservation Project that was launched in July 2012. In a departure from our normal routine, the meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the basement hall of the Penticton United Church on Main Street. Everyone is welcome.

 

Bob Handfield is vice-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the club.

 

 

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