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Sea & Sage Audubon
  In Celebration of TEN Years at the SJWS
updated Nov. 2, 200

part 3: Observations on 10 Raptors at the Marsh
by Trude Hurd

Imagine a bird that survives by hunting its prey and ripping it apart.  Did a robin or sandpiper come to mind?  Most likely not, although these birds are meat-eating predators.  You probably thought of a bird of prey:  eagle, hawk, falcon, accipiter or owl.  With their sharply hooked beaks, strong talons,  and keen eyesight, raptors command everyone's interest and respect.  A  Red-tailed Hawk that resided on the Edison power lines behind my childhood  home fascinated me and hooked me on watching birds.  Now that I work at the Audubon House in the middle of the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, I have twenty raptors to enjoy:  two eagles, two accipiters, four falcons, four  owls, and eight hawks and relatives.

AS WE CELEBRATE OUR TEN YEARS AT THE SJWS, here are my observations on ten  raptors.

1.  Golden Eagle.  This truly spectacular bird is seen occasionally at the marsh. My favorite eagle encounter occurred when I walked down into the San Diego Creek bed with Julia Price (who feeds the Audubon House live animals) and her family.  Our mission was to make plaster casts of some raccoon prints discovered earlier.  It was a late October afternoon, and the fog rolled in, giving an eerie stillness to the creek.  Suddenly, a large raptor flew directly towards us from the golf course, flapping heavily.  I started to say, "Notice how this Turkey Vulture has to flap so much to fly in the fog;  there are no warm air thermals to glide on."  I never got the words out.  With just a few flaps, the huge bird was directly overhead, revealing its immense size and tawny-colored head and a large red identification tag on the right wing.  GOLDEN EAGLE GOLDEN EAGLE, Julia's mom and I exclaimed at the same time.  We could almost feel the rush of air from the downbeat of its wings.  In awe, we watched with open mouths as, with just a few more wing beats, it quickly disappeared over the marsh in the mist.  Spectacular.

2.  Peregrine Falcon.  Formerly nicknamed "duck hawk", peregrines are seen at the marsh year-round and were featured prominently during both of our award-winning Big Sit competitions.  In 1995, John Schmitt and I had decided to quit early and were walking back to Audubon House when "eagle-eyed" John spied one final bird: a peregrine gaining altitude.  Competition rules specify that only birds seen within the 17-ft circle can be counted.  So with  true team spirit, we raced 200 yards back to our circle, without dropping our  spotting scopes or folding chairs, and keeping our eyes on the  fast-disappearing falcon, which became our 73rd bird.

We concluded our 1996 Big Sit at dusk with a peregrine circling and diving above the ponds as it chased a bat; what a sight!  To read another story about a peregrine encounter at the marsh, see my May 1998 Pond Ponderings (back issues are filed at Audubon House.)

3.  Osprey.  To me, the fall season and this "fish hawk" go hand in hand.  While osprey can be seen throughout the year at the marsh, only in September and October do we see three or more birds in the air at a time.  During my first fall at the sanctuary, an osprey signified my "quitting time".  It would  arrive around dusk and land on top of the IRWD weather station pole just as I would leave work.  At 100 feet tall, that pole is the tallest "tree" around  and provides a good lookout!  Visitors can watch osprey fly back and forth along the San Diego Creek, hovering and then diving down to the water's surface to grab large carp with their strong talons.

4.  Northern Harrier.  When all the shorebirds are skittish or fleeing from one pond, I look around for a raptor.  Sure enough, a "marsh hawk" will loft slowly up out of the pond, barely clearing the walking trail, and dip down into the next pond.  Soon, shorebirds are dashing helter-skelter out of that pond, too.  For one entire summer, we saw a male harrier (known by his gray color) hunting several times each day. When a female with several juveniles suddenly replaced him in late summer, I hoped that they had nested nearby and he had been hunting for his family.  This ground-nesting raptor is in serious decline!

5.  White-tailed Kite.  Historically, kites roosted communally at the San Joaquin Marsh. Whenever I drove along the perimeter of the marsh, I enjoyed searching the tops of the tallest willows for kite nests. We had several nesting pairs until the 1997 restoration opened up the riparian area to the public and this wary bird has abandoned nesting here. I remember watching a mid-air prey exchange:  the male flew, chirping, with a rodent in his talons and the female rushed in and grabbed it from him. Male kites do this during courtship and while the female is nesting.  What a good provider!

6.  Red-tailed Hawk.  I love watching Red-tails, which are frequently seen during our school tours.  We watch them circling in the thermals or being mobbed by crows.  My "totem" bird is one of many colors: the dark morph often confuses sanctuary visitors who mistake it for a golden eagle!

7.  Red-shouldered Hawk.  For several fall seasons in a row, a Red-shouldered Hawk sat in the eucalyptus tree behind the sanctuary restrooms.  We could watch it from the front porch of Audubon House, and even aimed the porch spotting scope at it.  What fun it was to watch the faces of sanctuary  visitors as they peered unknowingly through the scope.  Their facial expressions quickly revealed the visual pleasure given by this brightly  colored hawk.

Another familiar Red-shouldered Hawk was "Mr. X", a bird Scott Thomas caught  and banded at the marsh on October 30, 1997.  I nicknamed it for the "X" band  number on its left tarsus.  For three months, visitors and I searched the  legs of every Red-shouldered Hawk perched or flying, hoping to add another  Mr. X sighting to our porch list.

8.  Barn Owl.  Scott Thomas also banded our Barn Owls.  We installed a nest box  in spring 1999, and a pair liked it so much, they responded with SIX chicks.  You can imagine how many rodents are in the sanctuary to support this large clutch!  On a cool April day, selected IRWD employees, Audubon volunteers, and news media watched as Scott and his son Ryan brought down the downy  "fluff balls" to be weighed, measured, and tagged.  On your next visit to Audubon House, look for their photographs near the "Please Touch" shelf.

To the delight of our Bat Walk participants, a Barn Owl occasionally flew stealthily over our heads as we stood in the dark on the foot-bridge.  But  not all of my Barn Owl encounters are happy; one of the first Audubon House taxidermy birds was a fledgling that fatally crashed into a nearby high rise.  Our taxidermist said it had only been flying for about a week, and still had  some baby feathers.  Sad.

9.  Burrowing Owl.  To our great surprise, two Burrowing Owls took over a ground  squirrel hole between Ponds 1-2 in October 1999.  With high hopes of gaining  a resident pair, we roped off the area.  For three months, many people flocked to watch or photograph the birds from a nearby trail.  Unfortunately,  one unethical photographer repeatedly harassed the birds and refused to heed  our warnings to stay on designated trails. A tragic ending resulted: one owl dead and the other missing.  This is another raptor in low numbers in Orange  County and in serious decline.

10.  Great Horned Owl.  During our first year at the marsh, our evening committee  meetings were delightfully interrupted by the gentle hooting of a Great  Horned Owl in winter.  It sometimes answered my pitiful imitations or looked  down with huge yellow eyes as I walked out to my car at night.

I have been privileged to enjoy so many wonderful raptor encounters.  I  invite you to visit the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary to search for raptors. Even visiting our taxidermy collection is worthwhile if you are an artist,  woodcarver, or "raptorphile". In spring, you can volunteer to help biologist
Sophie Chiang follow radio-collared Cooper's Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks.  You can even join Sea & Sage on a local hawk-banding trip for an up-close look at hawk and owl chicks; it is an experience you will always remember.



Sea & Sage Audubon Society
PO Box 5447 • Irvine, CA 92616 • 949-261-7963