To Get Involved
San Joaquin Wildlife
& Sage Audubon
Celebration of TEN Years at the SJWS
Nov. 2, 200
3: Observations on 10 Raptors at the Marsh
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.
WE CELEBRATE OUR TEN YEARS AT THE SJWS, here are my observations on ten
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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!
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.
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
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.
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.