I’m life untethered, soaring upward
on itself, sharp of talon and lethal of
beak, leaving nothing in my wake but
warm blood and gristle.
Maybe that first stanza in Rosewood’s poem is a little gruesome, but probably a fair description of the raptors or birds-of-prey who fill the niche at the peak of their food chain. These predators include the hawks, falcons, harriers, osprey, owls, and kites, and also the scavenging vultures, eagles, and caracara.
Raptors are characterized by keen eyesight for hunting, strong feet with talons for killing, and a sharp, curved beak for tearing flesh. They are powerful in flight, some plunging from great altitude at high speed to take their unsuspecting prey. A few, however, subsist on carrion, leaving the killing to others.
The hearts of birders and non birders alike speed up when we spot a bird-of-prey, and in Florida this occurs almost daily. Not so much with the vultures, which only a mother could love, but definitely with the rest. The most common hawk here is the Red-shouldered, which tends to perch and call from seemingly every woodlot and residential neighborhood.
I’ve been accused, rightly, of failing to read the fine print. A recent birding example of the malady was my futile attempt to find a Florida specialty bird, the Short-tailed Hawk. Everyone else was reporting it but me. Finally I read the fine print in Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton’s classic, “Hawks In Flight”. This bird hides itself well and is practically never seen on the ground, but hunts from great soaring heights. To see it “look up, way up, and be grateful for the backdrop of white cumulus clouds that enrich the Florida skies.” Sure enough, there it was just as advertised, thousands of feet above me, soaring with the vultures.
My pictures of this hawk are not ideal given the distance, however hawk ID is not about subtle field marks, but rather about the grosser patterns of light and dark, wing and body shape, and the cadence of the flapping wings and their attitude while gliding. The Short-tail Hawk comes in two varieties or morphs. I saw the light morph, which reportedly is less common in Florida compared to the dark one. These are tropical raptors of Central and South America that reach the northern limit of their range in Florida. Unlike most buteos, they are hunters of other birds, taking them unawares from above.
Other birds-of-prey that might be considered a Florida specialty (not as widely seen in other states) are the Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Burrowing Owl. The caracara vie with Bald Eagles for “king-of-the-road-kill” supremacy. They displace the Black Vultures from the carrion, who have displaced the Turkey Vultures, who previously shooed away the crows. It’s a real-life pecking order.
I lived here several winters before I saw my first Snail Kite, formerly called the Everglades Kite. This picky raptor’s diet is exclusively the apple snail, which it searches for in freshwater wetlands. Issues with water management seriously threatened this raptor in the 1950’s with the number of surviving birds reportedly as few as 50. Better management since has seen a recovery to 1000 or more birds, but it’s still a great birding day when you see a Snail Kite. Look for a white base of tail in flight, not to be confused with the Northern Harrier which has a white rump.
The Swallow-tailed Kite makes it spring debut in Florida on Valentine’s Day, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico from its wintering grounds in South America. Dunne, et-al gush, “some may argue that this kite is the continent’s most beautiful bird. Elegant, almost rakish in design, it dresses formerly in black and white attire, tails and all.” I do not disagree.
The “cute award” for raptors must go to the Burrowing Owl. This diminutive raptor seem to thrive here, often digging their burrows in sandy vacant building lots. Driving through Marco Island’s residential neighborhoods you see these birds sitting at their burrows with nearby stakes marking their protected nests. It must drive the homeowners crazy while they wait for the owls to move out so they can finally build their Florida dream house.
I was birding at Clam Pass last week when a kayaker landed, pulled out a large net on a long handle and tried to sneak up on a Black Skimmer which appeared to be disabled by a broken leg. Tim Thompson, I later learned was a good Samaritan and volunteer at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Along with many research and educational functions this venerable organization has an animal rescue hospital, http://www.conservancy.org. I joined in Tim’s effort to net the bird, but to no avail. It could still fly.
But I learned that Tim did this type of rescue work on a regular basis and had recently worked with others rebuilding a wind-damaged Great Horned Owl’s nest. They successfully returned two flightless downy owlets to their home, high in a slash pine, all under the watchful eyes of concerned parents. He offered to take Andy and I back to the site, inside an exclusive golf community, check on the nest, and give us an opportunity for some owl photos.
We found the owlets still safely perched in the same tree, even after the thunderstorm of the previous night. While dodging golf balls and golfers, (who were also seeking birdies) we also found one parent watching us warily from across the fairway. Several hundred shots later, we finally called it a good day of birding.
So what is it about these birds-of-prey that makes them so compelling? We’re in awe of their size and fierce countenance. We’re shocked by their ruthless killings which keep their prey ever wary. But there’s also a calm confident majesty they possess as the lords of their food chain. They only kill to survive, and are superbly equipped to do just that, with an occasional leg up from Tim and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.