Hawks II: Wildland Hawks

In part one of our guide to local hawks, I covered the “neighborhood raptors” – the daytime birds of prey you are most likely to see around your yard and typical residential areas. And those birds – the red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and turkey vulture – are among our more common raptors generally, whom you will often see soaring overhead or shooting out of the trees when out in natural areas as well. In this post, I’m covering another handful of local hawks: those which are unlikely to venture in amongst the houses and bustling humans, but which you can find in appropriate habitats within our larger Novato neighborhood.

The easy three… in the right place

Female harrier – Frank Lospalluto

Northern Harrier: This bird was formerly known as the marsh hawk, a name which gives a good clue to its preferred habitat. They are fairly easy to find around wetlands and nearby open fields as they hunt for a variety of prey, including mammals, birds, and amphibians. They can often be picked out at a distance just by their most typical flight style: wings held in a strong V as they cruise low over the ground looking for prey. If you see them from above, harriers have a distinctive white rump patch above the base of their tail. Harriers have the most extreme difference between male and female of any of our hawks, with females a streaky brown (pictured to right) and males white underneath with a grey back (pictured at top), a coloring which along with their quiet sneaky flight has earned them the nickname “the gray ghost.” Juvenile birds of either sex are brown above, with an unstreaked, pumpkin-orange belly. Locally, look for harriers around at Rush Creek, the Bahia Lagoon, Hamilton, and Deer Island in Novato, or around Las Gallinas Ponds in San Rafael.

White-tailed Kite – Don Bartling

White-tailed Kite: Kites are another bird with a distinctive flight style, hovering (i.e. with active flapping, unlike red-tails which can “still” in the wind) as they look for prey in one spot before taking a quick flight a few dozen yards a way for another hover-and-look. If you see a big, white, hovering bird, it’s probably a kite! While it is true that they have white tails, they are another bird where the old name was in some ways more helpful: “black-shouldered kite” is a name you may see if you have an older bird book, and on a perched bird those black shoulders are very distinctive. You will see them in many of the same places as harriers, as well as in some drier areas of open oak woodland (unlike ground-nesting harriers, kites do nest in trees, and roost in them outside of the nesting season).

Male kestrel – Don Bartling

American Kestrel: Our most colorful hawk. The American kestrel is our smallest falcon, and so although they share the pointed wings and general speediness of their relatives, their small size and light weight inclines them a bit towards a rather different hunting and flight style than the bird-catchers like peregrines and merlins. Kestrels often hunt from a perch or hover like kites as they scan the ground for insects and small rodents like mice and voles. Another falcon feature, however, which they show off perhaps best of all, is the distinctive facial “mustache” mark, joined in their case by a “sideburn” as well, two darker lines which set off the white cheeks, often visible at a distance. Kestrels are, with harriers, the other one of our two hawks that have significant differences between male and female plumage. Males have blue wings and solidly brick red tails, while female wings and tails are reddish-brown with black “tiger stripes.”

As another open country hunter, you can see kestrels as well in those areas listed above: Las Gallinas, Rush Creek, Bahia Lagoon, and Deer Island, particularly in winter when they can spread out into those areas near wetlands that have abundant prey though few trees. We have less ideal kestrel nesting habitat than some other parts of the Bay Area (they need big old trees with large cavities for nesting in, but still open hunting areas), but you can find some on Mount Burdell or at Olompali State Historic Park during the summer.

The harder four… less common winter raptors

Peregrine Falcon: This famous bird is found in our area, and is relatively widespread in the winter, but does not go chasing after birds in your yard: you’re more likely to see them near bodies of water where they can chase shorebirds, ducks, and gulls. Keep your eyes open at Rush Creek, Hamilton, and Las Gallinas, for example. Peregrines feature a dark helmet with an wide “mustache” and pointed aerodynamic wings which aid their rapid, powerful flight style. They are generally accepted as the fastest animal on earth, with diving speeds of over 200 mph. Another of their claims to fame is as one of the greatest success stories of the Endangered Species Act, along with bald eagles and brown pelicans. Devastated by DDT, which caused egg shell thinning and prevented reproduction, peregrine populations in the US were down to a few hundred in the 70s. An extensive reintroduction program combined with the phasing out of DDT has led to a strong resurgence, with thousands of birds now breeding each year.

Peregrine Falcon - Don Bartling
Merlin - Nicole Beaulac

Merlin: The merlin (yes, that’s the full name, a classy one-parter) is another small falcon, just a tiny bit bigger than kestrels. Big time bird writer Pete Dunne described the relative impression of these two birds by saying that “a merlin is to a kestrel what a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is to a scooter,” by which analogy he refers to their flight style, which is generally point-to-point, direct, powerful, and very fast, with none of the hovering or casual buoyancy of kestrels.

Plumage wise, they are perhaps less distinctive than the other falcons listed here, with facial markings generally faint and relatively nondescript. If you’re not familiar with them, you could confuse perched birds at a distance with similarly-sized sharp-shinned hawks, another small light brown raptor, but look for merlins’ dark tails with thin light bands (sharp-shins have broad dark brown/light brown bands) and dark eyes (sharp-shins are yellow or red, depending on age). And see if they shoot into the air to harass innocent avian passers-by or vanish in the distance like a rocket. Both behaviors suggest merlin. Merlins feed on a variety of prey, including both small songbirds and small shorebirds: around here they also like open areas near wetlands, such as at Bahia, Hamilton, and Las Gallinas. Look for them in winter.

Golden Eagle – Don Bartling

Golden Eagle: Neither of America’s two eagle species could be called common here in Novato, but they are both present, particularly in winter. The golden eagle is just as big as its famous white-headed cousin, and will appear mostly dark brown all over (with the right light, you might see the slight glint on the nape which gives them their name). In the larger Bay Area, golden eagles favor large open grasslands, rich in larger mammal prey like ground squirrels. Much of Marin is either too forested or too wet for ideal golden eagle habitat, but you might see them around Big Rock Ridge or in our strip of agricultural land that separates Novato from San Pablo Bay, visible from Hamilton, Deer Island, and Day Island.  

Bald Eagle – Don Bartling

Bald Eagle: Bald eagles are increasingly colonizing the Bay Area as breeding birds, and have bred for several years at Kent Lake on the north side of Mount Tamalpais. In winter, northern birds come down here and spend time near bodies of water and can sometimes be seen in Novato at Stafford Lake or in the general vicinity of the Petaluma River wetlands, sometimes seen from Rush Creek or Day Island out in Black Point. If you’re anywhere near water in winter, in other words, it is possible to see a huge dark bird with a white head and tail flying overhead. As Thoreau noted one fine spring in 1854:

March 13: Bought a telescope to-day for eight dollars.

April 23: Saw my white-headed eagle…We who live this plodding life here below never know how many eagles fly over us. They are concealed in the empyrean. I think I have got the worth of my glass now that it has revealed to me the white-headed eagle.

Keep your eyes open, your optics pointed to the sky, and your eagle hunting may well meet with a success unexpected in common hours – a wise principle in all seeking of birds.

Header photo: Male Northern Harrier by – along with many of the photos here – local raptor photographer Don Bartling

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