Farmland Raptors

By Dan Weisz

Northwest of the Foothills is a rich and diverse farming community. The Marana area has a 4000 year history of agriculture and directly to the northwest of Marana is Pinal County, home to one million acres of farmland. That area attracts certain types of wildlife and, in the winter especially, a large number of raptors and wintering birds. A friend and I recently visited the agricultural part of Marana (north of the city core) as well as the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County which lie northwest of Marana, an extension of the flat landscape west of the Santa Cruz River extending from Marana to beyond Picacho Peak. We saw a wide range of raptors that morning.

One of the first pleasant surprises was finding two adult Crested Caracaras. They were at the road’s edge when we first saw them but they quickly retreated to the fields and wandered away, occasionally looking back at us. Caracaras spend a lot of time on the ground hunting for food, so this bird was comfortable wandering the aisles of its personal grocery store.

A female American Kestrel was warming up her back in the sun on this cool morning. Kestrels often fly away quickly when I pull up in a car, so she must have really needed the sun’s heat that morning. Her brown wings let you know that she’s a “she”. Kestrels are American’s smallest falcon.

At one point, we stopped to look over a large dirt berm at what is fondly called the “sheep dump”. We startled a huge flock of about 50 Black Vultures who took to the air. They flew into the nearby desert but very quickly returned to the pasture that a herd of sheep were in. This is lambing season and after a lamb is born, the ewe will expel the placenta or afterbirth. This provides welcome food for vultures. Black vultures are residents of southern Arizona year-round but I’ve never seen a flock this large. Often, they will be mixed in with Turkey Vultures, but this flock wasn’t.

In flight, you can see the white ‘fingers” of the Black Vultures. You can also see how short their tails are. While Turkey Vultures find prey with a terrific sense of smell, Black Vultures use their keen eyesight, and they will also follow Turkey Vultures to prey.

A little further down the road we came across this Red-tailed Hawk. There were very many around thanks to winter migration.

Now compare the look of the Red-tailed Hawk above with the one below. The hawk below is called a rufous morph Red-tailed Hawk. Note the rufous color of it head and neck and leg feathers. The breast (hidden in this shot) is also rufous as is most of the flight feathers.

The rufous-morph Red-tail roused and, between that behavior and the wind, looked very different than it did just a few seconds prior. You can see more of the darker feathers of its belly in this shot.

The Barn Owl was fast asleep in its usual location, tucked into this corner of the barn’s ceiling. The Barn Owl’s partner was missing from view.

We saw a few Prairie Falcons. This juvenile (told by the strong markings on its breast) was having a tough time. As soon as we pulled over to get a good look and to try to take photographs, a nearby Red-tailed Hawk flew right at the Prairie Falcon, chasing it from its perch. While the hawk assumed the perch spot of the falcon, the Prairie Falcon flew to a nearby pole. Within a minute, the hawk again flew towards the falcon, chasing it from its spot and supplanting the falcon on its perch. This behavior repeated for over six times with the birds going back and forth. Finally, the Prairie Falcon flew to a pole a little further away. Apparently, that was far enough out of the Red-tail’s territory that the hawk flew nearby but quit harassing the falcon.

Prairie Falcons are large falcons, almost the size of a Peregrine. They have pointed wings, a white eyebrow and a (falcon) mustache.

Our last great surprise was seeing this beautiful Ferruginous Hawk. We had seen one soaring above us Santa Cruz Flats, but this one was sitting on a telephone pole in Marana. It did not spook with we stopped the car and got out to take its picture. Ferruginous Hawks are the largest soaring hawk in the United States and live on prairies, grasslands, and agricultural areas of the west. They summer up north but some winter in southern Arizona. They are very white below and feature a rusty color on their wings (top and bottom) and on their leggings. Their name, “Ferruginous”, comes from the Latin ferrous referring to iron or rust. Ferruginous Hawks have a very large gape, or mouth.

The Ferruginous Hawk took off. This great flight photo has a phone line in the foreground unfortunately, but I thought the look of the bird helped to make this shot a keeper.

From the angle in the photo above and below, it appears that the hawk has an enlarged crop. That bulge in its throat may mean that it has recently eaten and it is storing food in its esophagus until there is room in its stomach to digest it.

It definitely was a great morning for raptors.

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