One of my most successful birding days of the year was in July, when I ventured out to a favorite site: Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge. The easy trails allow visitors to focus on the landscape and the wildlife, with a small array of habitats providing great variety over a short distance. A full day of birding the refuge left me with so much to share, I’ve decided to break the visit up into multiple posts. I’ll be starting with the one thing I know I can always count on when I head to Steigerwald: the birds of prey.
The wide open fields are favored hunting grounds for the Northern Harriers. Most visits, a resident female is easily spotted gliding low as she looks for voles and other small morsels. The fields right off the parking lot are a common place to spot the harriers in the late morning or early afternoon; they are also often seen over the pastures out on the east side of the refuge and beyond, and occassionally over the open grasses near Scaup Pond or Redtail Lake. The flat, owl-like face of these birds makes identification easy.
The silvery-gray male harriers are sometimes seen as well, though I rarely see them after summer passes. It is not uncommon for the males to migrate for the winter, while females remain. Each time I saw the harriers on this trip, they were carrying prey – presumably to a nest with hungry chicks waiting for their return. Although the pictures make it hard to get a true impression of size, the males are much smaller than the females – common among all sorts of predatory birds.
Where the fields are edged with trees, American Kestrels are often found surveying the area. A cooperative female came in for a landing on one young tree, giving me a full display of her beautiful plumage from several angles as she settled in. The bold markings on these birds make them easy to narrow down, but at a glance they can be confused with the similar merlin. A smaller but more colorful male sat nearby, his gender identified by the blue-gray of his wings as well as his more petite build.
Passing over the treetops was a Red-Tailed Hawk, cruising on warm air currents. Larger than the harriers and sailing higher up, this bird remained within eye shot but rarely came close throughout the day. When the sun comes through its feathers, the tail picks up the name-sake red color of the hawk; however, when not ‘red’, brown striping can be seen on the bottom of the tail feathers as well as the underside of the wings, along with a “belly band” often used in identifying this bird. It is not uncommon to spot these hawks resting in the trees around the appropriately-named Redtail Lake towards the southern border of the refuge, but they often blend in better than one would think such a large bird could.
Far above even the the wide circles of the Red-Tailed Hawk was a small flight of birds with an immense wingspan and tell-tale bald head: a kettle of Turkey Vultures spiraled overhead, slowly working their way from north to south until they disappeared over the Columbia River. These huge, dark birds actually are a silvery white under their wings and tails, but they are often back-lit and so appear solid in color.
As the vultures flew on south for the day, as all the region’s vultures soon would for the rest of the season, another bird repeatedly moved north from the river to its nest within the refuge. An osprey was spotted several times, with fish clasped head-first in its talons; these birds always point their catch ‘into the wind’ as they fly (every sighting I’ve had supports this). A couple of times, I did see the bird with branches instead, suggesting it was working on repairing and expanding its summer loft for a growing family. I did spy the nest, but no sign of active young ones while I watched.
Perhaps the easiest to ‘watch’ but hardest to effectively photograph is the most regal of the raptors found regularly at the refuge: the Bald Eagle. I will be honest here: These birds are huge, beautiful, and wonderful to find every time. But they are lazy and uncooperative! They will sit for extended periods, inevitably at terrible angles for their would-be portrait takers, tucked behind obscuring branches. They do not seem to mind the constant foot traffic, including dogs, bikes, and even the occasional horses that pass them on the Captain William Clark Park Trail which runs on the south side of the refuge, so it is not that they are seeking a hiding spot or avoiding people. Still, I’m always happy to see them and note that almost every other person who goes past them stops to look for a few moments. They are always impressive.
Although there are other raptors which may be found in the refuge periodically, these five are reliable in the warmer seasons; most can even be found through the winter. While many birds seem to prefer the magic hours just after sunrise and just before sunset, the birds of prey fill the hours in between, taking advantage of sun-warmed air to create the currents they ride.
Additional posts recapping my July trip to Steigerwald will be posted soon. To find a little more information about Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge and other places for bird watching, including addresses and websites, check out my Birding Locations page.
Be sure to visit my Flickr site for more images from my trip to Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge this day, as well as some of my other photographs.
Comments are always welcome!