Friday, January 8, 2016


Red-Tail Hawks

From Arctic tundra to South American wetlands - passing through California

Every autumn and winter, California’s Central Valley is visited by a myriad of birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway.

The Pacific Flyway

The birds of the Pacific Flyway depend on a diverse chain of habitats, from Arctic tundra and northwestern rain forest to tropical beaches and mangroves.  Each year at least a billion birds are on the move along the Pacific Flyway, but today these birds are only a fraction of those that used the flyway a century ago.  Habitat loss, water shortages, diminishing food sources, and climate change all threaten the birds of the Pacific Flyway.

Along the Pacific Flyway, there are many key rest stops where birds of many species gather, sometimes in the millions, to feed and regain their strength before continuing.  Some species may remain in these rest stops for the entire season, but most stay a few days before moving on.
The Sacramento Valley and Central Valley represent the single most important wintering area for these waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway.  The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex  and the .  Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex  consist of several wildlife refuges in the northern Central Valley of California.  In addition, the greater Bay Area provides further habitat for winter migratory birds at the Suisun Marsh, next to the exit of the inverted Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, has protected portions, the San Francisco Bay, protected estuaries and mountain open space preserves, and the Coyote Valley, a semi-developed section of the Santa Clara Valley with one of the highest recorded bird species richness and nesting densities in the nation.

In the Central Valley, beyond the National Refuges private landowners compliment the efforts by providing winter rice decomposition-waterfowl-habitat by flooding the harvested rice fields with water providing wildlife enhancement during the time of year when the fields are not being worked.
But not only the migratory birds rely on this region, the wildlife refuges also offers habitat to waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds year-round.

During the last years, I have visited some of the Wildlife Refuges in the winter time and enjoyed observing and listening to the sounds of nature.

On a recent visit to the Merced Wildlife Refuge arriving with flooded fields full of waterfowl just after sunrise, I had a fantastic encounter with a family of hawks gathered for ‘breakfast’.  I noticed 3-4 hawks in a clump of trees.  As I looked around, 4-5 more were on the ground surrounding one raptor preying on an American Coots which must have been caught just moments before.  Feathers flying, the raptor was starting his meal with 3-4 other hawks and juveniles sitting nearby waiting their turn.  With so many raptors around, anyone of them had only several minutes to eat his or her fill, followed by being chased off the prey by another.  There was fierce interactions as each bird wanted to have a part of the kill.  The juveniles seem to hang back not strong enough yet to get into the middle action.  As the feeding went on, bits and pieces became available for the juveniles who grabbed the food eagerly, and there seemed to be ample food for the juveniles after the adults had satisfied their hunger. 

[Should the video link not work, please click on the  YouTube link:]

As I observed, car served as the blind so to not disturb the wildlife.  It allowed me to photograph out of the window using the window frame as my tripod.  The early hours with an overcast sky were rather dark posing a challenge for photography.  I used my Nikon D750 with a Nikon 200-500mm lens at high ISO with or without a 1.4 teleconverter.

As I watched, I found it amazing and had never seen this before: As the hawks kicked each other off the prey, the one currently on the prey often was pushed on its back with talons showing.and wings wide open as to soften the fall.  They would quickly get back on their feet either hopping away or taking off.

I had come to the wildlife refuge in search of over-wintering snow geese, but in nature one never knows what surprises await.  At this particular refuge, there were no snow geese but I was rewarded with an amazing nature show which I am happy to share with you.

Happy New Year! ... and may 2016 be a successful year for you with laughter, happiness and health!

2016 Til next time