We all know a raptor when we see one—strong, sharp talons on the feet with a sharply hooked bill and fierce eyes. These features create the impression that these birds mean serious business. These attributes have made raptors the symbol of numerous sports teams.
Raptors fall into several distinct groups. In one group are the hawks, eagles, Osprey and kites. A second group is comprised of falcons and caracaras. New World vultures make up a third group. Interestingly, vultures in the New World are not particularly closely related to vultures found in the Old World. Finally we have owls, which take over after the sun has set. The first three groups are the diurnal birds of prey.
The major focus of these birds’ evolution are keen eyesight, fast flight, sharp talons for capturing prey and hooked bills for tearing flesh. Raptors feed on everything from insects and crabs to fish, frogs, mammals and birds. Many will feed on carrion, at least on occasion.
Southern Arizona hosts numerous raptors throughout the year. During the winter months Ferruginous Hawk, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle and Merlin are here along with numerous Red-tailed Hawks from more northerly populations. Summer is the season for Gray Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk. Harris’ Hawk, Coopers Hawk and Peregrine and Prairie Falcons are here year-round.
There are several excellent winter raptor watching sites in southern Arizona. The Sulphur Springs Valley, in the Willcox-Elfrida area, is perhaps the best site as many raptors take up residence in agricultural fields where rodents are abundant. The Santa Cruz Flats, near Picacho, is productive for the same reason. Another good site is the San Rafael Valley south of Sonoita.
I hope that this primer has you ready for the winter hawk watching season! For a more in-depth look at the remarkable diurnal raptors, join me at the Madera Clubhouse in Quail Creek on Monday, December 14 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Tickets will be $10 and will be available at the Quail Creek Concierge Desk and the Green Valley/Sahuarita Chamber of Commerce.