Monday, December 3, 2012

Tucson 2012 Part 3

We were first introduced to the seasonal Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum’s Raptor Free Flight Program during an October 2011 visit to Tucson. The program, run twice daily during October through April (check the museum web site for exact dates), featured raptor species that flew untethered in the open desert and in close proximity to spectators. So low do these aerialists at times fly that people were asked not to raise their hands above their heads or carry small children on their shoulders. Pretty much for obvious reasons but folks still needed to be reminded.

Amanda primed a branch with small piece of bait and this was the result
While trained handlers worked the birds, a museum volunteer provided a running commentary on each raptor’s attributes, habitats, and behavior unique to that species. The morning program consisted of raptors that this year included Chihuahuan Ravens, Ferruginous Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Gray Hawk, Prairie Falcon, and Red-tailed Hawk. New this year were a Barn Owl and Peregrine Falcon. The afternoon show featured a family of Harris’s Hawks, social predators that typically hunt in pairs or in a group. As with the morning program's birds, Harris's were lured to various natural perches by handlers who placed small pieces of bait (fresh meat). But because the raptors flew untethered over open desert, they were at times attracted to natural prey they spotted. In particular, the Harris’s Hawks, during one afternoon program, captured some prey (perhaps a rabbit) and spent most of the program out of sight. Because the birds flew and perched so closely, it was a great opportunity for birds to be photographed.

Chihuahuan Raven
The Chihuahuan Raven is the shape of a raven but is the size of a crow. Native to Mexico and the United States (AZ, NM, CO, OK, TX). This bird doesn’t readily come to mind when the word “raptor” is used but it does feed on invertebrates, small reptiles, and carrion.

Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl (nicknamed “Tiger of the Woods”) has a much wider range, from the Arctic tundra to tropical rain forests in South America. One of the most widespread of common owls in North America, it’s the only animal that regularly eats skunks. It will also regularly kill and eat other owls and were problematic during reintroduction efforts of Peregrine Falcons, killing both adults and young by hunting peregrines on their cliff perches and nests at night. Great Horn Owl payback comes by owls being regularly harassed by mobs of American Crows. GHO’s do not build their own stick nests but rely on taking over stick nests built by hawks. Red-tailed Hawk nests are commonly usurped since GHO's start nesting much earlier in the year.

Gray Hawk
Gray Hawks, are more easily found in Mexico to South America. Their range in the Continental United States is restricted to southeastern AZ, and year round in the Rio Grand Valley, TX. One of the smaller species in the Buteo family, Gray Hawks prefer to feed on small mammals, birds, and frogs.

Prairie Falcon
The Prairie Falcon of the Falco family hunts in the arid American West for medium-sized birds and mammals. Cliff nesters, this bird inhabits more open shrub-steppe and desert habitats and is comfortable living/hunting at high elevations. Ground squirrels are a particular favorite food.

Dillon, the program director, working the Peregrine with a lure
the Peregrine Falcon never perched... just be in the right spot and anticipate the shot
Peregrine Falcons, another of the Falco family, is similar in appearance to the Prairie Falcon although the Peregrine’s flying agility is more spectacular. It too hunts medium sized birds, often taking them on the wing. The Peregrine's population suffered a serious crash due to pesticide poisoning in the 1950's and 1960's which virtually eradicated them from their eastern North America range where they are now slowly making a comeback.

Ferruginous Hawk
The Ferruginous Hawk is a hawk of the open country in the West. Wings long and broad, this largest of American hawks is at times mistakenly identified in flight for an eagle. Legs are feathered to the toes (similar to a Rough-legged Hawk and American Golden Eagle). It breeds primarily in prairies, nesting in low trees. Before the demise of the American Bison range, Ferruginous Hawks constructed nests in part using bison bones and wool. Rabbits, ground squirrels...and quite naturally, Prairie Dogs...are high on this bird’s steady diet.

Harris's Hawk
Harris’s Hawk, a medium-sized hawk of the arid southwest hunts cooperatively in pairs or groups by ganging up on prey to flush it into the open. Small mammals and Prairie Dogs are favorite targets. Its range extends well into tropical deciduous forests from Mexico to South America. One of the more “handsome” hawks it's readily identified by its chestnut-red thighs and shoulders, and distinctive white rump and terminal tail band.

Barn Owl
The Barn Owl is the most widely distributed species of owls in the world. It goes by many nicknames: "Ghost Owl", "Church Owl" (commonly found roosting in old church steeples), and "Monkey-faced Owl". It's heart-shaped face easily sets it apart from other owls. Hunting mainly at night, it silently swoops to take rodents and small mammals.
By far the Raptor Free Flight program was a favorite of mine's as I spent extra time at several of the programs while Carol perused other parts of the museum. We're already talking about our next visit to Arizona...but there are also so many other places to visit, too!

more typical view of a desert raptor (Harris's Hawk)

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