By: Kristen Currie
What to watch for in February: Eagles and other Raptors
In February if you are out where you have a good view of the sky, and even better, are close to a body of water like Granger Lake, Lake Buchanan, or the Colorado River, you may be fortunate to see a bird with a really big wingspan soaring. Several Bald Eagles winter in central Texas with the most famous ones over at Lake Buchanan. A river cruise there enhances your chances of seeing one. Some even breed in our area, and are on nests right now.
The adult Bald Eagle is very distinctive, with its white head and neck projecting well in front of its wings, its brown body and wings, and with its all white tail. But since it takes four or five years to reach the adult plumage, there are many eagles flying that are not as easy to identify. If you see a large bird flying with flat wings and it appears blotchy brown and white in the underwings you may be witnessing the Bald Eagle success story, coming back from the brink of extinction due to DDT poisoning. Immature birds show a wide brown tail band on a speckled brown and white tail.
Learning the wingspan of the other species you might confuse with the Bald Eagle is a useful exercise. Bald Eagles may soar with raptors, like the very common Red-tailed Hawk, but its wingspan (70-90 inches) dwarfs the Red-tailed Hawk’s 50 inches. Compare its wingspan to that of the two-toned Turkey Vulture at 69 inches, and the Black Vulture’s is 57 inches. It is not unheard of to see an eagle sharing the sky with these birds, where the difference in wingspan is easy to see.
Two fairly common raptors are often confused with Bald Eagles for different reasons. The Osprey is primarily a fish eater like the eagle, and is tied to waterways. It has a wingspan of 58 to 72 inches, has a brown body with a mostly white head, and when seen from below has white and brown horizontal bands in its wings, that might be misinterpreted as mottled. Its tail is banded. Unlike the adult Bald Eagle’s all white head, the Osprey has a strong brown eye stripe that runs back from its eye. In flight seen from below, it has a white body compared to the adult eagle’s brown, and its wing shape is narrow, in contrast to the broad wings of the eagle. It often appears to be flying with wings shaped like an M, compared to the eagle’s flat-winged look. The Bald Eagle is mostly thought of as a fish eater, but it takes ducks, coots, and a wide variety of other prey including mammals. The other bird confused with the Bald Eagle is the Crested Caracara, which is often seen perched on poles. This raptor has a white head, a white tail with a brown tail band, and white wing patches at the ends of its wings. When perched, its black cap is a helpful identification tip. The Crested Caracara is omnivorous, often associating with vultures at carrion, but also taking live prey. Its nickname is the Mexican Eagle, but in fact it is a falcon. The Crested Caracara has a wingspan of 50 inches, much smaller than the Bald Eagle.
You might wonder why there was no mention of the Golden Eagle. It is very rare in Austin. You can learn more about it along with the other species at the outstanding Cornell Lab of Ornithology website All About Birds.
Generally Bald Eagles are seen in central Texas from October through April. Locations of recent sightings include Reimer’s Ranch, Commons Ford Ranch, Kingsland, and Lake Buchanan on the west, and Walter Long Lake, Big Webberville Park and Granger Lake on the east. With your eagle eyes see if you can spot the nest below the Lake Buchanan/Inks Lake Chamber of Commerce, 19611 E.TX-29, Buchanan Dam, TX.
It’s Swallow Time!
An adult male Purple Martin was spotted at the Sunshine Community Gardens on January 28. Some “scouts” arrive early to claim the best territories in human-provided housing. Martin landlords eagerly await their arrival, and expect the numbers to build through April. Learn more at the February 15 Travis Audubon class on Purple Martins.