Winter Raptors at Black Rock Forest
The winter months are a great time of year to look for birds of prey in the Forest, including the commonly seen Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk, as well as the occasional yet spectacular Bald Eagle.
The Red-tail is the raptor most commonly seen here. It has broad shoulders, a large wingspan and the unmistakable rust-colored red tail. The Red-tail is often seen soaring above the trees in circles, or perched in a tree along an open area, keeping watch for small mammals below.
Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks are the two most difficult birds to differentiate, and even the most experienced birders may have trouble telling them apart. Both hawks are similar in size, coloration and shape, with dark grey wings, brownish bars across their white chests, and black-and-white banded tail feathers. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is slightly smaller, relatively similar in size to a Blue Jay. The Cooper’s Hawk is a bit larger and is similar in size to a Crow. Without both of these birds right next to each other it may be very hard to judge their size. One identification clue is that the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s body shape tapers down from broad shoulders towards its legs, which appear long and pencil-like compared to the Cooper’s.
These two hawks may be seen darting through the trees chasing after songbirds, or perched for a few moments in the canopy of trees before searching for other prey items. The Forest offers many different habitat types which provide great benefits for birds of prey. Open grassy areas bordered by early succession growth and a tall overstory, like those found around the many bodies of water throughout the forest, are ideal.
As you move up in elevation throughout the Forest, you can expect to see several other species of raptors. The Hudson Valley has no shortage of rocky slopes and cliffs, making it prime habitat for birds like the Peregrine Falcon. The Peregrine is a crow-sized bird with dark grey wings, a white chest with black specks and bright yellow feet. One unique feature of the Peregrine is the coloration on its head and face. Its dark head and thick dark “sideburns,” which follow the same contour at the base of the beak, give this bird a distinct look. This bird can be seen at peaks such as those like Black Rock Mountain, diving from the sky at lightning speeds of over 200mph to catch prey.
Despite being brought to near extinction due to pesticide use and over-hunting, both the Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle are back thriving in this region. The Bald Eagle is perhaps the most majestic raptor of them all, making it truly special to catch a glimpse of one. Bald Eagles prefer tall conifers like those that border Tamarack Pond, to perch atop and keep an eye out for prey below. With the Hudson River just a few miles east, it is not uncommon to catch one or more eagles soaring across the sky. It is very hard to mistake a mature Bald Eagle for any other raptor with its pure white head and tail feathers, contrasted by its dark brown six or more foot wingspan.
-- Aaron Culotta