Fall birding brings nice variety

Anthony Hall
Plumas Audobon Society

Fall bird watching has some aspects unlike any other season in Plumas County.

This is the time of year when raptors leave their northern breeding grounds to search for food no longer available to them in areas covered in snow.

Some of these raptors come to our valleys to hunt for small mammals and other prey.

Figuring out which raptors are around can be fun, and we will provide some field marks to help you to distinguish between the various species.

Many raptors have a well-defined standard plumage whereas others, such as the red-tailed hawks, can be very variable. For instance, the juveniles of this species do not even have a red tail.

A prairie falcon and a ferruginous hawk already have been seen on the utility poles along Quincy Junction Road, joining the ever-present red-tailed hawks.

Ferruginous hawks have a snowy white breast and a pale head, and are slightly larger than red-tailed hawks, which often have a bellyband with dark streaks and a brown head. The ferruginous hawk may stay a while since a similar one was seen on these utility poles during the Christmas Bird Count last year.

Prairie falcons are smaller than red-tailed hawks and their wing tips appear pointed when they are flying. This falcon has a thin brown vertical cheek bar and its back is sandy-brown.

Prairie falcons and peregrine falcons are seen in Sierra Valley in the fall.

The peregrine falcon has a thick, dark vertical cheek bar that can merge with a dark cap giving a helmet appearance.

In addition, a rough-legged hawk recently has been seen in Sierra Valley. The hawk can be distinguished by dark wrist-patches under the wings and a dark belly.

Another hawk often seen in Sierra Valley is the Swainson’s hawk, which can have a brown bib below a white face.

An occasional visitor to Sierra Valley, more commonly seen in American Valley is the red-shouldered hawk in which the adult has a reddish brown chest and shoulders.

Some small birds migrate from far away to spend the winter in Plumas County. White-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows already have been seen in Chester and American Valley having traveled from breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada.

Fall also is a good time to see some small birds that are year-round residents in American Valley more easily, such as the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets.

It can be difficult to focus binoculars on these birds because they usually are in motion as they glean tiny insects from leaves and twigs, sometimes hanging upside-down.

The kinglets’ “crowns” only are present in the males and can be seen more easily from above when the birds are agitated and the crown is raised.

Bushtits also are very active and may be seen in flocks moving rapidly through bushes searching for small insects and chattering constantly in a high pitch. These are small gray birds with a very short beak.

This is the season when people put out bird feeders. Sunflower seed will attract mountain chickadees and red-breasted and pygmy nuthatches, whereas pine siskin and lesser and American goldfinch like thistle seed.

Northern flickers and hairy and downy woodpeckers are very fond of suet blocks. If you live in bear country, however, you should take bird feeders in at night or they may attract some unwelcome attention and lead astray destructive but majestic animals.

The Plumas Audubon Society will hold its annual Membership Meeting Tuesday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m., Room 107 in the science building at Feather River College.

Come and learn about participating in the various Christmas Bird Counts held in American and Sierra valleys and Lake Almanor.

 


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