Sunday, November 25, 2012

Utah's Winter Raptors Revisited

The following is a re-post of my first-ever blog post. It was born out of an invitation from Robert Mortensen to be a contributor to his birding blog, It was first published October 16, 2012 on I'm re-posting here so it is included among my other NeoVista Birding posts. I hope you enjoy it! Jeff

I was out of state or otherwise preoccupied this year during the peak of fall passerine migration in Utah, but I'm not letting that dampen my birding enthusiasm because another of my favorite birding seasons is quickly approaching. I know that when the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains takes on its fall colors and our Swainson's Hawks and Ospreys leave the state around the end of September/early October it is time to get excited for winter raptors.

Someday (on my buck list) I'm going to make it to one of the popular hawk migration sites, but until then I'll continue to enjoy local hawk migration sites such as Squaw Peak Lookout above Provo, Utah.  I joined a small group of Utah County birders September 29th for a hawk watch and thrilled at the sights of all three accipiter species (Northern Goshawk, Cooper's Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk), Red-tailed Hawks, and Golden Eagles making their way southward along the ridges. We enjoyed watching one Cooper's Hawk rise from the trees in the hillside below us, catch a thermal, and soar right before our eyes. The hawk rose slowly and circled in front of and above us as if it wanted to make a lasting impression, which it did. I could see that its crop was full and it was fueled for the next segment of its migration. It rose higher and higher and then ended the gentle looping with a direct flight southward along the ridge.
Migrating Cooper's Hawk Provo, Utah
(Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Last November I happened to photograph my first Harlan's Hawk (subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk), without even knowing it at the time, in a location we refer to locally as Point of the Mountain. It was Jerry Liguori, raptor expert and author, who confirmed the Harlan's ID when I shared some images with him. Once Jerry confirmed the ID and I shared the sighting with the local birding community raptor watchers descended upon the location and multiple Harlan's Hawks were observed throughout the winter.  Point of the Mountain is a plateau at about 5100' and sits between the borders of Salt Lake and Utah Counties. It is also the location for the Utah State Flight Recreation Area which is used by hang gliders, para gliders, and hunting raptors because of the thermals rising from the hillsides and open fields below.
Juvenile Harlan's Hawk at Point of the Mountain Lehi, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Once I became a little more discerning with my observations of the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawks I was able to locate my first light adult Harlan's Hawk which had claimed a small field in American Fork for its hunting grounds. Jerry Liguori shared with me that recent data indicates that light Harlan's Hawks make up about  12% of the total Harlan's Hawk population. The images below show the bright white underside lacking buff and rufous tones, blobby belly marks, streaked head, white around the eyes, dark terminal bands in the wings, and the absence of other banding in the wing and tail feathers--all typical traits for light adults. The upper side image shows the whitish scapulars and pale tail feathers which are also common with these hawks.
Light Adult Harlan's' Hawk American Fork, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Light Adult Harlan's Hawk American Fork, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
One day while visiting the fields south of the Point of the Mountain and behind our local Cabela's store (a place we call Traverse Ridge) I came across two hunting Prairie Falcons. One would perch on a power pole, leave the pole with a dive and then make a swift, low flight across a field only to do a u-turn and return to its previous perch. After seeing this occur several times I decided to use my truck as a blind and park below the pole to capture some action images. I saw this same behavior with another Prairie Falcon the other day at Point of the Mountain and employed my previous truck-as-a-blind strategy to capture action shots of that bird as well.
Prairie Falcon Below Traverse Ridge in Lehi, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Adult Prairie Falcon at Utah State Flight Recreation Area Above Point of the Mountain Utah County, Utah
(Photo by Jeff Cooper)
During the winter months I often hope and check for Bald Eagles in a small stand of cottonwood trees near one of our local boat harbors in Lindon, Utah.
Bald Eagle (under overcast sky) at Lindon Marina in Lindon, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
It was a pleasant surprise to see groups of Bald Eagles perched on snags along rivers and highways during  a drive through southern Utah on my way to Phoenix last December. I especially enjoyed the one below after driving to the outskirts of the tiny town of Panguitch, Utah.
Bald Eagle near Panguitch, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
The Rough-legged Hawk below was flying next to our van as one of my great birding friends and I drove along the Antelope Island State Park causeway last winter.
Rough-legged Hawk on Antelope Island State Park Causeway Davis County, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
I'm excited about the prospects of seeing Merlins and Ferruginous Hawks this winter as I cruise the valleys and open fields.
This Merlin made Pleasant Grove, Utah its winter home in 2011 (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Ferruginous Hawk near Beryl Junction, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
And there is always the surprise visit of a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk at our winter yard feeders. I received a call from a friend last winter to let me know a Sharp-shinned Hawk had just taken some prey in his backyard. I quickly drove over and witnessed the scene below.
Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk Having it Meal Pleasant Grove, Utah (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Are you ready for winter raptors? I can hardly wait for the next one that comes into view!


  1. That is NUTS! Gorgeous.

  2. Hi Jeff, how can I contact you? I would use some bird of your photos as models for art work painting (not photo manipulation, drawing) and I need your permission for share it.

    Your photos are so wonderful: I live in a semi-wetland and I'm surrounded by birds, and I know how hard it is to obtain a natural (and "wildish") looking image, and, what's more, to capture flying birds. Awesome, really.

    1. Thank you, Chiara, for visiting my blog and for your kind words. You can find my email address in my copyright notice on my blog. Please email me and we will discuss your request. Thank you.