In Southwestern Ontario raptor migration typically peaks about the third week of September. This is when we experience the highest concentration of hawks moving through the area. Coincidentally, many birders plan day trips to area hawk watching hot spots such as Hawk Cliff or Holiday Beach. In these areas daily raptor counts on peak days can be in the tens of thousands, which is a remarkable sight to see. However, close views are not always achieved as many of these migrating birds pass by high overhead.
Despite the fact that raptor migration has already peaked, there are still great opportunities for viewing hawks, falcons and eagles across the area. In fact, many of the raptors that draw huge numbers of birders out during peak migration can be found throughout Southwestern Ontario year round, albeit in lower concentrations. Late fall is a great time to get out and observe raptors as leafless trees provide unobstructed views of these impressive birds.
One of the most abundant hawks in our area, that also happens to be a year round resident, is the Red-tailed. These large raptors are regularly found on forest edges, and can be readily observed in city parks, ESAs, and even backyards. Red-tailed Hawks prey on a variety of animals, with small mammals making up a large portion of their diet. Mature Red-tailed Hawks are easily identified by their rufous-coloured tails for which they are named. Immature birds can be a bit more difficult to identify, displaying paler tails that feature horizontal bands. To further aid in proper identification, also note the colour of the iris in the bird’s eye. If it is dark in colour, than it is a mature bird and if it is yellow, then the bird is immature.
Another common resident raptor found in our area is the Cooper’s Hawk. Though not as big as the Red-tailed, they are equally impressive. These long, slender raptors are agile flyers, and therefore are often found in denser forests than the Red-tailed. Small birds comprise a large portion of the Copper’s Hawk’s diet, which makes them not uncommon visitors to backyards where bird feeders are present. Adults have a grey back with a rusty streaked breast. Immature birds display dark brown plumage on their backs with heavily streaked brown breasts.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk is another raptor commonly found in our area, with a very similar appearance to the Cooper’s Hawk. Differentiating between these two hawks can be incredibly challenging, but there are a few key field marks to look for. The Sharp-shinned is often smaller than the Cooper’s. However, male Cooper’s Hawks and female Sharp-shinned Hawks often overlap in size, so this is not always the best tell. Sharp-shinned Hawks have shorter wings and a shorter square tail. The head and neck of the Sharp-shinned are also proportionately smaller than the Cooper’s.
One of my favourite raptors to search out at this time of year is the Bald Eagle. As is the case with many raptor species, these birds have slowly rebounded since the ban of the DDT more than forty years ago, but are still listed as at risk in Ontario. With five nests (that I know of) in the London and immediate area, it is not uncommon to find these birds flying up and down the Thames River. Mature Bald Eagles are virtually unmistakable, as no other common area raptor matches them in size or appearance. Look for their massive bodies and wingspans, combined with the distinct solid white head and tail feathers. Immature Bald Eagles can be a little more confusing as their plumage varies considerably from first to fourth year birds. Again their massive size and thick beaks help with proper identification. Bald Eagles feed primarily on fish, which is why we see them in close proximity to the river. Not all fish are live caught, as eagles are opportunistic feeders and will often scavenge for fish or other animals.
Photographing birds in flight, particularly raptors, is one of my favourite subjects to focus on. Positioning myself and waiting for an in flight shot of one of these beautiful birds is when I find myself most patient as a photographer. Under no circumstance do I ever intentionally approach a bird too closely in order to flush it for a flight shot. Some of these raptors may be migrants from northern locations that have entered our area to spend the winter months. These migrants are often very hungry and already stressed. There is no need to put added stress on them by approaching too closely. With a little patience, a shot will eventually present itself. There is a saying that I live by when it comes to photographing wildlife, “If my behaviour changes their behaviour, then I am too close.”
As mentioned previously, raptors can be easier to locate this time of year now that the majority of area trees have lost their leaves. Any of London’s ESAs or city parks along the Thames River are great places to start your search for raptors. Be sure to keep a close watch on the sky for birds soaring high overhead. Pay extra attention for birds perched along forest edges or rows of trees adjacent to a field or other open areas. These forest edges are common locations to find raptors for two reasons. First, they provide a great vantage point of the surrounding open areas where potential prey can be observed. Second, raptors regularly return to these same perches to consume their prey after the catch.
Southwestern Ontario is home to an abundance of raptors that reside in the region year round. Late fall can be an extremely rewarding time of year to get out birding, especially when it comes to observing raptors. The weather too can be very cooperative at this time of year, as we often see plenty of sunshine and comfortable daytime temperatures. I encourage you to grab your binoculars and field guide and head out to your favourite natural area in search of the many beautiful raptors that grace our skies and forests.