Note: This post is by a guest contributor, T.J. Walker, who the Wildlife Divisions’s Partners Section District Manager in North Platte. Contact T.J. @ email@example.com
First of all, I need to apologize. I had great intentions to do more on this page this year and my busy schedule has prevented that. I wanted to tell you about the great places I get to go to (like my fairly recent trip to Indian Cave State Park – if you haven’t been there you really should visit it sometime) and the great things I get to see. (Note that from here on down, you can click on the bird names to go to the “Nebraska Bird Library” to see an account and photos of that species – be sure to click on “listen to this species” and “more images” where they are available”.)
Here is one recent example of something cool that I got to see. Following a call from a resident in North Platte about a “dive bombing hawk” in his yard, I had a suspicion of what it was from similar previous experiences, but had to go check it out. Arriving at the location about 20 minutes later, I found a pair of Broad-winged Hawks, with a nest in the tree in this western Nebraska front yard along one of the busiest streets in North Platte. Broad-winged Hawks typically nest in “eastern deciduous forest” and typically in oak woodlands along the Missouri River. In fact, very few nests are even found there in the appropriate habitat. The Broad-winged Hawk (which as its name implies has broad wings – wide from front to back) is a “small Buteo”, much smaller than Red-tailed Hawks for example, that feeds on small birds, rodents and lizards in woodland areas – so why is it in North Platte?
About 10 blocks away and a few days later, a Mississippi Kite nest was reported and confirmed for the first time in North Platte. The Mississippi Kite is a “southern” bird species that has been nesting in Ogallala for many years, but now seems to be expanding its range in Nebraska, having been reported in pretty much all parts of the state over the last few years. The Mississippi Kite is aptly named. When you see one, you will notice graceful and flowing movements including twists and turns that are similar to what you would see a kite on a string do in a strong wind.
These two nests started me wondering – what else are we missing? Biologists don’t tend to spend a lot of time looking for wildlife in towns (no offense to you “city-slickers” but most of us prefer being out in the middle of nowhere if at all possible). And birdwatchers don’t spend much time looking for birds in towns either, unless it is part of something like the Christmas Bird Count, as birders prefer to be in areas that are more “wild” also where there is a greater diversity of birds to be seen.
So, what are we missing out there? Have any of you seen either of these species in your towns? If so, and you have some way to prove it (digital photos would be preferred), we would love to hear about it. If you have hawk photos from your yard that you aren’t sure about what they are, or think you have Broad-winged Hawks or Mississippi Kites in your neighborhood, feel free to email me a photo if you have one at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So this isn’t just me asking something from you, I would like to share with you some other urban raptors that you are likely to see overhead in cities or small towns across Nebraska (but you don’t need to report the species from here down to me, not yet anyway). If you are near water, you surely could see a Bald Eagle fly overhead, or even an Osprey. Both of these species seem to be fairly tolerant of human activity at times, especially when appropriate food (fish) is available.
Red-tailed Hawks are commonly seen soaring over urban areas, along with American Kestrels. Both species are opportunistic feeders that will take what they can catch and are open to habitat choice, especially during migration and winter time. If you or your neighbors feed birds, have bird baths or even just very “birdy” habitat in your yard, you may very well have seen bird-catching specialists like Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks or Merlins. The first two belong to the “Accipiter” group of hawks and the latter is a type of small falcon, larger than a kestrel, but smaller than Prairie and Peregrine Falcons. Speaking of Prairie Falcons and Peregrine Falcons, they too may be seen in urban settings. Peregrines are now breeding in Omaha and Lincoln, so they can be seen overhead near the Woodman Tower and the Capital building from spring to summer. From fall through spring, you could find Peregrines or their Prairie relative in about any community (not very common but possible). Tall grain elevators, water towers and any other tall structures are likely perching and hunting sites, especially if there are concentrations of Rock Pigeons or other birds nearby.
And if you live in a more “rural” community or even on the edge of a larger city, there are chances that you could see Swainson’s Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks or even Northern Harriers flying past your back yard. And if you are like me, with an eye always on the sky, and you live in the western half of the state, you might even catch a high-soaring Golden Eagle some time from Fall to Spring.
One of the more commonly seen raptors seen over communities across Nebraska is not a hunter, it is a pure scavenger. Their “all black” appearance and “featherless” red head, along with their dihedral shape (v-shape) in flight quickly identifies Turkey Vultures, which commonly roost in groups in trees, on grain elevators or large power poles in communities large and small.
Take time to explore other species in the Nebraska Bird Library – it is a pretty neat site. And when you are away from your computer – keep an eye on the sky, in the tree in your back yard, out your apartment window or out the windshield to see what raptors may be present in your community.