MJ Wixsom: Looking for uncommon birds of prey
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Yes, I went to the Galapagos and wanted to see blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and giant tortoises, but I also really hoped that I would see some raptors or birds of prey.
I was lucky to see a few.
I saw a Galapagos hawk nesting on the first island. It is closely related to North America’s red-backed and white-tailed hawks, but only lives on the Galapagos Islands.
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It was an amazing sight, because they are so rare. There are only about 150 breeding pairs. The adults are dark brown, but the juveniles are lighter with a cream color. Like the North American raptors, the females are larger than the males.
They are mostly seen on Isabela and Fernandina Islands and are extinct on the smaller islands. (Introduced cats compete for food and have caused a significant drop in population numbers.)
In the Galapagos, the hawks feed mostly on invertebrates (think giant centipedes and locusts), but they also eat snakes, rodents, lizards, young iguanas, turtle hatchlings and other birds.
On the Galapagos, the Galapagos hawk is the apex predator. The birds and iguanas do not fear humans, but they run for cover if a shadow goes overhead.
We did not witness it, but the Galapagos hawk has a unique breeding system known as cooperative polyandry.
The males are entirely monogamous, but the females can mate with up to seven males throughout the nesting period. All of these males then help to raise the chicks (usually three in a clutch) by taking turns incubating eggs and feeding the hatchlings.
We also saw a Galapagos short-eared owl. This owl is a sub-species of the short-eared owl which is found throughout the world. They are smaller and darker than their worldwide cousins.
The feather tufts that caused their name are not ears, but just tufts.
Again, the females are larger than the males. The Galapagos short-eared owl hunts by day unlike their other family members. They eat rats, lava lizards and birds.
The one we saw was feasting on petrels but they are able to take boobies.
These are much larger than the owls, but the owl strikes by surprise and hits the boobie on the back of the neck.
It seemed that the boobie was over twice the size of the owl.
When hunting petrels, the owls (unlike other owls) have learned to hang out near the deep petrel tunnels and grab the petrel at the tunnel entrance.
Then in Peru, I thought I saw a raptor from the first ruins. While it could have been one of the hawks, I think it was a peregrine.
They are fast diving, powerful falcons that hunt medium sized birds. They are commonly used in falconry. I was happy to see it, but very unsure about its identification.
Our guide didn’t see it when I pointed it out.
Then I definitely saw falcons circling over the salt flats where Incas to present day have used evaporation flats to collect salt from the water.
Our guide was well versed in Inka history, tradition and architecture, but not so much zoology.
He was able to identify them as falcons and “not hawks,” but I’m not sure if they were Aplomado falcons or peregrine falcons.
The Aplomado Falcon has gray upper parts and top of the head and is smaller than a peregrine.
The Aplomado Falcon is fairly common in the high Andes where it is known to range between 2,400 – 4,300 meters.
In Spanish, it is the Halcón Aplomado, which may be what I heard the guide say. It may also be that the guide didn’t know if they were Aplomados or peregrines.
But I have seen peregrines, so I’m going to believe they were Aplomados.
They do live in the southern US, but they are listed as endangered.
They don’t build their own nests, but co-opt a nest from someone else. This could be other raptors, crows or magpies. Sometimes, they forcibly evict the nest builder from their own nest.
They are often seen in pairs and will pass food to each other in midair.
They are used in falconry for abatement birds, because they chase pigeons but are too small to hit and kill many.
Unlike some of the larger hawks, they are relatively short lived.
The oldest recorded aplomado was just over 8 years.
My friend Mike likes bees and hawks. He went to Mexico and found a swarm of bees and a hawker using a Harris Hawk for pigeon control.
I didn’t score quite that well, but I was happy to see a Galapagos Hawk, a Galapagos short-eared owl and a pair of Aplomado falcons.
MJ Wixsom, DVM MS is a best-selling Amazon author who practices at Guardian Animal Medical Center in Flatwoods, Ky. GuardianAnimal.com 606-928-6566