From an active bald eagle nest on Rogers Mesa to three kestrels on utility poles along Highway 92, area birders documented several species during Sunday's annual raptor viewing field trip. Bird-watchers captured a rare sighting of a Peregrine falcon on Scenic Mesa, and two more bald eagles perched above a golden eagle, with Land's End, Saddle Mountain and Needle Rock as a backdrop.
And while they also spotted a phoebe, ring-necked pheasant and other beautiful birds, the trip was all about raptors.
Paonia birder Jim Le Fevre leads the annual field trip. He became interested in birds after taking an ornithology course in college. "That really got me hooked," said Le Fevre. He became involved in raptor rehabilitation in Minnesota and was later active in documenting raptors in the the Pueblo area.
While working with a natural resource consultant and wildlife biologist in Montrose, he was involved in raptor studies in Colorado and Utah. Among his subjects were Northern goshawks, Mexican spotted owls and bald eagles. He joined the Black Canyon Audubon Society after moving to the North Fork area and has led the raptor watch for the past several years.
Three years ago he began mapping raptor nests from Fruitgrowers Reservoir south to the Gunnison River, and from Crawford to Paonia. He has mapped locations of 52 active and inactive red-tailed hawk nests, nine golden eagle nests and one bald eagle nest, seven great horned owls, and one Northern harrier nest discovered in a marsh in 2015. He goes out every spring to check on the activities of all the nests and see if any new nests have been created, and again in May to observe the number of young.
"It's a hobby," says Le Fevre.
Jason Beason, Special Monitoring Projects Coordinator with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, said participants help document different raptor species, also known as birds of prey, and the number of individual birds within each species over a two-day period. While data from the event hasn't turned into an official count, if numbers begin to reveal significant changes, it could be useful for later studies, said Beason.
While it's not documented, local birders, including Beason, Le Fevre and Bill Day, believe the triangle area between Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia, dubbed "Raptor Triangle," is one of the best areas in the state for raptor viewing. In addition to the prairie falcon, birders saw a pair of nesting great horned owls, 34 red-tailed hawks, a prairie falcon, seven golden eagles, six bald eagles, and 19 American kestrels. Saturday's numbers were similar, said Le Fevre, and also included three Cooper's Hawks, two Northern Harriers, and one rough-legged hawk.
Le Fevre documented new nests over the weekend, including two red-tailed nests that were built in the last couple of weeks, and a golden eagle nest that was unoccupied for the last four of five years was occupied by a nesting pair.
Le Fevre said he has seen a decline in the number of rough-legged hawks over the last two years, down from between 10-22 in past years to three last winter and five this year. Some of those were documented in the annual Christmas Bird Count. "The numbers have just not been there at all," he said. While annual Northern Harrier counts have ranged between six and 12, birders spotted two Saturday and zero Sunday. Due to warmer temperatures, it's possible they have already begun their migration north, said Le Fevre.
Beason said another raptor species that is seen on rare occasions is the Harlan's hawk. The Ferruginous hawk, listed as threatened, is also seen on rare occasions. Raptors begin to migrate as early as March, said Beason. As warmer weather arrives earlier and leaves later every year, some species are changing their migration patterns and flying north earlier or not coming so far south. While some species leave much earlier due to warmer weather, others, including nesting red-tailed hawks, often remain in the area all summer.
Le Fevre said he will use the data to compare raptor counts over time. Results are posted at the Western Slope Birding Network, where more than 300 members share information on sightings -- rare and not so rare. He hopes to be around in another 10 or 20 years to see what changes have occurred.