Battles in the sky

Living the Wild Life

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Photos by Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

Seven Rough-legged hawks were taking advantage of the 30+ mph north wind causing an up-draft from the large cottonwoods along Camas Creek entering Mud Lake. With their wings locked in neutral, they glided for minutes without a single wing beat.

From my makeshift blind I was studying their use of their tails as a rudder when I noticed an immature Bald eagle approaching the windbreak to roost. One of the hawks folded its wings, going into a dive and feathers flew as the eagle was bowled over by the force of attack. Flying up-side-down was not the way an eagle’s wings are designed to be used and it disappeared into a patch of willows. When two adult Balds appeared the group of hawks left to find another place for their air-sledding. Six immature eagles joined the pair to roost in the large cottonwoods for the night.

As I got back to my truck I noticed that a Northern harrier had been successful capturing a vole from a nearby hay field and was headed for a group of mixed trees. Two ravens had also noticed the dead vole hanging from the foot of the harrier and wanted it for a late afternoon snack.

It was very comical as the clumsy ravens took turns trying to steal the vole from the harrier. They would over-shoot their target as the agile hawk would stop in midair or veer to one side or other. The mouths of the ravens were always open as they tried to grasp the rodent as they passed the tricky harrier. After about 10 minutes, the ravens flew off to try and an easier snack – maybe a roadkill.

Two days later I watched as a raven attempted to attack a Golden eagle – only one attempt as the eagle’s wing and the raven’s head became acquainted with each other.

These battles in the air are very entertaining to me as I photograph and study the maneuvers the birds employ while engaged. The most fascinating action for me is the use of the tail as a rudder that changes the direction and speed of the participants.

While discussing these fights with family and friends I have been asked about why little bitty songbirds are often attacking larger birds during the summer. These encounters often happen as the songbirds protect their nests, territory or young from the predatory birds.

One of the most predatory birds in our area is the Black-billed magpie. With their excellent memory once they find a nest of baby robins they get a large grin on their face. The robin’s nest becomes a ready source of food for the baby magpies squawking a half mile away. Once the nest is emptied the robins start over, producing another nest full of hot meals for the marauders.

Next time you see smaller birds attacking hawks notice that the small birds never fly in front of a flying hawk. Their attack is to the exposed back of the hawk then looping back to make the attack again. I guess the expense of a few feathers is cheap for the food garnered from a nest full of babies.

Any time different species of birds and/or great numbers show up, aerial fights and interaction increase. Traditionally during the first two weeks of March about 70,000 snow geese, thousands of Tundra swan and pintail ducks migrate through Southeastern Idaho. Visits to Market Lake, Mud Lake, Camas National Wildlife Refuge and the Osgood area can be very rewarding and aerial attacks are
common. This week flocks of hundreds of Red-winged blackbirds showed up and were immediately greeted by falcons.

If you want to see action, turn off the TV and head for the fields and melting ponds; you never know what you will witness.

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