Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Birds of Prey - how to tell them apart.

The Museum of Australia (in Sydney) has an excellent "bird finder" system under the aegis of the "Birds in Backyards" project. You can fill out a simple on-line questionnaire, and it will direct you to various likely birds. I just go to their full list of species, and select the bird I am looking to check out.
Unfortunately the list is "sorted" in a most illogical way - sorted alphabetically by first name of the "common name". So to check various Thornbills, you have to jump from B for Brown Thornbill to S for Striated Thornbill. Apart from that, and several birds being listed by unfamiliar names, such as "Australian King Parrot", instead of the familiar "King Parrot", this is a very useful on-line bird reference. It would be much more sensible to list the birds by Thornbill, Brown; Thornbill, Striated, etc, so that related birds are close together, for ease of comparison. One of these days I hope they will take notice. Such a simple change would greatly improve the usability of this very fine resource.
Anyway, the Birds in Backyards people have recently opened up a "forum", a discussion line, where people can share their ideas (the pros and cons of bird feeders is always an issue). People can also seek help with bird identifications.
Recently someone on that forum asked how to identify a particular bird of prey - from a list of Whistling Kite, Little Eagle and Brown Goshawk. It seemed strange to me, as these birds are very different in habit, and shape - how could one not tell them apart?
Well, obviously people are learning about birds from different levels of experience, so I thought: why not try to help others learn the tell-tale signs, and what to look for?

Whistling Kite and little Eagle are the most commonly confused of the larger "hawks", so let us start with them, for today.

The Whistling Kite has a long, narrow wing, and relatively long tail. The wing is seldom held straight, but has a bit of a kink in its line. The wing tips (which can be varied in flight), are usually spread slightly open, with that is referred to as "fingers". The wings are usually drooped at the tip, not held high, as in some other large "hawks".In the case of this photo, the Kite had been dive-bombed by the Kestrel, which presumably felt its territory had been strayed into. The Kite, clearly surprised, turned and dived, to give chase. This photo is unusual in that it shows the upper side of the Kite (which one seldom sees).
From an identification point of view, it shows the wing formation perfectly. Bent wing, rather than the smooth leading edge of the wing (contrast with the Little Eagle photos). It also shows the "fingers" in a normal degree of "spread". The kestrel's wing shows how differently Falcons wings are shaped - with much pointier wing tips. Falcons are built for speed. But I shall return to Kestrels and Falcons on another occasion.
Little Eagle, circling against a stiff breeze.
Wing tips held pointed, tail spread, to give control.

Little Eagle, "frozen in mid-air".

This bird was balancing itself against the wind, nearly perfectly stationary. Wings spread to give maximum uplift and control, tail more-or less in "neutral". I was on the back deck, and the bird was checking me out, while presumably hunting for rabbits over my property.
This is an unusual image, as the bird was flapping hard to maintain a "hover", something normally associated with the smaller "hawks". These three photos show the variability of the Little Eagle's wings and tail. However, the wing tips, even when "spread" fully, are very different from the "fingers" shown by the Whistling Kite. And the tail is much shorter.

Generally the Whistling Kite is a bird of the open country, whereas the Little Eagle likes woodland, or moderately timbered country. Whistling Kites are extremely widespread, ranging from an off-shore island (where this photo was taken), to swamps, and dry open country. Further inland it tends to be replaced by the related Black Kite (or Forked-tailed Kite, as it used be known). It has a distinctive call, a shrill whistle which firstly descends, then rises again, often ending in a shriek. Unlike the Little Eagle, it calls frequently. Around swamps, the Swamp Harrier could be mistaken with it, but look for the white rump on the Harrier. It also holds its wings at a medium high angle ("upswept wings" is the standard description). This is a distinctive difference from the Whistling Kite, which tends to droop its wing tips.

Around Robertson, I would expect to see the Whistling Kite around the farming lands of Sheepwash Road, Glenquarry and Kangaloon. It is often seen near the Wingecarribee Reservoir, which also happens to be habitat for the Swamp Harrier, which is why I mentioned it above. The Little Eagle is an irregular visitor, which I see from my place, on average every 6 months, when the winds are right for it to circle above the steep valley below my house.

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