Where Have All The Raptors Gone?

I know my title sounds like a Peter, Paul and Mary song but this is a serious question that I become more concerned about with each passing day. So at the risk of sounding like an alarmist I chose to pose the question here.

Yesterday morning I drove several hundred miles through fairly remote areas of Utah and Tooele county looking for birds, raptors especially. I did see three Golden Eagles and a Bald Eagle but the absence of hawks was striking and alarming. These have been buteo-rich areas in the past and this is a trend that both Mia and I have been noticing and commenting (to each other) about for several years now.

 

golden-eagle-9853b-ron-dudley

1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

In about four hours of shooting I was skunked. This image of a Golden Eagle is as close as I came to getting any interesting raptor photos and it will join every other image I took yesterday morning (not many at all) in the delete bin, for obvious reasons.

Winter in northern Utah has traditionally been raptor-rich so when I got home yesterday I spent several hours reviewing my images (on four different computers) taken in December over the past nine years. The contrast between the number of raptors I’m seeing and photographing this year (and last year) as compared to previous Decembers is truly alarming.

 

 

prairie-falcon-1195b-ron-dudley1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this Prairie Falcon along the Antelope Island causeway on a cloudy morning exactly five years ago today – Dec. 12, 2011 and I photographed other raptor species that morning too. In reviewing images taken in December of that year (and other years) I was reminded of how many Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks and American Kestrels I encountered and photographed on a typical day back then and it was usually a bunch. I also had fair numbers of opportunities with Ferruginous Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Prairie Falcons.

Part of the apparent decline in raptor numbers in some of the areas I regularly photograph is likely due to the drought and the resulting dramatic decline in the level of the Great Salt Lake but I don’t think that explains it all. In areas far removed from the lake bed (valleys of the west desert for example) we used to see many dozens of hawks perched on power poles along the roads and freeways as I drove to and from our distant shooting destinations. Not any more. Yesterday (and on previous outings this year and last) we saw very few of them and their scarcity was a major subject of our conversation on the way home. We’ve noticed the same disturbing trend on our many summer bird photography trips to Montana and Idaho – particularly in the area around Montana’s Centennial Valley.

Ok, now to the primary reason for this post. I’m wondering if readers in other areas are noticing the same disturbing trend we are. On a recent blog post of mine one person (can’t remember who) mentioned that some were reporting declining numbers of Red-tailed Hawks in their areas and that comment made me think to ask the question above. My observations are far from a scientific study but they have been made long-term and are documented with photos. Anecdotal observations and reports can be of some value.

As a bird photographer I’m alarmed by this possible trend but most of my concern is as a resident of this fragile planet. Any related feedback one way or the other would be appreciated.

Ron

PS – My apologies if you got an ear-worm from my title. If it’s any consolation I got the damned thing too… 🙂

 

70 comments to Where Have All The Raptors Gone?

  • Mikal Deese

    Just today, I received a mature Red-tailed that appears to have West Nile, even thought it is almost the middle of December. He might recover with rehab care, but would not have lived without it. I really hope the introduced diseases are not to blame for reduced numbers in local areas. Our corvid populations seem to be rebounding after West Nile initially decimated them.

  • Kim Lopez

    Dear Ron, as I was driving a month ago from Laredo, Texas to Monterrey, Mexico I was quite surprised to count more than 40 raptors, mainly perched on power line posts. Most of them were Harris’s hawks and Cara Caras, both quite common in this region.
    However, I have also noticed an overall decline in raptors during the last two years which concerns me because I’m an enthusiastic hawk watcher. I will be checking with HawkWatch.org. Hopefully they have answers.
    Now I’m writing to you from Cuernavaca, Mexico, my new home since last August just a few miles south of Mexico City. I have also noticed very few raptors (buteos); I spotted a RTHA hovering nearby and maybe a couple of Harris’s hawks pass by. What I do see almost everyday is a family of black vultures that possibly has a nest near us.
    Unfortunately there are still many people who continue to use rodenticides to kill rats, mice, squirrels, possums, and other small mammals. I hope this is not a reason for the decline of raptors. The organization RATS (‘Raptors Are the Solution’) may have some insight too. Greetings!

  • Linda Covey

    Well Ron, this post has stirred up all of us! Here’s what I have noticed here in Carefree, Arizona. (35 miles north of Phoenix).
    I think your missing Red Tails are hiding out here. Lots of Harris’s also. Not so many shore birds/duck/etc. Our LBB’s all over the place.
    Bird Count coming up soon which will help everyone! I enjoy your posts even tho I may not comment each time. I do read and look! Thanks, Linda

  • Charlotte Norton

    Experiencing the same thing in the St. Louis area and I was wondering the same thing.

    Charlotte

  • Levi V.

    I read on Mia’s blog that waterfowl’s been slow in Utah, and maybe that has something to do with the lack of raptors.
    Spring is usually our best time for hawks, and I saw lots this year. Mostly redtails, cooper’s, and some sharp-shins.
    Lately I haven’t been seeing many except for a recent drive 80 or so miles north of here that was dominated by redtails, turkey buzzards, and the first kestrels I ever saw.
    Unfortunately I couldn’t compare this year to previous years, as I used to not look out for birds and mostly kept my eyes peeled only for critters with scales or shells. It’s hard for a kid to just observe birds, which require so much patience to watch.

    • Levi, I love your youthful enthusiasm for birds and your already mature insight into the worlds of nature and photography. And yes, in the case of Peregrine and Prairie Falcons in particular the negative effects of the decline of the Great Salt Lake which has resulted in fewer waterfowl has definitely had an impact on the larger falcon species around here.

      Congrats on your first kestrels!

  • Dick Harlow

    I know I’m late on this one, and please understand that these comments are a combination of anecdotal and reported observations here in Vermont.
    Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcons had their best nesting year in 2016! Best year means they had record hatched and fledged young for Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon and Common Loon. Northern Harriers been steady, both from reports and what I personally have observed.
    Red-tailed Hawks are slightly down in numbers. I wonder if it is a cyclical thing?
    We used to have 2-3 Red-tails around our area. Now we have one, but only intermittently. They are occasionally seen, but not in the numbers I’m used to.
    Prey items haven’t gone down to my knowledge, especially around where I live, seeing Meadow Voles and Gray Squirrels regularly.
    Since we hear Coyotes fairly regularly and see their scat, they are finding enough to eat. Which suggest to me that there are enough herbivores in this area to maintain the predators.
    So far, since 2012 in this place, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks have been steady.
    This information is biased by the fact that we live near the Green Mountains and next to a combination of over grown meadow, wetland and agricultural hay fields.
    Hope this helps,

  • Patty Chadwick

    Maybe they moved out of the country…can’t blame them….

  • Susan Stone

    I had to think about this for a while, and have realized that we have only seen one Swainson’s Hawk this year; usually we see them fairly frequently. That one bird is actually the only raptor we’ve seen in quite a while.

    • Susan, As you probably know Swainson’s aren’t found in North America in winter but it’s interesting that you only saw one this past year when normally you see many more than that. Thanks for the report.

      • Susan Stone

        Maybe what I saw wasn’t a Swainson’s, because I saw it in the last couple of weeks. If it wasn’t I don’t know what it was, except that it was definitely a Hawk, and definitely not a Redtail.

  • HawkWatch did note a decline in some species from their fall migration count at 7 places in the west. Here’s a link to the 2016 count summery: http://www.hawkwatch.org/images/stories/Conservation_Science/Current_Projects/Migration_Projects/2016_count_summary.pdf

    There are definitely some regional variations. Here in western Oregon, we are definitely seeing a scarcity of hawks. We had a weird lack of babies this summer and some that came in were starving; falconry apprentices have reported not being able to find juvenile red-tails. But in my trips up I-5 through the Willamette Valley, I’m seeing harriers but very few red-tails. Last winter was mild and rainy but not so rainy that it flooded fields in the spring when the first batches of voles should have been nesting. We actually expected a banner baby year and have been concerned.

  • Thanks so much for all the feedback from different areas everyone!

    Overall, so far, I interpret your reports as encouraging even though several others believe they’re noticing the same trend I think I’m noticing in parts of northern Utah. Several commenters have provided interesting links on the subject and one I thing is particularly helpful is the Raptor Population Index website provided by Alison, below. Here’s the link again if you have the interest:

    http://rpi-project.org/2013/

  • I really, really hope it is a temporary anomaly.
    But fear that the hand of man has something to do with it…
    Yes, I have an earworm, but at least it isn’t (as they so often are) offensive. I really loathe it when a group I always despised lodges itself in my head. (Think Abba for example. Or ‘we all live in a yellow submarine…’)

    • The same songs are on my list, EC – but I’d add “Up, Up and Away”…

    • Laura Culley

      Or worse–I’m Hen-ery the Eighth I am… 🙂

      • Ha, I always liked that song, Laura – despite the fact that Henry VIII beheaded my direct paternal ancestor, Edmund Dudley, at the Tower of London in 1510. Edmund was the 1st Earl of Leicester and the grandfather of Robert Dudley who very nearly married “The Virgin Queen”, Queen Elizabeth I.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Dudley

        • Laura Culley

          WOW Ron! You have interesting relatives/ancestors. Old Henry liked the old beheading thing. Silences opposition pretty rapidly–female preying mantises like that strategy, too. 🙂
          And y’all will be happy to know that with that comment, I installed that ear worm in myself–AGAIN! Karma works! Oh when will I ever learn? Oh when will I ever learn (to complete the lyric)?

  • Ron, I’m sorry to hear that you are experiencing a declining number of raptors in your area. I’m in Brooklyn, NY and go on regular bird watching walks to Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park. Just this Saturday, I noticed that I’ve seen many more hawks than usual. There was one Cooper’s and several Red-tailed. I also often see Merlins and Kestrels more often than in previous years. It’s hard to tell if I’m seeing the same bird(s) over the course of a 4-hour walk covering different parts of the cemetery and park, or several different ones. It may be a mixture of all the above. I’ve seen a Bold Eagle for the first time 10 days ago. I hope the trend in your area changes soon! I’m new to your blog, following it for about a year now. It’s the first thing I look for every morning. Thank you for sharing your photos and stories with us.

  • Ron, when out with my camera, I have been noticing fewer raptors this year as well – in particular Red Tailed hawks and Kestrels in the Allegan State game area in SW Michigan –

  • Ron,

    I live in NW Washington and our raptor population seems pretty stable. I am out in the field photographing birds 4 or 5 times a week, including a wetlands at least once a week. I have seen no change in our most common raptors — Bald Eagles, Red-tail Hawks, Ospreys, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Northern Harriers. The Bald Eagle population changes with the season, but I always see at least one when I’m out. Last year I counted 140 Bald Eagles from one spot, and 180 total in a space of a mile. The attraction was salmon in the fields and ditches due to flooding. We have had something almost the opposite, with large numbers of American White Pelicans, Great Egrets, and Bohemian Waxwings appearing in Western Washington when usually we would see none of them.

    I took a look at the line graphs in eBird. I chose Red-tail Hawk in the entire state of Utah and looked at the years 2012 – 2016. There are a number of metrics, the default one being frequency, which is the number of birds reported by list. The graphs jump around a bit, but the clear lowest was 2012. The relative ranking did not change when looking at other metrics. In general I did not see a large decline.

  • Minor correction: It’s actually a song by that Nobel Prize-winning fellow, Bob Dylan. It was popularized by Peter, Paul & Mary.

    It will be interesting to see what the Christmas Bird Counts show for current bird populations. Like you, I have this general sene that levels are down. Some common species seem to be missing entirely, Mountain Chickadees, for example. But the CBCs will give us more systematic data.

  • Don Weber

    Hello Ron, we live 3 hours north of you in Eastern Idaho; we have not noticed a decline in raptor numbers. We are part of a project called the Winter Raptor Survey established in 2004. There are close to 290 routes covering Oregon, Northern California, Idaho, and Washington. The project is designed to determine wintering populations of the various species of birds of prey from November through March. Here is a link to more information on the project: http://www.ecaudubon.org/winter-raptor-survey

    • Thanks for the link, Don, I’ll definitely check it out.

      And I’m particularly grateful to get your positive report on raptors in Eastern Idaho because the area from the Snake River Valley near Idaho Falls to the Dubois area is one of my areas of special interest.

  • Laura Culley

    I don’t know about Utah and Montana, however, I’ve just traveled through a strip of the United States from New York to Arizona, stopping in Nashville, Tennessee, St. Louis, Missouri, Lamar, Colorado, Albuquerque and then Phoenix (including three trips from Phoenix to Kingman). Along that route, redtails, Cooper’s hawks, Swainson’s, Northern Harriers were abundant. Even with the and-driving limitation, raptors were seemingly everywhere. Through western Missouri, Kansas and eastern Colorado, I could swear there was a redtail on every fence post, billboard and light fixture! Seriously! Although it was difficult to spot Kestrels while driving (even with a spotter Kestrel riding shotgun in the truck), we saw a bunch of them. In Kingman, AZ, redtails and Kestrels are abundant, along with Harriers and a prairie falcon who routinely joins a falconer friend’s group of Harris’ hawks. Evidently, she GETS the concept that humans can be good tools for prey acquisition, but I digress 🙂 My falconer friends in Lamar, CO report a healthy population of redtails (and an abundance of darker morph birds this year) that join their redtail hawks’ hunting adventures.
    I’m SURE the drought has something to do with the numbers by affecting available prey, but to what extent, who knows? Like everything else, I doubt the answer is that simple, but instead a variety of issues coming together in a perfect (or imperfect) storm.

    • Laura, I remember reading on your FB posts during your cross country move that you were seeing very large numbers of raptors along the way. I was hoping you’d flesh it out a little here – thanks for doing so!

  • Hi Ron and all: here’s somewhat heartening news from Phillip Brown of the Harris Center in Hancock, NH. He was kind enough to answer my question this morning about local raptor counts. In his words:

    “We conduct a long-term hawk watch migration count in the fall (this was the 12th year), and submit our data to http://www.hawkcount.org, an international database of hawk watch data from over 200 different locations around the western hemisphere. This is the most accurate way to determine population trends for raptors. For a closer look and to look at population trends for any of the species in many different areas, see the Raptor Population Index website, in which their latest analysis can be viewed in graphs and on maps:
    http://rpi-project.org/2013/

    While we have seen year to year variability in these numbers, the general trends for most species are positive with these populations either stable or increasing; however, a few are decreasing over the long-term at northeast hawk watches. The variability between years can be attributed to migrant birds using different flight lines because of weather patterns, or the success of the breeding season which can either result in several young per brood or not many.

    While it is tempting to make assumptions based on individual and often incidental observations, it is much more sound to look at the evidence over a broader spatial scale over a long-term period. If individuals ARE noticing changes, however, it can mean that something more local is going on such as habitat change or unsuitability for whatever reason (eg. – drought in the west).”

    • Alison, that Raptor Population Index website is incredibly valuable – thanks to both you and Phillip for providing it. I just spent some time on it and will spend more. For example, it looks like Red-tailed Hawk numbers are slightly down in the west in recent years.

      It truly is a wonderful site, especially for the type of info I’m looking for. Thanks again to you both!

  • Dick Ashford

    Hi Ron,
    Butte Valley, in northern CA, and the nearby Klamath Basin (northern CA and southern OR) both have large numbers of buteos and eagles this year, as they have for many years. I typically see over 100 raptors on a “windshield” tour of the ranchlands in these adjoining areas. And, as you probably know, the Klamath Basin is notorious for its water issues.. Just another anecdote…
    Cheers,
    Dick

  • Ron, I have noticed a decline this past year in raptors in some key locations where I have been seeing large numbers of them over the past 15 years. Specifically:

    Bosque del Apache NWR — not seeing many Red-tailed hawks and other buteos. A typical day I would see 10 or more buteos. Now I am seeing maybe 1-2 buteos per day trip.

    Bernardo WMA — very big change. A place that was always great to see Harlan’s Hawks, dark morph RTHA, and western morph RTHA.

    Southern Colorado — big drop in buteos. Some eagles, but noticeable drop in buteos.

    Locally, we have a pair of “winter RTHAs” that stay for the winter and a pair of “summer RTHAs”. They swap each year, and I have photographed them each year for 6-8 years. This year the winter pair returned, but the summer pair never arrived.

    I am seeing accipiters in regular numbers though.

  • Nicole

    ☹️️ the planet is under assault from humans and their dirty ways: fracking, coal, gas, timber harvesting, pollution on a grand scale, plastic bags and other garbage strewn everywhere… both parties came together in the 1970’s to create the clean air act and clean water act… why are we regressing now? Why have (some) people decided that caring about littering is not an important thing to do?

  • We are seeing the opposite right now in New Brunswick, Canada. This fall has provided numerous sightings of Raptors, particularly in the open marshes of the Tantramar Region (southeast NB), although many have been seen in the Saint John River valley. The fall migration count at Greenlaw Mountain had the highest ever of Broad-winged Hawk migration since they started the count at 6990! Even this summer, Red-tailed Hawk sightings were unusually high.

    Just this past week, one local birder counted 50 Birds of Prey over an one hour span in the Tantramar marshes, including Bald Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. This prompted a raptor survey by one of the local birding groups this past Sunday (I’m still waiting to hear their report.)

    One thought is the drier than normal spring and summer that has been beneficial to rodents that would usually have their underground systems flooded out periodically.

    We are waiting now for a Snowy Owl invasion!

  • Peter

    Plenty in central CA. I’m a falconer and I have my little aplomados in the sky and I can’t get away from peregrines and prie falcons come ing in to chase him out. So no worries about CA falxpcons expcept for peregrines so strong in numbers they are pushing prairie falcons out

    • Glad to hear your report on CA falcon numbers, Peter (although I’m sorry to hear they’re harassing your Aplomado!

      • Peter, interesting about the Peregrines and Praire Falcons. An area where I photographed frequently this past year in SoCal saw a new Peregrine pair move into an existing Red-tailed Hawk nesting area. The red tails built a nest and apparently held their ground for a while but were eventually pushed out. The Peregrines raised two to successful fledging. No one I’ve met in the area has seen the red tails much since, nor did I hear about anyone finding alternate nesting site for this particular RTH pair. As much as I’m thrilled to see Peregrines so frequently now, it did make me sad for the long-established RTH pair. I also haven’t seen them even circling the skies there, and they used to do so regularly.

        Ron, what an interesting post! Thank you for these observations and subsequent discussions which I’ve read all the way through.

  • Sharon Constant

    This last weekend at Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area and along some levees nearby,I saw at least 3 Kestrels, 6 Red-tailed Hawks, 2 or three Red-shouldered Hawks, 2 White-tailed kites, 7 or 8 Northern Harriers and a Cooper’s Hawk. I think that’s fairly close to the number I saw last year. BTW, I love the Prairie Falcon image. With the background dropped out like that, it reminds me of a drawing. I hope the area gets enough rain to help the Great Salt Lake and the raptors return to your area soon. It’s scary.

  • Heading out to go shooting now. I’ll respond to comments when I get home…

  • Marty K

    I still see the resident red tails at the shelter (we’re in a regional park and have a fairly constant sparrow, finch, possum, rat, mouse and gopher population thanks to the dog food and treat “debris”), but I haven’t noticed any near my house of late. I’ll keep a closer eye for the next few weeks. There used to be several at the nearby university too, but I haven’t been on campus recently.

    I actually like the golden shot — and not just because I love any picture of a golden. You captured such an interesting takeoff position with the uplifted wings (and not cut off — yay! 🙂 ), the interesting tail position, and those outstretched talons! Yes, the wire and insulator are there, but in my opinion they don’t detract from the power of the bird. I hope you reconsider the delete button.

    BTW, Pete Seeger happens to be singing my earworm. Gotta thank my dad’s old 45s. 😉

  • Judy Gusick

    I haven’t noticed much difference here other than fewer Bald Eagles this fall. BUT our eagles are pretty much seasonal tho we have hawks year round. Hopefully they are just changing where they are and it’s not anything more serious! 🙁

  • Janey Woodley

    I live southwest of Houston and was beginning to wonder the same thing until the last several weeks. On recent outings to several nearby National Wildlife Refuges and Brazos Bend State Park I’m now seeing what seems to me to be normal numbers (interpreted as lots)of Red-tailed, Red-shouldered and Cooper’s Hawks. I’ve also been seeing many Kestrels, Northern Harriers and Crested Caracaras. However, while I’ve been a pretty big raptor fan for the last 3-4 years, I just got into birding and wildlife photography in the fall of 2015. So, as a previous poster said, I’m sure I’m more observant now than I was. Also like the previous poster, I really enjoy your discussions and photos!

  • Marina schultz

    Hi … as you know I live in western co not far from Utah border line and I see no shortage of raptors … lots of opportunities for pictures no shortage of kestrels or red tails plenty of balds and ferruginous not seeing many harriers also a male did come to my bird feeder and a sharp shin ran him off . The balds here are permanent residents .i live near the river.

  • Traci

    It truly is a concern. Donations made to HawkWatch.org are being matched to 12/31/2016 (no affiliation here–just sharing the info.) Perhaps now more than ever it us important to support organizations working to study and conserve raptors. Thank you for the (as always) informative post.

  • Here in eastern New Mexico and in western Texas, I see many raptors. I see a lot of Kestrels/Sparrowhawks as well as Red-Tailed and others. I wish I was better at identifying them!

  • frank sheets

    HI Ron, My wife and I have been up on the Merced Wildlife Refuge for the past week. While we have not been here before so a comparison of previous years is impossible, we have been impressed with the high number of raptors on the refuge and the surround areas. Mostly Redtails and Red Shoulder, a few Kestrils, two Goldern Eagles (we believe) and a single Bald and Norther Harriers. You would not think there is a drought. Lots of water, hence lots of Snow and Ross’s geese (although we understand they have not all come down) and Lesser Sandhills. How is your migratory bird population for this time of the year. They say the raptors follow down the ducks etc. for food, at least that is what we heard in Bosque last year.

    • “How is your migratory bird population for this time of the year”

      Frank, it’s hard for me to accurately make that evaluation compared to previous years because many of our migratory birds are usually seen on the lake but it’s so low and the shore is now so far away from anywhere I can observe from that I can’t accurately make the comparison.

      Nice to hear that you’re seeing good raptor numbers at Merced.

  • “Long time pa-as-sing” Ear worm indeed.
    We’ve noticed a decline in raptor numbers up here in the mountains as well. Migrants were few and far between this year. Winters onset has been in slow motion and, until recently, has been pretty mild. we usually have a steady stream of Red-tails starting in August, but not this year. We only saw one Ferugenous all fall. Could be that we were just looking in the wrong direction when they passed, but that also seems unlikely.
    Our resident Golden Eagle juvi did make a Cottontail kill 20 yards behind the backyard yesterday witnessed by Connie (no photos). Figures that I was on the tractor plowing snow and only got to see it briefly when it returned after I spooked it with the Kabota when I came in for a warming cup of Coffee, to finish it’s meal.

  • Chris & Tom Brockmeyer

    On a happier note, my husband and I spent a good bit of our Spring and Summer documenting a nesting pair of Cooper’s Hawks who fledged five chicks (eyas) directly across the street from us in the city of Pittsburgh! We’ve also recently spotted a Red-tail availing itself of a finch which are in abundance here. Last Spring we spottted a Red Shouldered Hawk in the neighborhood at the same time that the Cooper’s were building their nest. There is a large, forested park not too far from where we live, so there are lots of nesting options. As relatively new photographers and bird enthusiasts part of the reason that we’re seeing more raptors is that it’s become an obsession and we’re paying much closer attention to the neighborhood wildlife. Thanks for all of your postings. We love reading about the birds and your discussions of photographic techniques.