Thursday, February 4, 2021

Early February means raptor courtship flights begin in SW Idaho - 5 places to see them!

Golden eagles engaged in courtship flight (courtesy

Hi all, 

I was out on a walk the other day near the Boise Foothills, and I looked up to see two red-tailed hawks engaged in courtship flight while a crow was trying to hassle them at the same time. 

And I thought about that for a moment, and it's like OK, we've turned the page into February, and courtship flight for birds of prey typically begins on Feb. 1 and thereafter. 

So when you're out on a walk in the foothills or the Snake River canyon, be sure to look up in the sky for hawks and eagles ... and watch for this spectacular phenomenon at this time of year. Essentially the male and the female are trying to impress each other during the acrobatics involved in courtship flight. They might be getting together to mate for the first time. 

Golden eagles typically mate for life, and they often use the same nest year after year where they have had nesting success -- raising chicks for the next generation. Red-tailed hawks -- a frequent site in SW Idaho -- are thought to be monogamous and may mate for life, according to National Geographic. 

But the highlight is to see these magnificent birds in action ... and lot of people miss that by not looking around them when they're out on a walk ... a spectacular show could be going on right above you! 

First, let's talk about the birds of prey that you might see in SW Idaho, and then I'll suggest a few places where you might see golden eagles or hawks engaging in courtship flight.

Almost all of these raptor species can be see in SW Idaho. (Courtesy

The birds above include the American Kestrel (#1 and #3), Bald Eagle (#2), Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk (#19), Merlin (#12), Northern Harrier (#11), Osprey (#14), Peregrine Falcon (#17), Red-shouldered Hawk (#13), Red-tailed Hawk (#10), Sharp-shinned Hawk (#7), Turkey Vulture (#6). Did I get that right?

See this web link from Audubon for more information on identifying species.  

Often times when you see hawks soaring in SW Idaho, it's likely a red-tailed hawk or a Swainson's hawk. Ferruginous hawks and rough-legged hawks are less frequently seen. Kestrels are common and they're quite small ... my friend the late Morley Nelson called them "sparrow hawks." 

Prairie falcons are another common bird in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. More than 200 pairs nest in the cliffs. They feed off the ground squirrels on the sagebrush flats above the canyon, and then raise their off-spring in the protective environment inside the basalt cliffs. 

Here's a neat guide to the raptors in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area from the Bureau of Land Management. More than 800 pairs of raptors nest in the birds of prey area - it's an area that's unique in the world. And it's definitely one of the destinations where you can look for eagles and hawks and courtship flight. 

Grab your binoculars and go! More destinations include: 

  • Celebration Park south of Nampa by the Snake River. There are hiking trails and petroglyphs on rocks by the visitor center. Also interpretive signs about the Bonneville Flood. Take a walk upstream and look for birds of prey flying overhead or by the cliffs.
  • Swan Falls - Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. 20 miles south of Kuna. Nice park provided by Idaho Power by the dam provides a good place to have a picnic or hang out. Or you can take a dirt road along the river to access a trailhead farther downstream and look for birds.
  • Discovery Point - On the way to Swan Falls, pull over to the interpretive area on the right and look for birds of prey with your binoculars from the top of the rim.  
  • Grand View - Owyhee Scenic Backcountry Byway (Mud Flat Road) - Take the Owyhee Backcountry Byway into the Owyhees from Grand View, and you'll drive up a gravel road into a canyon. Watch for hawks as you ascend the canyon or look for them on top of the grade. 
  • Succor Creek State Natural Area - This natural canyon is a good place for seeing birds of prey. There's hiking and sight-seeing nearby, caves for the kids to explore, and rest rooms. 

Writing Morley Nelson's biography Cool NorthWind and spending time with Morley made me more aware of watching what birds of prey do when they're flying in the sky. Besides the courtship flight, you also may see birds of prey protecting their nesting territory. 

Morley with a prairie falcon
I was up by the top of the Boise Ridge one time on my mountain bike, and I watched this huge majestic golden eagle flying down the spine of the ridge, cruising along, minding its own business. And then I see a prairie falcon emerge out of now where and start dive-bombing the eagle. It would fly up above the eagle, and then get into a vertical dive, aiming for the eagle. 

Right before the falcon was about to strike,margin-block: 0px; margin-inline: 0px; margin: 0px 0px 25.5px; orphans: 2; padding-inline-start: 0px; padding: 0px; text-align the eagle turned over on its back and barred its talons, ready to take on that pesky bird and defend itself. That falcon made several attempts at attacking the eagle, but eventually it left the eagle alone.

And I thought, wow, that was a pretty great  moment, watching nature in action. Morley would mimmick the eagle's thinking, thinking back to fighting the Germans in World War II, "It's either me or you boy, it's  going to be a fight to the end." 

His eyes were so intense when he made the point. He'd had the eagle's talons drive through his skin before; he knew how powerful they were. 

BTW, I saw that the Peregrine Fund is reopening the World Center for Birds of Prey on Feb. 4. If they start doing their live bird presentations, those are a real treat!
- SS

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