September Raptor – Northern Harrier


Wild caught hatch-year male Northern Harrier.

Wild caught hatch-year male Northern Harrier.

Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) are amazing raptors. A cross between diurnal raptor and owl (look at that facial disc!), these low-flying birds cruise hillsides, open country, wetlands, and agricultural areas looking for birds and small mammals to pounce on.

Harriers hunt low, facing their head down and listening for the slightest sound that might indicate prey movement. Their owl-like facial disc collects sound and amplifies it, just like a parabolic microphone.

Notoriously difficult to trap, little is known about Northern Harrier migratory and seasonal movements. This hatch-year male was trapped in September at the Goshutes Raptor Migration Site in northeastern Nevada by biologists working for HawkWatch International. A uniquely numbered band was placed on the bird. Hopefully it will be trapped again to help biologist learn more about Northern Harrier migratory movements.

August Raptor – Gyrfalcon

*** Wild Lens Scientific Director Neil Paprocki worked during the 2014 summer in Nome, Alaska on The Peregrine Fund’s Gyrfalcon Conservation Project with Boise State University graduate student Bryce Robinson. You can learn more about this project via previous Wild Lens blog entries ***

Hatch year Gyrfalcon.

This particular hatch-year Gyrfalcon was trapped less than one-mile from his nest more than a month after fledging. The nest produced a total of 4 fledglings, and his 3 siblings appeared to have wondered further from the nest. Perhaps this little male is having trouble hunting on his own and finding enough food.

Several times this summer we witnessed young Gyrfalcons more than a month out of the nest still following and begging for food from their parents. At what point do the parents stop feeding their own offspring and thus force them to hunt for themselves? I imagine it depends a lot on the individual differences between parents.

I suspect this male was no longer being fed by his parents given his low body weight. Hopefully he’ll quickly learn to no longer depend on his parents for food and become the formidable hunter he was born to be.


July Raptor – Rough-legged Hawk


Nestling Rough-legged Hawks.

Nestling Rough-legged Hawks.

These roughly 30-day old Rough-legged Hawk nestlings stand stoically in the stick nest constructed by their dutiful parents. They would be due to fledge from this cliff around 36 to 45 days of age.

I observed this particular nest from a distance some two weeks earlier. At that time the nestlings were a good deal smaller and still mostly covered in downy white. The adult female stood guard over her nestlings almost the entire time while the male was out tirelessly hunting for prey. Almost on cue, once an hour, the male would fly in with a prey item clenched between his small talons.

The male would often deliver the prey item directly to the nest, and then almost immediately leave to begin hunting again to feed his hungry nestlings. The female would then takeover, breaking up the meal into smaller digestible pieces to be fed directly to the young ones. The whole process would take only 1-2 minutes. It appeared that most prey items were small mammals such as voles.

Presently there will be juvenile Rough-legged Hawks abound, testing their new-found ability to fly over the Seward Peninsula of northwest Alaska. Soon after they must venture into new territory as they begin their first southward migration to the lower 48.

June Raptor – Peregrine Falcon



Another month, another raptor: the Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus.

We’ve been learning a lot about Gyrfalcons recently because of my work with the Gyrfalcon Conservation Project, but there are many other raptor species on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska. Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls, and Peregrine Falcons also call this place their summer home.

Not that long ago, the Peregrine Falcon was listed as an endangered species after populations plummeted from the negative effects of the pesticide DDT. After the banning of DDT, the Peregrine has since been de-listed and can now be found breeding in many major North American cities.

It’s great to find them swooping around their traditional breeding grounds way up north, doing what falcons do.

May Raptor – Gyrfalcon


Adult Female Gyrfalcon.

Adult Female Gyrfalcon. Falco rusticolus.

If you keep up on the Wild Lens blog, this months raptor photograph will come as no surprise: the Gyrfalcon.

For the better part of four weeks I have been studying the worlds largest falcon for The Peregrine Fund and Boise State University’s Gyrfalcon Conservation Project. We now have three nest cameras successfully installed at various Gyrfalcon eyries on the Seward Peninsula in northwest Alaska.

These nest cameras are collecting valuable information on the quantity and diversity of prey adult Gyrfalcon are bringing to their nestlings. This information will help us researchers determine what affects climate change is having on Gyrfalcon diet throughout the breeding season.

All of the previous Raptor of the Month photographs, as well as previous 52-week blog photos can be found at the Wild Lens blog or on Flickr.

April Raptor – Great-gray Owl


Great-gray Owl. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Great-gray Owl. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to see a life-bird than I was last week after seeing my first Great-gray Owl.

Standing a whopping 3-feet in height, the tallest owl in North America inhabits the northern boreal forests and western mountains. Feeding on mainly small mammals, Great-grays are perhaps most famous for a hunting technique termed “snow plunging.”

While the ground of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest of eastern Oregon was clear of snow, I still had the privilege of watching this Great-gray Owl make several hunting attempts; each time plunging into the grassy meadows of a mature Ponderosa Pine forest.

While I never observed the owl successfully capture it’s prey, it was amazing to watch the bird repeatedly plunge to the ground, seemingly unaware of my existence.

March Raptor – Ferruginous Hawk


Adult Ferruginous Hawk. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Adult Ferruginous Hawk. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

While I was hoping to highlight a different raptor species every month for this ‘raptor photograph of the month’ 2014 project, this Ferruginous Hawk was just too cool to pass up (and quite honestly I didn’t have anything better to replace it).

I had the chance to briefly return to central Utah at the beginning of March. I made a quick stop by my favorite Buteo location where I photographed January’s Ferruginous Hawk and was not disappointed. The Rough-legged Hawks were now mostly gone and the agricultural fields consisted of mainly Red-tails and Ferruginous Hawks, although a few Bald Eagles could be seen in the distance.

Someday I hope to capture this species with a more interesting background than just a plain blue sky. And I promise next month will feature something besides a Ferruginous or Rough-legged Hawk. Until then, enjoy all those birds that are passing through on migration or returning to their breeding grounds. April is one of the best months to go birding.


February Raptor – Rough-legged Hawk


Rough-legged Hawk portrait. Photograph by Neil Paprocki

Rough-legged Hawk portrait. Photograph by Neil Paprocki

Our raptor for February 2014 is the Rough-legged Hawk. This time of year always makes me a bit sad as I know the Roughies are making their way poleward, back to their arctic breeding grounds. While some birds will stay on their wintering grounds into April, we won’t see most of these birds again until October or November of 2014.

This adult male was captured and banded using a mouse-baited bal-chatri trap on February 17. In addition to banding this bird, several morphometric measurements were taken to help scientists better understand the differences between males and females of the species.

Below are a series of three photos detailing the wing and tail plumage of this ATY (After-third Year) adult male Rough-legged Hawk.

RLHA Watermark-5957s

RLHA Watermark-5951s

RLHA Watermark-5967s


January Raptor – Ferruginous Hawk


Adult Ferruginous Hawk. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Adult Ferruginous Hawk. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Well I couldn’t stay away for too long.

I gave up on the idea of continuing the 2013 52-week project into 2014 as it would have been too big of a commitment, but I wanted to do something in 2014. Instead of posting a bird photograph every week, I’ve decided to post my best raptor picture at the end of each month.

January 2014 features an adult Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis), the largest hawk in North America. This individual can be identified as an adult based on its ‘rusty leggings’ and upper-wing coverts, which are just barely visible on the top-side of the bird’s left wing. Juveniles generally lack the ‘rusty leggings’ of adults, are much whiter underneath, and have less rufous in the upper-wing coverts.

Below is a photograph of a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk for comparison.

Juvenile Ferruginous Hawk. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Juvenile Ferruginous Hawk. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Ferruginous Hawks are an uncommon open-country hawk whose range is mostly confined to western North America. While they are a species of Least Concern in the United States, they are considered Endangered in Canada.

Week 52 – Snowy Owl


Snowy Owl. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Snowy Owl. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.

Here we go: The final post of this 52-week project and I am so glad to be in western New York for this one!

The number of Snowy Owls I have seen along Lake Ontario in New York has been staggering. One day I saw 3 along the lake, each in a different location. Another day I saw 2 flying around together in my hometown of Sodus. It’s been great.

One thing I’ve been struggling with however: the influence of photographers on the stress levels of these birds. I try my hardest when photographing to disturb the birds as little as possible, but I’ve noticed other photographers acting seemingly oblivious to these rare birds they are photographing. Some try to just walk right up to the birds, and the owls end up flying away, exerting unneeded energy during the exact time of year when they are stressed out the most from limited food resources and cold weather. I know photographers are looking for that one great shot, but we need to be aware that we may be influencing these birds in a negative way if we’re constantly approaching closely them to take pictures. Sorry for the diatribe, but had to get that off my chest. Lets all make a New Year’s resolution together: to be more responsible nature photographers.

Back to this 52-week project: For the past year I’ve taken and posted a bird photograph every single week (didn’t miss a week). But now the year is over and the question remains: do I continue this project into 2014? It’s been a lot of work and part of me wants to take a break. Maybe I can continue it in a slightly different way? Any ideas out there?

All of the previous 52-week blog photos can be found at the Wild Lens blog or on Flickr.