Inyo county is an excellent place to observe diurnal raptors, a group loosely referred to as hawks. Twenty species have been reliably recorded for the county. A few others have been reported but lack the strict documentation required for a first county record.

The accompanying graph shows the relative abundance and calendrical distribution of each raptor. You can easily distinguish the permanent resident (found here all year) from the migrant (passes through in spring and fall), and the summer resident (arrives to breed then departs) from the winter resident (arrives from breeding grounds to winter here then departs). And there are a few that have just wandered here from their normal range to the south or east and defy classification. Common is used to show that if you spent a full day looking for that bird in proper habitat you would find a good number. Fairly common means that a full day in the Owens Valley should yield one to a few. Uncommon means that even with a full day you might not find any as they occur in such low numbers. A rare raptor is one that isn’t seen every year.

Many may think of the Turkey Vulture as a hawk but it is not. Hawks normally capture live prey but the Turkey Vulture is a carrion feeder with relatively weak feet and bill compared to hawks. Very rare in winter, the Turkey Vulture returns from the south in mid-March and is common until early October. It surely nests but hard evidence is lacking.

The fairly common OSPREY returns in mid-March and remains until October. During the 1970s nest platforms were erected at Tinnemaha Reservoir and these summer residents bred there. These platforms have deteriorated or have blown over and this has adversely affected nesting success. In 1990 3 pairs nested, fledging six young, but the past 2 years no young have fledged from the single pair that keeps trying.

Two species of KITES have wandered to our area. The Black-shouldered Kite (synonymous with White-tailed Kite) has been recorded about eight times while the Mississippi Kite, interestingly enough, has been recorded a dozen times. The Black-shouldered Kite records were all from the Owens Valley except the one seen in the White Mountains and all the Mississippi Kite sightings were at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley except the one found at Olancha.

The uncommon BALD EAGLE is a winter resident best found at Tinnemaha and Haiwee Reservoirs. In 1990 a pair tried to nest at Tinnemaha but after a month of incubating deserted the nest.

The NORTHERN HARRIER is a fairly common permanent resident usually seen flashing its white rump while flying low over wet marshy areas throughout the county.

Three hawks are considered ACCIPITERS or bird-eating hawks. These are the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk and Goshawk. The Sharp-shinned and Goshawk nest in the coniferous forests of our mountains while the Cooper’s nests in riparian areas at lower elevations. All may be seen at lower elevations during migration or in winter. If you put out food for birds there is an excellent chance that the fairly common Sharp-shinned or uncommon Cooper’s Hawk will pay an unexpected visit trying to snag an unwary blackbird or sparrow. On the other hand the Goshawk is a very rarely seen bird and not expected in towns.

The largest group of hawks are the BUTEOS or large, soaring hawks. Seven have been recorded in Inyo County. The Red-shouldered Hawk is a usually uncommon permanent resident but is scarcely seen in summer. In 1992, Andrew Kirk, of Independence, found them nesting in Lone Pine for the first nesting record for Inyo. The Broad-winged Hawk is a rare wanderer from the east with about a dozen records usually in spring and fall. The Swainson’s Hawk is a fairly common summer resident that winters in Argentina. Many of the ranches have a nest of this species high in a cottonwood from where the hawks can view the careless ground squirrel or other food item. The Zone-tailed Hawk is a rare wanderer from Arizona and Mexico. There are three records of this Turkey Vulture look-alike (but with black & white banded tail). The one seen in Big Pine in August 1972 is the northernmost record ever. The Red-tailed Hawk is our most common Buteo. It is a fairly common permanent resident but more common in winter when birds that bred to the north move in to spend the winter here. A rare and beautiful albino female has lived and bred with normal colored males at the Rossi ranch, just south of Bishop, for a dozen years. The Ferruginous Hawk is a fairly common winter resident that breeds to the northeast of Inyo. They have become fairly common and can be seen perching on telephone poles or out in alfalfa fields. The Rough-legged Hawk breeds in the high Arctic and is erratic in its winter appearance here; sometimes fairly common, sometimes almost absent. The Golden Eagle is an uncommon permanent resident that is usually seen singly but sometimes can be seen hunting cooperatively in pairs. This is an exciting scene to watch where the lead eagle often walks on the ground stomping into each bush while the second quietly holds its place in the air just above the bush waiting for something to be spooked out then wham!

Last are the always impressive FALCONS. Of the four species found in Inyo the smallest is the American Kestrel (synonymous with Sparrow Hawk). It is a fairly common permanent resident that makes itself at home in towns and ranches feeding on insects, lizards and small rodents. The Merlin is an uncommon migrant and winter visitor. Like the Kestrel it is a small falcon but with a bad attitude! When not feeding on birds, rodents and insects it takes pleasure in harassing anything, anywhere, anytime. The premier falcon, the Peregrine, is an endangered species and a rare migrant through our area. Because of the release of birds at Crowley Lake from the Peregrine breeding program at U C Santa Cruz there are more sightings being reported. The falcon with dirty armpits is the Prairie Falcon, a fairly common permanent resident. Its numbers are augmented in winter by birds that move south from their more northerly breeding areas. This pale sandy brown falcon will usually be seen almost blending in with the top of a telephone pole.

The importance of all these raptors can not be overstated. If their numbers decrease for any reason we would soon find ourselves knee-deep in rodents, insects and disease.

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