A Morning of Raptors

Venus gleamed brightly in the eastern sky as I drove to our meeting site for the annual Christmas Bird Count. Our group, as usual, was assigned an area south of Columbia that extends from wooded uplands down to the banks of the Missouri; most of this territory is covered by rolling terrain with forested hills, rocky creek channels and valley farms.

The theme for this year's count was set when we heard and spotted two barred owls just before dawn. Clear skies and a minimal wind provided a perfect, if chilly, morning for birding and a large number of species were logged; but this was a morning for raptors. Not long after finding the barred owls, we encountered six bald eagles (5 adults and 1 immature) along the Missouri River, which was nearly covered with floating chunks of ice. As usual, red-tailed hawks were common above and along the farms fields and, today, were matched in number by red-shouldered hawks, which perched in wooded meadows. A sharp-shinned hawk streaked across the road, in pursuit of songbirds, a Cooper's hawk scattered a large flock of cedar waxwings and an American kestrel hunted from a rural powerline. Finally, a seventh bald eagle (another adult) soared above a wetland area, far from the wide Missouri.

Accepting this raptor bonanza to be a hopeful sign, I agreed to trudge up to an abandoned barn to see if it just might harbor a barn owl, an increasingly uncommon species in the American heartland. Alas, the old structure was empty but this morning of raptors will long hold a place in my memory.