April 2, 1999

1999 Spring Bulletin


Hi everyone,
In past years, we have always sent out our FRG newsletter by mail. This is our first E-newsletter. It describes some of the stuff we have been doing recently. Most of it is local for here in western Washington. We hope that you all enjoy it. If you have comments, corrections or suggestions, please send them on to bud@frg.org.


Two years ago, Ed Deal found an adult female peregrine hanging out at the West Seattle Freeway Bridge. At that time (March 1997), we decided to put up a nest box in hopes that it would eventually attract a pair. Ed found another new female at the site last August and this spring, she succeeded in attracting an adult male. Both falcons are unbanded.

Martin Muller and Ruth Taylor have been observing the falcons and it appears that the female laid her very first egg on 28 April. We have been keeping this quiet until the pair got through the egg-laying period so they wouldn’t abandon their site due to disturbance. The bridge is fairly low and the birds are far more vulnerable than at the Washington Mutual Tower.

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West Seattle peregrines at their new site.
Photo by: Martin Muller

Apparently, the word is now out (announced at the last WOS meeting), so we wanted to let all of you know too. Keep in mind that the pair is new, vulnerable and highly visible. For those of you who would like to see them, I would say that, if they succeed, it is best to delay your visit until mid-June. The young should be around two weeks old then.

White Bald Eagle Still Lives

For several years now, a rather famous white (beige really) Bald Eagle has been observed repeatedly in the area from Edison to Whidbey Island. It seems to move around alot in those areas. The last report we had of it was last June at the Padilla Bay Center near Bayview. FRG member Jim Shiflett reports seeing it two weeks ago near Deception Pass, confirming that it is still around.

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Unique Bald Eagle
Photo by: Bill Clark


We held the tenth annual Skagit Flats Winter Hawk Census on 13 February this year. Ninety-two FRG members and volunteers showed up for the two-hour count. Despite windy weather, we observed a total of 773 birds of prey. This was slightly above our average of 755 birds. The highest count in the past was 887 (1997) and the lowest was 643 (1990). As usual, the "Big Four" (Balds, Red-tails, Harriers and Rough-legs) made up the majority of raptors (94%).
Here are the results:

Bald Eagle 364 Prairie Falcon 1
Red-tailed Hawk 204 Peregrine Falcon 12
Northern Harrier 104 Gyrfalcon 2
Rough-legged Hawk 51 Short-eared Owl 8
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2 Barn Owl 3
Cooper’s Hawk 7 Un. Buteo 5
American Kestrel 6 Un. Falcon 1
Merlin 2 Total 773

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Adult male Cooper's Hawk


One of the questions raised by the preceding winter hawk count data is what can be done with it? How can all of this information be put to the best use?

I am happy to report that our friends at the Nature Conservancy in Seattle kindly volunteered to digitize all of this information so we can get it out to private and government agencies responsible for land use planning in both Skagit and Snohomish Counties. We particularly want to thank volunteer Sue Clark, who spent over 80 hours plotting the locations of all 7,000 + sightings, a monumental job. Thank you Sue!


It is ironic that we often know the least about our most common birds. The Northern Harrier is a great example of this phenomenon. Although they are observed commonly in our area throughout the fall, winter and spring, we really know very little about where they breed, how far they travel, whether they leave in winter, etc.

Jack Bettesworth has been trying to change this situation by studying Harriers on both Whidbey Island and in the Kent Valley. Last summer (1998) , he began color-marking both adults and young with yellow wing-tags and as a result, he is teaching all of us more about our local birds.

Jack reports that tagged juveniles from Whidbey Island have been seen this winter at Stanwood, the Samish Flats, Everett, and Ridgefield NWR, 165 miles south of Whidbey. One of his Whidbey adults was sighted on Fir Island and, most recently, this spring, he found that an 8-year-old female has returned to a nest site on Whidbey. In the Kent Valley, only one banded nestling did not migrate and remained there throughout the winter.


As many of you remember, there was a minor irruption of Snowy Owls in our area three winters ago. Our team of banders (Wendy Gibble, Jack Bettesworth and Mark Gleason) captured and wing-tagged 10 of these birds, primarily on the Samish Flats.

The purpose of our research was to discover whether Snowys return to the same wintering areas in the Puget Sound area each winter We had long suspected this to be true, but without tags it was not possible to identify specific owls and prove the theory.

So, in the winter of 1996-97, we placed yellow, numbered tags on 10 Snowy owls. Most of these birds were immature and most were males.

Last year (1997-98), one of these owls (#11) returned to the Samish Flats, thus confirming our suspicions. It was seen several times over the season, near where it had been caught originally. In fact, it even roosted inside a barn which is unusual behavior for local Snowys.

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Immature Snowy Owl
Samish Flats, Washington

This winter, (1998-99) Scott Hoskin found another one of the tagged owls, # 12. Wendy Gibble had previously caught this large female on 1 March 1997. It showed up this time on 9 January, within 100 yards of where it was tagged originally. It was seen only twice more during the winter, once on 4 February and again on 1 March. These sightings occurred approximately 4.5 miles from the capture site, but all on the northern Skagit Flats.

This owl taught us that Snowys in western Washington might come back to their wintering areas at least two years later, sometimes to the exact same field. But, most interesting, the owl exhibited an almost nomadic winter behavior. Instead of always roosting in the same field (typical of our immature wintering Snowys), it moved over large areas of the Skagit system. Because of this unpredictability, few birders saw this "covert" owl.


Over the years, our intrepid peregrine team has been banding wintering falcons on the Skagit Flats to see how many there are, where they hang out, how long they live, and hopefully, where they go. Lately, we have also wanted to find out if any of these birds are from the local San Juan Islands breeding population.

It is quite difficult to catch peregrines on the Skagit. The high wintering raptor population ensures that competition from other birds is fierce, particularly Bald Eagles, our trapping nemesis. So, for us, it is not unusual to go out for several days without catching a single falcon.

Therefore, it was worth noting that on 11 March, Jack Bettesworth, Eric Vandegrift, Scott Hoskin and I caught 3 peregrines in a single day, no doubt a record for the Skagit. Of course, this falls into the meaningless records department, but it was still remarkable, not to mention fun. The peregrines included an adult female, an immature female and an immature male. Wendy Gibble had banded the last bird earlier as a nestling at one of the San Juan sites on 31 May 1998.

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San Juan nestling caught next winter, Samish Flats, Washington, 1999

The second record took place during my final hawk class field trip of the year. On that day, we saw 8 individual peregrines. One of these was Wendy's banded male eating a Common Snipe. I must tell you all that I have been leading field trips to the Skagit for over 15 years now, often 8-12 trips per season. I have never seen this many peregrines on a single day on the Flats. I regard it as yet another indication of the recovery of this species. Good news indeed.


One obvious element of raptor biology is mortality. But it is an element that we seldom see. Last month, an acquaintance of mine was driving on Chuckanut Drive and saw an unknown object in the middle of his lane. As he approached at high speed, he realized too late that it was a bird, in fact, an immature female Merlin. Although he tried to slow down, the bird remained perched on the road until the last second, a fatal error. It flew up, was hit by the grill and killed instantly. My friend retrieved the bird and gave me a call.

I checked out the exact site and found that an American Robin was dead in the center of the lane. The Merlin had been feeding on it. The Robin had been smashed onto the road by cars. As I tried to pick it up, I found that it was stuck fast to the pavement by dried blood. As a result, the Merlin could not carry it from the road and apparently would not relinquish the kill.

The question is whether the Merlin killed and dropped the Robin or did it just see the meat on the road and fly down to carrion? Whatever the answer, it cost the bird its life.


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Adult male peregrine at the
Washington Mutual Tower, Seattle

It is now clear that Stewart and Bell will not be breeding this year. We had hoped they would cycle late, but no luck. Although it is not unusual for falcons to skip a year, the reasons for this behavior are unknown.

There are two possibilities that we are considering at present. It is possible that one of the adult birds, Stewart or Bell, has been replaced. Since the falcons are not nesting, we have not been able to confirm that they are both the original falcons,. Neither bird has spent time in front of the camera and it is very difficult to identify individual peregrines 56 floors up. If an adult has been replaced, it can often throw the pair out of synch, resulting in breeding failure.

Unfortunately, human disturbance may have also played a role this season, as there was activity at the site near egg laying time. We will hope for better luck next year.


Boise State University has an online raptor data base that some of you may find both interesting and useful. It is called the Raptor Information System and you can find it at:
It is probably the most extensive database regarding birds of prey with over 29,000 citations.


The famous all white Red-tail that lived on Lopez Island for so many years was found dead over a year ago. It is now on display at the Lopez Museum. If you visit the island, make sure you stop and take a look.

Last summer, FRG member Pat Clark found another white red-tail, a nestling, on Lopez near the territory of the first bird. The second hawk was seen around the island several times but then disappeared. Bob Myhr, of the San Juan Preservation Trust, reports that an immature white red-tail is now being seen on neighboring Shaw Island, possibly the same bird.


In our last newsletter, we requested that you contact us if you wanted to remain on our mailing list. I find it fascinating that of our 877 members, 179 (20%) of you sent along e-mail addresses. You are home free. We have heard from you.


The FRG will be hosting a lecture by Dr.Yossi Leshem, Director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration, an organization located in Israel. Yossi has a long association with raptors and other birds in Israel and was largely responsible for the development of the hawk migration studies in that country. He has also worked on bird strikes on jets, documenting aerial routes through Israel by means of radar, motor gliding with migrant raptors and a variety of other studies. In addition, he will be telling us about his work on nesting Lesser Kestrels and how it is bringing together young Israelis and Palestinians in a common cause. This effort was featured in last week's Time magazine.

The lecture will be held on Wednesday night, June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle. Mark your calendar. It will be worth it.


Spring and summer means nesting raptors here in Washington. As you read this, eggs are hatching across the state. If you would like to learn more about this critical phase of raptor biology, come and join us for a 4-session class (20, 27 May-10, 17 June) in Seattle. The course will consist of a talk on basic raptor nesting biology followed by 3 guest lectures with leading experts in their fields, including:

  • Jim Fackler talking about the breeding behavior of Accipiters in the Cascades and Olympics
  • Jack Bettesworth describing his results on local nesting Northern Harriers.
  • Tom Gleason, leading expert on nesting Merlins in Washington, discussing his work.

We will also have 3 or 4 field trips in this class. There will be a two-day camping trip to the Yakima Canyon (22-23 May), a day trip to look at nesting red-tails on the Skagit Flats (5 June) and a likely visit to the new West Seattle Bridge peregrine site (if they succeed). We may do a single day trip to the canyon for those who can't do the overnight camping trip. If there is enough interest among Skagit/Whatcom area members, I can do two or three of the talks at Padilla Bay as well.

Classes will be held on Thursday nights at 7 p.m., starting 20 May at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle. Cost of the class is $125.00. To register, send a check to the Falcon Research Group at the address at the bottom of this page. For questions, call Bud at (360) 757-1911.


The second annual FRG "River of Raptors" Tour will take place from 25 September- 2 October this year.


Thanks to all of you who have sent in your dues. The $25.00 helps us to continue this work and we appreciate that.