Have you ever watched a pair of robins build a nest, lay some bright turquoise eggs and then raise a family of four hungry mouths? Have you ever heard a pair of great horned owls outside your home, duetting back and forth at dusk? Maybe you’ve seen a pair of osprey catching fish and returning to their nest to feed their chicks along the Delaware coast?
For the last four years, volunteers for the Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas have reported such vivid observations – and now their work is nearing completion. January 2012 marked the beginning of the fifth and final season of the Atlas project. During this, the last season, emphasis will be placed on finding the common species as well as increasing efforts to track down some of the harder birds to find. And those efforts start right now.
Did you know that winter is nesting time for several birds in Delaware? Great horned owls start nesting as early as December and by now many of Delaware’s resident bald eagles will be laying eggs. Eastern screech-owls and barred owls are busy setting up territories, while other raptors such as the red-tailed hawk and peregrine falcon are getting closer to their mates.
In March, we will start seeing the return of our migrating songbirds, so with winter winding down, now is the time to find those owls and hawks. And the Breeding Bird Atlas is looking for all of the sightings it can get. The Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife is asking for Delaware residents to report observations of nesting hawks and owls. But we aren’t just looking for any reports – we need observations that provide some evidence that those birds really are nesting.
Aside from finding a hawk or owl nest, the Atlas uses “safe dates” to determine if there is some possibility a hawk or owl is nesting. The way it works is quite simple: If a hawk or owl is seen or heard during specific time periods, there is some probability it is nesting. The range of dates would cover the time during a raptor’s nesting season when we can be reliably sure that the one we observe is not migrating.
Great-horned, barred, and Eastern screech owls have been in their safe date period since December and January; that period ends on June 30. Barn owls are in their safes dates from April 1 through August 1. Hawk safe date periods begin as early as April 20 for red-shouldered hawks and as late as June 1 for peregrine falcons and broad-winged hawks. Hawk safe dates conclude at the end of July, except for peregrine falcons and American kestrels, which end June 30. During these times, seeing or hearing these raptor species gives us some evidence that they are nesting in the area.
If you think you have nesting hawks or owls nearby, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you identify the hawk or owl? We can only take reports of birds that can be identified by species, but if you aren’t sure which one you see or hear, we can help you figure it out.
- What was the hawk or owl doing? Look for courting behavior and interactions, or listen for pairs to call back and forth to one another.
- Did you see the bird carrying sticks or food? Hawks will carry sticks, and both hawks and owls will carry food back to a nest site. If you see this behavior, you can be sure they are nesting someplace nearby.
If you see or hear any of these things, the Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas would love to hear from you. All that’s needed from you is the date of your observation, a specific location, and a description of what you observed.