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Short road trip may be best to see a Prairie Falcon

By on October 28, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments

By Bruce McCammon

It was snowing on Jan. 16, 2016 as we walked through Walla Walla Point Park in Wenatchee. 

As newcomers to the area, this trail served as a close and pleasant way to get some exercise, meet people and, occasionally, find some really interesting birds. 

We were enjoying the plowed walking path when my wife, Dianne, called my attention to a fairly large bird perched at the top of one of the trees. I had no idea what it was. 

I try to remember to take a camera along when we walk and had a modest telephoto zoom mounted on my Fuji camera. I approached the bird cautiously and shot several photos as I got closer. Eventually, the bird lost patience with me and flew. I managed a few images of it as it circled around us and disappeared. 

We were surprised and elated once the images were on the computer and we could zoom in to identify the bird. We had just seen our very first Prairie Falcon.

A variety of raptors move into north central Washington during the winter. Most are outside urban areas but can be easily seen as you drive the roads on the Waterville Plateau. 

It is not uncommon to see Rough-legged Hawks, Redtail Hawks, Northern Harriers and American Kestrel sitting on powerline poles. 

Prairie Falcon near Mansfield.

Prairie Falcons are also fairly common in these rural areas. We have seen several between Wenatchee and Bridgeport or Mansfield but have not seen another in Wenatchee since that first time. 

Bigger than a crow but smaller than a Canada Goose, the Prairie Falcon is a medium-sized raptor. They are about 15-16 inches long with a 36-40 inch wingspan. 

Similar to a Kestrel, they have a strong, dark line that extends down below the eye and a white line over the eye. 

Prairie Falcons will hunt small mammals by flying close to the ground, similar to a Northern Harrier. During the winter months they survive on Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks. 

The conversion of grasslands and shrub-steppe communities to large areas of single-use agriculture can result in fewer small mammals that these falcons rely on. 

Developments that provide water and good ground cover may benefit the Prairie Falcon by increasing the number of ground squirrels and other rodents.

Winter driving on the Waterville Plateau can be an adventure but main roads are usually plowed and safe. 

With an almost certain chance to see a variety of great, winter raptors, a drive out to a neighboring town for lunch can result in great bird views and photographs. 

Remember to prepare properly for winter travel and don’t forget your binoculars. Good luck.

Bruce McCammon is retired, color-blind and enjoys photographing the birds in north central Washington.

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