Tom McGuane on Raptors

Novelist Tom McGuane, while noted for his horses and pointing dogs, has always had a feel for birds of prey,  notices them, and on occasion writes lyrically about them. There is a vivid set piece in the novel Something to Be Desired, in which which the protagonist, LucienTaylor,  takes his young son, who does not live with him, to lure a Prairie falcon in to trap on a pigeon, using a falconry practice to band the bird to study. The child is frightened, startled  by the bird’s falling from the sky like a hammer onto the  luckless bait bird, but Lucien is ecstatic, with the emotions of a true hawk trapper.
“There were feathers everywhere, and the hawk beat in a blur of cold fury, striking at Lucien with his downcurving knife of a beak and superimposing his own screech over the noise of James. “We’ve got him, James!” James, quiet now, looked ready to run. The hawk had stopped all motion but kept his beak marginally parted so that the small, hard black tongue could be seen advancing and retreating slightly within his mouth. ‘It’s a prairie falcon. It’s the most beautiful bird in the world. I want to come back as a prairie falcon.’ “

This is a man who has been there. Here is another lyrical piece, from the more recent Driving  On the Rim:

Hybrid Update

Terence Wright just last night sent this photo of the hybrid Black X Red Shouldered Hawk in CA, with this short  note: “Here is a pic of the hybrid chick during  banding.” We will continue to add any updates. I want to see what it looks like after it fledges–  those are two such different Buteonines. The long yellow legs suggest Black Hawk…

Curious?

Another species of raptor that seems to be joining the Peregrine, the Kestrel, and (at least in the Southwest) the Cooper’s as a city dweller is the redtail. This amazingly bold first year bird is apparently observing the habits of my sister Anita St John in her office on Beacon Hill in Boston  (Mass General Hospital, Autoimmune Diseases; 5th floor, which doubtless helps the bird’s confidence).

Argentavis magnificens

The BIG bird. Moro correctly guessed — no, knew- what the huge black cutout a few posts ago represented: the the biggest bird that ever flew, and one of the biggest flying creatures– only Azdarchid pterosaurs were larger.

As far as I know (Therese? Darren?), its taxonomy seems a bit vague, and its habits disputed. The facts are that it lived in a hotter, dryer plains habitat in the late Miocene of southern South America, (6 million YA); that it had a hooked beak rather longer in proportion to its head than other raptors (as Darren said, a perfectly good word referring to a particular group BEFORE the unnaturally naked predators of Jurassic Park); and that it was HUGE. Its wingspread was more like a small plane’s than a bird’s: 23- 25 feet. It may have weighed only a little less than an ostrich, or even as much. It was too heavy for sustained flapping, but was built to soar in the perpetual winds blowing off the Andes. Its primary flight feathers were over a yard and a half long! (The points of attachment were preserved and indicated a shaft about an inch thick).

Many reconstructions show the bird as a giant vulture but that is dubious; it was as likely a predator as a scavenger, and there was plenty of food around. The logic for a vulturine appearance is something like “New World vultures include condors. Condors are rather like Teratorns. Argentavis may be related to Teratorns…”

I don’t buy it. The bird has some stork affinities as do New  World vultures (unrelated to Old World ones or other birds of prey). But it is different, with its huge beak and strong legs and ridiculous size. I like more ambiguous ones, like this wonderful portrait by Wandering Albatross at Deviant Art… it looks like something unique that might have vultures as relatives.

There is a good informal account by paleontologist Bjorn Kurten in his 1991 Innocent Assassins.  Not Exactly Rocket Science discusses how it flew. I would love to hear more from anyone who is more up- to- date…

Osprey

John Wilson photographed this osprey near Magdalena. It is not the first I know of– I think I have seen three over 30 years– but it is the first photographed.

But what is this semi- obligate piscivore doing 30 miles from any fish that is not in a freezer? “Lake Magdalena” (the sewage pond) has no fish, and it is a long way to any other body of water until you get down to the Rio.

Cat up in the Wyoming sage also has desert ospreys, but hers are all near rivers that run down in slots below the surface of the desert, rich ones, full of trout and other species. Nothing like that down here.

Predator

Our last winter predator is an adult male Coopers hawk in beautiful plumage, and despite my admiration for his kind I hope he moves on to nest– I don’t relish keeping my pigeons in for very long. He allowed me to get even closer, but this was the best I could do; the photo is not good, because I was standing in bright sunlight that turned the viewfinder into a mirror. Still, he is plainly visible atop the dog house, eating a blue bar homer cross as big as he is. I think it will enlarge.