Birding at 65 miles per hour
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:31 PM
Although I prefer birdwatching along a sylvan path or deserted beach, I often find myself stuck in a car during our gloomy winters. Birding from the driver’s seat can be dangerous — you should keep your eyes on the road, not the sky — but watchful passengers or drivers ensnarled in traffic can enjoy spotting birds.
Driving along Interstate 5, my husband and I often count highway hawks. In the fall, many red-tailed hawks migrate here from Canada and join our year-round residents to feed on mice, voles, and other small mammals. The freeway’s wide center median and mowed shoulders offer a mini-habitat of open grassland where red-tailed hawks hunt. Light standards, telephone poles and nearby trees supply the birds with excellent viewing perches. Once a red-tail discovers a good feeding area, it will return often.
A couple of days ago while zipping along a rural road between open fields, I noticed a robin-sized falcon sitting upright on an electric wire. The low winter sun spotlighted the bird’s russet back and blue-grey wings. I’d caught a glimpse of a kestrel.
Last winter during a visit to Walla Walla, my husband and I went looking for a reported snowy owl. Finding the bird was a snap. It perched on the crossbeam of a power pole right over the highway; the same spot where it had been reported several days before.
Birding at 65 mph forces me to ramp up my identification skills, since I only get the briefest of looks. Instead of trying to pick out plumage markings, I quickly note the bird’s size, shape, posture and behavior. Birders call these identification clues the bird’s “jizz.” It’s birding by overall impression or by gestalt.
For example, some birds perch stiffly upright, others appear relaxed and others seem to slouch. A bird’s flight can be hurried, languid, belabored, stiff, shallow or energetic. Knowing a bird’s jizz and factoring in location helps the viewer identify birds with only a quick glance.
Here in the Puget Sound lowlands: A large, bulky, football-shaped hawk with an upright posture is probably a red-tailed hawk. A petite, long-tailed falcon can only be a kestrel. A large, dark bird with a wedge-shaped tail flying overhead has to be a common raven.
Learning a bird’s jizz will upgrade your birding skills whether walking or driving, summer or winter, here or in Costa Rica — but especially at 65 mph.
I’ve also observed common ravens and peregrine falcons flying along in the air space about 50 feet above a road, almost as if using the road as a flight pathway. Peregrines easily truck along at 65 mph and with a little extra effort, could overtake the cars on the road.
Crows and gulls also use highways for finding food. They eye the long, winding buffet table of dead mammals and small birds. What we call roadkill, they call dinner.
November’s early dusk might bring owls along the route of your evening commute. Great-horned and barred owls prefer forested areas, while barn owls hunt in farmland. Owls search open areas along roads for unsuspecting mice, voles and other night foraging critters. Owls don’t need light to locate their prey; but streetlights may lure small mammals out onto the exposed roadway.
Once, while driving through a forested area near my home, I came upon an owl consuming its catch at the side of a road. As my car lights illuminated the pale bird, it spreads its wings to hide its prey, as if to say, “This is my dinner.” Slowing to 35 miles per hour, I identified the barred owl, a regular neighborhood hunter.
If you commute within the city and your interaction with birds consists of a splat on the windshield, I expect you are being “blessed” by European starlings or rock pigeons. Near water, add gulls to the list of possibilities. There are ways to identify birds by these calling cards, but I’m no expert. If it feels better to know where to direct your oaths, blame the gulls.
Winter cold, rain and clogged freeways are upon us. Whether cruising along at 65 or inching through traffic, keep a lookout for highway birds. A splendid view of a red-tailed hawk, kestrel, peregrine falcon or common raven could bring a bright moment into your winter day.
Frances Wood’s book: “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West” has a chapter on November birding. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.