There is a pair of great horned owls in our neighborhood. In December, I heard their courtship hooing. In March, I found bits of rabbit fur beneath our feeders. (That bunny likely ended up as a takeout dinner for the young owls.) The nest is around here somewhere. Earlier this month, I set out to look for it.
April is a good month to look for raptor nests. The large stick constructions, built in trees, stand out among the still-naked branches. (Remember that nesting birds are easily disturbed. It's best that you study nests through binoculars.)
Your insurance agent won't want to hear this, but you may be able to find more raptor nests by looking through your windshield than walking through the woods. On the road, there's no shaded canopy, no underbrush to obscure your view. And, surprisingly, there are plenty of raptor nests to see, even in a metropolitan area.
There's a bald eagle nest just west of the 5-8 Club in south Minneapolis and several more nests along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, near the Black Dog power plant and on Grey Cloud Island. There's a red-tailed hawk nesting along Hwy. 610 in Coon Rapids, another along 169 in Brooklyn Park. Apparently, the eagles, hawks and owls didn't necessarily move out when we moved in.
So, just how many raptor nests are there in the metro area? Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota, has some idea.
In the seven-county metro area, where bald eagles are closely watched, there are about 80 known eagle nests. Eagles will re-use an existing nest, after freshening it a bit by adding sticks and branches. Because these already large nests get larger every season, they can be pretty easy to spot.
Ospreys also are closely watched and their nests are noted. In 2007, there were 56 osprey nests, many on pole-mounted platforms put up for that purpose. However, at least one osprey pair made an unconventional choice this spring. Its nest is atop a soaring light tower at the intersection of Hwy. 169 and County Rd. 62 in Minnetonka. (Make sure you have a driver if you go osprey-watching there. The traffic is terrible.)
Peregrine falcons also are a favorite of urban bird-watchers. There are 10 regularly successful pairs in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington and Golden Valley. (Martell says another three to five pairs try to nest, but usually don't succeed.) Other nesting sites are in or near Bayport, Hastings, Becker, St. Cloud (at the state prison), Sartell, Red Wing and on the railroad bridge to Prescott, Wis.
I like to keep an eye on a falcon nest near the top of the east side of the Colonnade building in Golden Valley. The first falcon took up watch on its polished-granite cliff in mid-March, waiting for a mate.
Great horned, barred and Eastern screech-owls are in many of our neighborhoods, but they often go unnoticed, in part because they tend to be active at night. And no one knows exactly how many red-tailed, red-shouldered and Cooper's hawks there are in the metro area, but there are plenty.
Martell said a continuing study in Milwaukee has shown that red-tails use a territory of about 800 acres. In the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, there are 1.9 million acres. That would translate to potentially about 2,400 pairs of red-tailed hawks.
Martell said he doesn't put much faith in that number because "birds are not evenly distributed across the landscape, for starters, but it is a fun place to begin."
As is a leisurely drive on a Sunday afternoon in late April.
Jim Williams, a lifelong birder, serves as a member of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Birding Initiative Committee. He also is a member of the American Birding Association, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Delta Waterfowl. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.