If you like your birds fast, powerful and just a little bit deadly, then check out this list of birds of prey in SA
Birds of prey use their keen eyesight, curving beaks and strong talons to hunt living prey. Also known as raptors, they include species such as eagles, falcons, hawks, harriers and owls. A good tip to identify a bird as a raptor is to look at its wingtips in flight, as the feathers are often divided into ‘fingers’
Here are 10 raptors that call South Australia home and where you can go to see them.
1. Wedge-tailed eagle
Wedge-tailed eagles are Australia's largest birds of prey, with a massive wingspan of between 1.8 and 2.3 metres. The females are larger than the males and both sexes start off as a light reddish brown, darkening with age to almost black. They are easily identified in flight by their distinctive tails, which flare out before tapering to a point at the middle. Wedge-tails are primarily hunters, but they will also eat carrion, so you may see one up close as it cleans up roadkill on a rural road.
2. Nankeen kestrel
At the other end of the scale are Nankeen kestrels, one of the smallest Australian raptors at just 30 centimetres long. They have a slender build, with light reddish wings, backs and heads, and pale bellies. Kestrels can hover almost motionless in open spaces like fields or grasslands to catch small creatures such as mice and lizards.
3. Peregrine falcon
Known for their speed, peregrine falcons are the fastest animals on the planet and have been recorded diving vertically at more than 300 kilometres an hour – so fast, in fact, that they can make a sound like a jet during a dive. This incredible speed also makes them very difficult to see, as even when flying normally while hunting they can reach 100 kilometres an hour.
The females are larger than the males, with a body about the same size as a raven and a wingspan of up to 1.2 metres. Both sexes have dark grey-brown wings, backs and hoods, pale bellies marked with brown bars, and yellow beaks. Peregrines are extremely adaptable, and are often found living in the suburbs and even cities, nesting on the ledges of tall buildings and feeding on feral pigeons.
4. Black-shouldered kite
With their pale grey wings, white heads and bellies, black shoulders and dark red eyes, black-shouldered kites are striking birds that are hard to mistake for any other raptor. They are small, only a little larger than nankeen kestrels, and also hover over open grassland as they hunt for small mammals like mice.
5. Brown goshawk
Brown goshawks are similar in size to peregrine falcons, with the females larger than the males. They have dark grey wings, bellies that are barred in cream and reddish-brown with reddish-brown collars. They feed mainly on small mammals like rabbits and are common around bushland.
6. Swamp harrier
Swamp harriers are large, mostly-brown raptors that are easy to identify thanks to their long tails and the stripe of white on their rumps. The females are larger than the males, with a wingspan of up to 1.4 metres. Harriers are migratory, spending the warmer months of the year in Tasmania and winter on the mainland. They hunt quite low to the ground, and their diet consists mostly of ground-dwelling birds, waterbirds, and small mammals like rabbits.
7. White-bellied sea eagle
With a wingspan of up to 2.2 metres, white-bellied sea eagles are nearly as big as wedge-tails, and even have a similar-shaped tail, but that’s where the resemblance ends. True to their names, the adults have white underparts, with grey wings and a powerful hooked beak. Young sea eagles are pale grey and do not develop their full adult plumage until they are five or six years old. They are coastal raptors and feed mostly on fish caught from the sea or rivers mid-flight.
8. Eastern osprey
Like white-bellied sea eagles, eastern ospreys are coastal raptors and feed almost exclusively on fish. Smaller than the sea eagles, they have straight tails, grey underparts and dark brown wings and backs, with dappled brown chest feathers and a narrow brown mask running back from the eye. Ospreys tend to breed on clifftops, or other high points such as power posts or light towers, in large nests that are used year after year. They can be difficult to spot when they are hunting, as they skim low over the water.
9. Barn Owl
Barn owls have a wing-span of about 90 centimetres and are easily identified by their white, heart-shaped faces. They have white bellies, light brown wings and backs, and do not have ear tufts. Barn owls are found all over South Australia, including the Adelaide metropolitan area. They are nocturnal and hunt for small creatures by sound rather than sight. Rats and mice make up a big part of their diet, so remember that putting out rat poison can have the unintended side effect of killing your local owls. Don’t expect to hear a barn owl make the classic ‘hoo-hoo’ call, though: they have a long, screeching call.
10. Southern boobook
Also known as the mopoke or morepork because of its distinctive call, the boobook is a small, mostly brown owl with distinct round patches around its eyes and a rounded head with no ear tufts. Boobooks are the most common Australian owls and are found in bushland, on the coast and throughout the Adelaide metropolitan area. Like barn owls, they hunt at night, specialising in small mammals and insects, but they may also be seen out in the late afternoon or early morning.
Where else can I birdwatch in Adelaide?
Want to see all these raptor species and more in the one park? The Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary stretches along 60km of coastline north of Adelaide and is home to 14 species – more than half of the raptors found in Australia.
Many birds of prey can be seen hunting on the roadsides in the bird sanctuary, and the wetlands around Thompsons Beach, Port Prime and Light Beach are hotspots for species such as kites, harriers and falcons.
Barker Inlet and St Kilda are good places to look for white-bellied sea eagles, and if you’re on the water between Port Adelaide and Port Parham, keep an eye out for ospreys perched on the marker beacons.
Download your very own Raptors of South Australia poster, or check out our blog onfive things to do at Adelaide’s Bird Sanctuary in winter.
(Main image: white-bellied sea eagle courtesy of Jeff Groves)
This story was originally posted in July 2018