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Cast Your Gaze Skyward for the Bay’s Airborne Hunters

When the fish aren’t biting, raptors may be soaring

     The eagle appeared as if from nowhere. I had been casting lures fruitlessly for white perch, but it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, there was just the slightest of breezes and the temperatures were nicely bearable. Though there were no fish in my bucket, I grudgingly persevered.
      Then for no reason, I looked up. Overhead soared a giant bird, its white head and tail contrasting with the dark feathers of its powerful body. A perch, roughly 14 inches, was clutched in its talons.
     With its wingspan of some seven feet, I could only admire that bald eagle, and without a twinge of jealousy for the enormous perch. The vision made my day. If I close my eyes, I can still see that bird sailing grandly off above me.
     We Marylanders are blessed with many distinctive raptors, birds of prey that are almost immediately recognizable. For those of us near the Chesapeake, the most numerous is the osprey — also known as the fish hawk and sea hawk — seen almost everywhere there is water. No longer treatened by DDT, it is so successful that it flourishes nearly worldwide, excluding only Antarctica. 
      The large, falcon-winged (pointed), mostly white-faced osprey has its own singular species designation (Pandion haliaetus). It is also the only raptor existing solely on live-caught fish. 
      The osprey is also one of the few birds of prey (the owl is another) that has opposeable talons, two on each side, that enable the bird to capture and carry its prey aerodynamically in line with its body direction 
      The next in order of obviousness is the red-tailed hawk. This blunt-winged, aerially adept bird frequents woods, scrubs and marshlands seeking out unwary squirrels, rabbits, rodents and sometimes airborne targets of opportunity. The red-tailed is the largest hawk frequenting Maryland.
      Brown-colored with an intimidating stare and a broad, light-colored spotted breast, the adult sports a unique and broad rusty-red tail band. This bold raptor is also singularly fond of lurking on roadside telephone lines and eyeing up the possibility of carrying off you and your car as you pass by.
      Another particularly distinctive bird of prey, despite is small size, is the sparrowhawk or American kestrel. A true falcon though only the size of a large pigeon, this nimble flier can pick off finches, sparrows and even grasshoppers on the wing as well as pounce on any number of small rodents exposing themselves to an aerial attack. The male is easily identifiable because of its heavily barred cheeks; the female is more demurely colored but larger. The species, like most raptors, mates for life.
      The medium-sized hawks in our state are more difficult to distinguish except, that is, for the marsh hawk, or northern harrier. Haunting the low-lying wetlands, the long, slender gray-to-brown bird soars close to the ground, with occasional bursts of wing beat. It has a distinct puff of white feathering on its back just in front of its tail. It also feasts on small rodents and larger insects.
      Our Coopers and sharp-shinned hawks are so similar that I can’t tell them apart. While particularly handsome, neither is frequently seen, keeping to the forested and less densely populated areas of the state. They both feature reddish-brown to dark-barred chest plumage and, for a hawk, long wings and tail. Their specialty is aggressively pursuing medium-sized birds right through the treelines. They are both artful and speedy fliers.
      The last in my list of remarkable winged demons is often mistaken for a juvenile bald eagle. The younger bald eagles do not get their signature white head and tail until the age of two. Until then, they’re uniformly brown with a yellow-tipped beak, making them easy to confuse with the golden eagle. But the golden is larger than a juvenile bald eagle, with wingspans of up to nine feet. It is also brown but has a golden burnish to its feathers. A powerful raptor, it preys on large geese and small livestock. 
     It is reputed to range farther to the west. I, however, have seen a few of these beauties in Maryland, the most recent being on Poplar Island. Keep an eye out: Their big hooked beaks are dark.
Fish Finder
      Rockfish remain on the small side. It takes sustained effort to find larger fish. There are some cruising deep that nudge the 30-inch mark, but they are few and far between. Trolling is now the preferred method. As the temperatures stay low, the chance of a big migrator arriving for its wintering grounds gets better and better. Trolling big sassy shads, umbrella rigs and chandeliers will lessen your chances of hooking up with the little guys but could also make for a long day of no action.
      Perch fishing is picking up both for yellows and for whites. The yellows are beginning to stage at the head of the Bay, while the whities are gathering deep around the Bay Bridge and at the mouth of Eastern Bay. Blood worms will work on a bottom rig; try 40- to 60-foot depths.
Hunting Seasons
Ducks, limit 6: Thru Nov. 29
Deer, antlered/antlerless, archery: thru Nov. 29
Deer antlered and sika, firearms: Nov. 30-Dec.14
Rabbit, limit 4: thru Feb. 29
Sea ducks, limit 5: thru Jan. 10
Snow geese, limit 25: thru Nov. 29
Squirrel, limit 6: thru Feb. 29