As chill settles in on this first day of winter, more anecdotal beastly tales unfold in my latest installment of ‘A Bestiary: Tales From a Wildlife Garden.’
Chance encounters with wildlife always strike me as quite remarkable . . . just being in the right place at the right moment and being in that moment is a gift of possibility and intention. Observing birds successfully demands our tuning into their world and knowing the sights and sounds to be aware of.
Here are a few of the hawks that share the sky, gardens and forests of this Western Massachusetts hillside.
There is a large expanse of sky surrounding my barn studio and farm.
Clouds float along mostly silent rearranging their forms through a range of blue and gray creating shadows over forest and fields.
Rather high pitched wistful whistles, shrills and shrieks crease the canopy of currents and entering my thoughts and work, whether at my desk or in the garden, announce the masterful flight of a buteo or accipiter.
More often I am drawn to look up due to the clamor of cawing crows or shrieking blue jays taunting one of our resident hawks . . . and quickly grab my camera hoping for a sighting.
These raptor tales begin with the smaller, stout and sturdy Broad-winged Hawk, Buteo platypterus.
Hawks are varied in forms, skills and voice but all draw the eyes upward toward the lofty cumulus coverings to chance . . . to witness fluid raptor flight.
It is more usual here to observe one hawk soaring over the land but occasionally during breeding season good fortune allows the eyeing of a graceful duet such as with these two Broad-winged Hawks seen in the photographs above and below.
Monogamous Broad-winged Hawks exhibit dramatic mating flights in early spring. After courtship both male and female help build the nest and care for their young.
Later on in the fall a multitude of these perch-hunting raptors join together forming ‘kettles’ that migrate as far as northern South America, where they overwinter.
I vividly recall one fall day a few years back noting a number of Broad-winged Hawks flying towards the lower garden and then suddenly catching a thermal and soaring out of sight. There was a steady line of buteos continuously flying towards the garden then lifting up and away.
I remember walking down the stone stairs and reclining on the grass watching with great joy as the hawks flew over me and spiraled up beyond the clouds. Like hundreds of airplanes waiting in line to take off, the hawks kept coming until I lost count.
Our Broad-winged Hawks make complete migrations and are one of just five of North America’s raptors to do so.
Another somewhat extraordinary encounter happened one partly sunny day years ago now.
I am siting beneath one of the two-hundred-year old Rock Maples on the south side of our farmhouse, when an adult Broad-winged Hawk appears just above the leafy canopy and precedes to land on a branch not too far from where I sit.
Direct eye contact here, but there must be something else drawing eastern North America’s smallest buteo so near.
True amazement is mine in seeing the Broad-winged Hawk flying right towards me, and truly delightful to see it pick up a vole nearby with flawless precision.
Hawks are very beneficial beasts, like so many others, in that they greatly help control the vexing rodent populations.
The second featured buteo of this Bestiary is the magnificent and also monogamous Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis.
A larger buteo . . . the adult Red-tailed Hawk is one of the easiest raptors to identify by its striking rufous tail.
I have often seen Red-tailed Hawks soaring high together over their territory calling out to one another.The male will sometimes dive or the two may join talons and embrace in a free fall towards earth.
The pair will build their nest together or may tidy up an older nest. They both bring food back to the nest but only the female will feed the nestlings.
I was lucky to sight a pair mating this past spring.
I see them here year round but some that breed in Canada do migrate and overwinter mostly in the United States. The Red-tailed Hawk prefers open landscapes with sheltered and open perches.
An immature Red-tailed Hawk trying to escape the threats of a half dozen crows quick to the chase.
The chase scene almost looks like a ‘pas de deux’ but I know better and so love the power I seem to have when clapping my hands. I enjoy watching as all the crows quickly fly in six different directions away from the Red-tailed Hawk.
Crows are very smart so I am always curious at how they fall for this act each time . . . for years now too.
As the pesky crows fly away, giving a bit of relief to the Red-tailed Hawk, the creature flies over closer to me as if to say “Thank you!”
Somehow the eyes seem more gentle towards me.
The immature Red-tailed Hawk shows all the traits of a ‘buteo’ here . . . wide wings, burly body and fully spread fanned tail while in flight.
Somewhat of a ‘hunk’ in the hawk world, The Red-tailed Hawk is the largest buteo of eastern North America and considered one of the most versatile of hawks. They prey on smaller mammals and even go after rabbits! Some birds and reptiles are also hunted. Red-tailed Hawks will also dine on carrion.
This time it was the human who startled the strong and solid adult buteo away.
Number three in the buteo lineup is the Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus, which is about the size of a crow. Also monogamous the mostly perch-hunting Red-shouldered Hawks have a dramatic courtship that can last for nearly three weeks. Once they have chosen a site for breeding they will return year after year.
The Red-shouldered Hawk has white bands on its tail but they are not as wide as the black bands and more numerous than seen on the Broad-winged Hawk’s tail. The red coloring on the shoulders is also an indication to look for. Both male and female help in constructing their large nest and raising the young nestlings. They will eat birds but more often hunt small mammals.
I rarely see the Red-shouldered Hawk. Land development has fragmented our forests and now the more adaptable Red-tailed Hawk is more often seen. The Red-shouldered Hawk is a solitary partial migrant, but they are seen year round in much of the eastern United States.
Number four and five of the hawks I have sighted here at Flower Hill Farm are accipiters.
Sharp-shinned Hawk, Accipiter striatus has a more squared tip to its long tail and is smaller than the very similar Cooper’s Hawk.
The Sharp-shinned is about the size of a blue jay and is the smallest North American hawk.
It is very confusing to identify these two accipiters. I hope I have them correctly placed.
Sharp-shinned Hawks can be seen here year round but I have only sighted them a few times.
They are often found near bird feeders and are, along with the Cooper’s Hawk, also called ‘birdhawks’, for they have an appetite for songbirds, which make up about 90% of their diet.
The fact that the accipiters enjoy song birds for food puts them out of favor with many humans who enjoy feeding birds. I have seen both these hawks flying rapidly into a flock of birds to catch a prey, but they also take advantage of perches to eye their quarry.
An immature Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii perches and preens in our Rock Maple . . . note the very long tail is more rounded at the end. This accipiter is about the size of a crow. The male Cooper’s Hawk mostly builds their nest and provides all the food which the female, remaining on the nest, feeds the young.
Blue Jays are constantly harassing all of the hawks that try to hunt here.
I have read that the Cooper’s Hawk will prey on Blue Jays so it is most surprising that the hawk does not turn on the jay.
Perhaps he or she is simply marvelling at the audacity of the jay . . . I know I often do.
I wish the Blue Jays would not disturb the Cooper’s Hawk for I believe they could help me with the vole and field mice population, though I am aware they prefer medium sized birds such as American Robins and Mourning Doves. Since the Cooper’s Hawk cannot get any peace it flies off hoping to find a more suitable setting.
These are highly secretive hawks, especially during the breeding season and were as recent as the 1990’s considered endangered due to shootings by humans. They are now more abundant throughout the year in all of the United States, southern Canada during the summer and Central America where some overwinter.
Though their natural habitat is similar to most hawks . . . a forested and woodland habitat with streams or swamp land . . . these hawks are now well adapted residents of parks and towns.
Hawks are important and beneficial wildlife that deserve our respect and awe. Pesticides and judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can cause harm and should be avoided. The natural world has its order and all life has its necessary place.
[Editor's note: For a thorough guide to learning to identify hawks and other raptors, please see Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors, by Clay Sutton, David Sibley, and Pete Dunne]
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