The Earliest Hawk

Posted:  Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 10:30am

Here in Maine we’re used to seeing a variety of hawks that can occur throughout the year. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are regularly seen in winter, usually diving into a backyard where there’s a feeder as they try to catch a small bird for a meal. Frequently, Cooper’s hawks and occasionally the larger but related northern goshawk may be seen sneaking into town to chase pigeons. Red-tailed hawks are often seen along the highway and in areas with lots of fields and brushy edges even in the dead of winter. Peregrine falcons nest in a few places in Maine, and the smaller falcon, the merlin, now nests in many parts of the state; both can sometimes be found in winter in Maine (despite the fact that some of both species migrate south into South America for the winter).  Another tiny falcon, the American kestrel, winters in Maine in small numbers and breeds throughout the state. And of course we have those bald eagles!

Only a few hawks leave us for the winter. The very familiar osprey is one that does leave with birds wintering from Florida south into the Caribbean and Central and South America. Broad-winged hawks are (roughly) crow-sized hawks with wide black and white stripes on a rather short tail—we often see them on roadside wires in the summer. Well, they (most of them) make an epic journey all the way to South America for the winter.

Then there’s the red-shouldered hawk. Those of you who have spent time in the southeastern U.S., perhaps in Florida in particular, may have encountered red-shouldered hawks there. There, red-shouldered hawks seem to be everywhere. Often they’re seen in a familiar, hunched-over posture on a telephone pole, wire or even on a sign or street lamp, staring down toward the ground watching closely for the movement of a small rodent, frog, snake, or perhaps even a large insect on which to pounce. Red-shouldered hawks are, like the broad-winged hawk, one of the members of the buteo family of hawks, which have long, broad wings and a short but broad tail. Unlike the broad-winged hawk, the red-shouldered hawk’s tail is mostly black with very narrow white bands instead of black and white bands of equal width. The “red” on the red-shouldered hawk’s shoulder is really a rather chestnut color and is not always particularly easy to see. Down south in places like Florida, it’s common to hear the penetrating, repeated “kee-ah, kee-ah, kee-ah, kee-ah” calls of red-shouldered hawks even in suburban parks and communities that have left enough trees (often those wonderful live oaks dripping with abundant Spanish moss) in the area.

Here in Maine and in much of the northeastern part of the breeding range of red-shouldered hawks, the species seems like a different creature. They leave in winter from the northern part of their range—and Maine is near the northern limit—but they don’t retreat very far south; typically, the northern range limit is in southern New England, though occasionally one will attempt to spend the winter in southern Maine. One of the things that makes them interesting at this time of year is that, because at least some of the birds winter in such close proximity, red-shouldered hawks are one of the earliest spring arrivals,  with birds often detected in southern Maine in February and early March.

During the breeding season they’re often not as obvious here in Maine as you might expect (especially after seeing them so commonly in Florida). They are rather uncommon and scattered breeders, often preferring more extensive tracts of mature, swampy bottomland forest. The species is thought to have rebounded after being impacted by eggshell thinning during the DDT era. In a number of states in the northern part of its range (but not in Maine), the red-shouldered hawk is state-listed as threatened or of special concern. 

As we write, another snow storm is on the way. Let’s hope these early hawks make it through just fine.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the newly published “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell Press.