Archive for January, 2016

Red-shouldered and Sharp-shinned Hawks

Friday, January 1st, 2016

The new year began here in Summit Grove with a cool gray morning. Thick, high wooly clouds covered the sky, and the sun was a pale, yellow blur as I headed out for a late morning walk. Except for a few chickadees and titmice, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and the mewing call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, birds did not seem very active, and the neighborhood felt quiet.

The big, broad shape of a Red-shouldered Hawk sitting near the top of a bare-limbed tree was visible from way down the road, and when I got closer, its warm red-orange breast glowed with unusually intense color in the soft gray light, and all of its markings looked vivid – the orange of the breast, the dark back checkered with white, the dark brown head, and the white and black bands of the tail, though they were barely visible. It sat quietly, but I could hear the repeated cries of another Red-shouldered Hawk soaring somewhere out of sight, beyond the trees to the east.

A little further on, a much smaller hawk with shorter wings and a long banded tail flew out of a cluster of cedars, pines, water oaks and persimmon trees. I think it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but didn’t see it well enough or long enough to be completely sure. It flew low into trees on the other side of the street and disappeared out of sight. Its back was gray, and the tail showed bands in different shades of gray. It might have been a Cooper’s Hawk – but its shape looked neat and compact, the tail rather square, and its flight was very crisp – so my best guess was a Sharp-shinned. Both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks are Accipiters, closely related hawks with long tails and relatively short wings that prefer woodland habitats and excel at flying swiftly among forest trees. The Sharp-shinned is smaller, but the size may overlap and can be deceptive, so it can be hard to tell. In past years, we’ve had both species here during the winter months, with Cooper’s being more common.

Red-shouldered and Sharp-shinned Hawks, while still considered relatively common, are woodland raptors that face many challenges as their forested habitat is steadily reduced. Even though I see one fairly often here, it never feels ordinary. Each one is a fierce sliver of wildness that still persists in these much abused and steadily shrinking woods – a constant surprise, and a ray of hope.

In all today, I counted only 26 species of birds, with many of our usual suspects not seen or heard. In addition to the hawks, those I did see or hear included Black and Turkey Vultures; Mourning Dove, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe; plenty of both American Crows and Blue Jays, as well as Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren and Northern Cardinal; one White-breasted Nuthatch; both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets; Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Eastern Towhee, White-throated Sparrow; a very few Dark-eyed Juncos; one solitary Common Grackle; and House Finch.

Among the birds I did not find today were Hermit Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Pine and Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow and American Goldfinch – all of these are almost certainly around, just not out and about when I was, or else I wasn’t looking and listening carefully enough. It was a quiet, peaceful, pleasant walk – nice to be outside – and with the hawks, a fine way to begin the new year.