Two Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks

Also this morning at the State Botanical Garden – late in the morning on another cloudy, warm day – a path was lined with cherry trees in filmy pink bloom, full of the peaceful humming of honeybees.

A little further on, I stood on a slope overlooking a large open area of graveled paths, small trees and other plantings, a part of the Heritage Garden, I think. It turned into a charmed few minutes there on the hill, because five or six Northern Rough-winged Swallows began to fly all around me, circling over the open area, often below me or at eye level, dipping and climbing, and sometimes coming very close to where I stood, close enough to see them well, even though they never were still – the plain brown back and wings, pale belly, and squarish tail, dark on the tip. They were mostly quiet, only a few times making small, low chirping calls.

As I watched the swallows, I began to hear the calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk from the trees beyond the open garden area. The calls were the choppy, agitated er-er call, not the soaring kee-yer. Soon I could see two Red-shouldered Hawks in the trees, continuing to make choppy calls and taking short flights, stopping in trees in between flights, raising and flapping their wings while perched. Then they both flew and circled a few times directly overhead, so I could see them very well, and they clearly were juveniles – very pale underneath with bold brown streaks. They went back to perch in the trees. After maybe 10-15 minutes of these short flights and perching, a third Red-shouldered Hawk flew in, and this one was an adult with a reddish breast, and it was calling kee-yer. The two juveniles appeared to join it and all three flew higher and drifted out of sight.

Because of their behavior, I couldn’t help but wonder if these might have been recently fledged juveniles, even though I knew it was very unlikely – and when I checked with other, more knowledgeable birders with the local Audubon chapter here, they confirmed that late March would be way too early for Red-shouldered Hawks to fledge here.

The most likely and obvious explanation is that these were juveniles from last year, still in their juvenile plumage, which they keep for approximately 18 months. While their behavior seemed puzzling to me, I’m sure there are many possible explanations. It was interesting, and memorable.

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