Two Red-shouldered Hawks and a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Today began cool and mostly cloudy, but by late in the morning, the clouds had begun to break up and blow away, with spreading patches of blue sky. As I walked up a road through a wooded area, a Red-shouldered Hawk cried a loud kee-yer repeatedly from a perch in the top bare branches of a tall hardwood tree. It was pretty far back from the road, but close enough to see the warm glow of its reddish breast.

A little further up the hill, a smaller hawk with a long tail suddenly streaked low across the road in front of me, in a swift gray blur, and up into a tree near the crest of the hill, where it sat with its back to me, partially screened by bare branches. I could see the long, narrow, banded tail, and the head looked rather small – it was either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk – two closely-related long-tailed, short-winged hawks. Though I couldn’t see it well enough to tell for sure, I think it was the smaller, more compact Sharp-shinned Hawk.

It’s always an interesting and fun challenge when it’s not immediately clear, because these two can be very hard to tell apart, and I’m sure at least half the time I get them wrong. So it’s a chance to study the field marks and distinguishing characteristics and maybe learn something new. I was watching the small hawk closely and wishing I could see it better, when a Red-shouldered Hawk – considerably larger and unmistakable in its colors – flew into this same tree and perched on a branch in the very top, not far above the smaller hawk. For two or three minutes, they both remained in this tree, quietly. I kept watching the smaller one, trying to get a better, definitive view, until, abruptly, it flew, spreading its wings and gliding down and sailing out. Its clean, compact shape and sleek, quick flapping wings, followed by another glide, added to my impression that it probably was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but it disappeared before I could be certain.

It was only then, when I turned back to look again at the Red-shouldered Hawk still in the top of the tree, that I noticed a second Red-shouldered Hawk perched below it, further down than the Sharp-shinned Hawk had been. As far as I could see, there had been no obvious interaction among the three, so I don’t know if they all just happened to pause in the same tree at once, or if there was a great deal more to the story that I missed.

Leave a Reply