Winter Birds: the Red-tailed Hawk

Hawks and eagles are valuable, exciting elements in the winter landscapes of Central New York. Whether perching high in a roadside tree, soaring among the clouds, or evading a mob of crows, red-tails are the species of hawk that is most visible and widely known.

The red-tail’s soaring habit; large, broad wings; rufous tail and dark, broken band across the stomach take much of the guesswork out of identification, even at long distances.

 

Red-tailed hawks thrive in agricultural areas where the large, deciduous trees in farm woodlots provide nest sites and nearby fields and fence rows provide habitat for small mammals like mice, voles and cottontails – their dietary staple. However, this food source can be scarce and unreliable, especially when winters are long and deep snow cover persists. Red-tails, eagles and other predators have adapted to such scarcity by being opportunistic and scavenging on carrion. Here, that generally means road-killed deer.

As a rule, it is unethical to disturb a raptor when it’s feeding, for fear that it will lose precious energy when escaping and abandoning its food. This red-tail was the exception. It was feeding on a deer carcass in a farm field, not far from a residence, and was more or less oblivious to the presence of a solitary human. There were no signs of poisoning or bodily injury and the bird eventually flew to roost. The consensus among viewers for this highly unusual behavior was simply “old age” (?).

I slowly and cautiously worked my way around the bird, shooting all the while. I hoped to capture feeding behavior in detail, without pushing the hawk off the carcass. One behavior in particular caught my attention. Initially, it turned its back to me, hunched over the carcass and covered it with wings and tail. This was classic “mantling” behavior, a strategy to conceal and guard food from other predators that might attempt to steal it. In this case, I was the threat.

Mantling behavior by a Red-tailed Hawk while feeding on a deer carcass

The final images illustrate the challenge of ripping frozen meat from carrion!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

Chance Encounter

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In late winter a friend, follower and enthusiastic supporter of my Snowy Owl adventures asked if I had any good prints of Red-tailed Hawks in flight. Even though this species might be the most common and best known hawk in North America, the answer was no. But, I welcomed the challenge and said I’d keep my eyes open. A few weeks later, while searching for wildflowers in a farm woodlot in late May, a chance encounter allowed me to fulfill my promise. An irate Red-tailed Hawk suddenly appeared overhead, flying in tight circles around me at treetop level and screeching loudly. I had accidentally walked to within 30 meters of its nest.. The pile of sticks was lodged high in the crown of a mature Sugar Maple tree near the edge of the woodlot, still visible from the ground because the foliage was not fully developed. I changed lenses in world-record speed, snapped a few shots, and left in a defensive posture, with my tail between my legs!

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Red-tails are Buteos, broad-winged hawks that typically soar high, in large circles, scanning open areas for prey. Utility poles, posts and trees along the edges of woodlots are common perching locations.

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Active farms with a mix of fields and adjacent woodlots provide ideal habitat and account for the abundance and frequent sightings of Red-tailed Hawks in central New York. I’m really looking forward to many more close encounters with this beautiful bird of prey!.

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Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

Mother’s Day Gems

Spring in the North, you gotta love it! Galleries of world class images can’t fully capture the moments; there are too many intangibles whirling around, evading descriptive words and fancy gear. The last 72 hours have left me with a flood of memories, some made a bit more lasting with visual reminders. Mom would have loved this post!

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Trout Lily, with insect pollinators

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Red-tailed Hawk

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White (Large-flowered) Trillium

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White Trillium

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Chipmunk

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Red (Wake-robin, Birthroot, Purple) Trillium

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Red Trillium

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Turkey Vulture gliding in to its tree-top roost

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.