Wild Ideas: Sorting out the raptors

A mature red-shouldered hawk shows richer, deeper coloring on back and chest than younger hawks of the same species.Bruce Jones
A mature red-shouldered hawk shows richer, deeper coloring on back and chest than younger hawks of the same species.

With the mountain I live on being so icy the last couple of weeks, I haven’t been out much to view wildlife. However, through the living-room windows, I have been watching birds coming to the feeders on the deck and active in the nearby forest edge. Most have been the usual songbirds that show up at the feeders this time of year, but one bird stood out in the crowd — a hawk.

The hawk hung around for several minutes, perching in a couple of trees on either side of the deck before finally taking off without nailing any of the birds on the deck. Although I got a pretty good look at the hawk and carefully perused my Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Hawks, North America” and All About Birds online, I still wasn’t sure of the species. I’ve been avoiding boning up on hawk identification for a long time, mostly because it’s difficult and because I don’t see that many — at least not up close.

The sharp-shinned hawk is the raptor (bird of prey) most typically spotted near feeders, since it preys on songbirds, among other small prey. It is considerably smaller (9 to 11 inches long) and slimmer than the hawk I saw last week, but even after looking through the photos of that and similar-looking species at All About Birds, I couldn’t nail down the ID. I finally gave up and sent photos of it to Bruce Jones, who is a real birder and also sees plenty of raptors on his naturalized property.

Making the hawk-ID issue more interesting, Larry Sherertz coincidentally sent Bruce and me a photo of a hawk he saw at his place that he was trying to ID, thinking it might be a Cooper’s hawk (named after naturalist William Cooper, one of the founders of what became the New York Academy of Sciences). Larger than the sharp-shinned (14 to 16 inches), it is in the same genus, Accipiter. The hawk in the photo looked remarkably similar to the hawk at my place.

In a series of email exchanges among Bruce, Larry and me, Bruce identified the hawks in question as red-shouldered. This forest-dweller, in the Buteo genus, is quite common here, but I’d never seen one close up. Usually I spot them, or what I think are probably red-shouldered, soaring above the forest here, usually screaming, as it’s our noisiest raptor.

The red-shouldered is a medium-sized hawk (15 to 19 inches), which fits the hawk I saw. The “red” on its shoulder is a rusty red, and this was not easy to see on either of the hawks Larry and I had photographed. I looked for the yellow iris of a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, but the iris appeared reddish-brown, which is likely another indication that, while not a juvenile, it is still not fully mature. Young birds in particular can be hard to sort out, since their appearance is usually in transition.

Bruce pointed out that the ceres (the enlarged, fleshy tissue above the nostrils) of the photographed hawks were yellow, a good ID point for the red-shouldered. Both sharp-shinned and Cooper’s also have gray backs, rather than brown like the red-shouldered. The breast feathers of the two photographed hawks were lighter than is typical of adults of this species, and their backs were mottled, another sign that points to their being subadults.

Accipiters are more streamlined than buteos. The sharp-shinned, our smallest accipiter, is even described in some references as “delicate.” All About Birds describes the Cooper’s as “lankier and more athletic” than the red-shouldered.

The red-shouldered, when perched, is also similar in appearance to another hawk in the same genus, the red-tailed hawk —North America’s largest (16 to 23 inches), most common and widespread buteo. While the red-tailed prefers hunting in the open, the red-shouldered hunts in wet woodlands but will venture out more into open areas to hunt in winter, according to the Peterson guide. It also roosts lower in trees than its larger cousin. Red-shouldered will prey on birds, but also on mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and “occasionally” on crustaceans, fish and insects, the Peterson guide says, while the red-tailed preys primarily on rodents.

I’ve never seen a red-shouldered hawk hanging around my bird feeders before, and Bruce said he’d also had them visit his feeders this winter. Bruce and I agree that their presence at the feeders may be a sign that the cold, snowy winter has limited their access to prey in their normal hunting grounds. I still wonder about whether Larry, who lives two hollows over in Gid Brown, and I photographed the same hawk or siblings — or maybe it’s just that young red-shouldered hawks are hard to tell apart.

What I do know is that, after my frustrating attempt to ID my visitor, it’s time to finally knuckle down and, with guides in hand, spend some time in the field sorting out the raptors. Bruce acknowledged that trying to sort out hawks can be tough. Even after reading several references, I was still a bit confused, but at least I was further along in learning hawk ID points.

Fortunately, the Peterson guide and the All About Birds website can be a big help with this, along with my eBird and Sibley phone apps. While the Peterson guide has some photos of hawks in flight, which is often the way we see them, another guide that focuses on this aspect of hawk ID, “Hawks from every angle: How to identify raptors in flight,” is also available in the Rappahannock County Library’s Conservation Collection.

Although it’s hard to believe in looking around the snow piled up in my yard, spring is officially only a few weeks away, and the spring hawk migration should be underway soon. Both the spring and fall migrations are a good time to see “casts” (groups) of hawks flying through, especially up on Skyline Drive. (For more information on these migrations, go online to the Hawk Migration Association of North America)

And keep your eye out for uncommon raptor visitor to Rappahannock from the Arctic. A reader emailed me about seeing what she thinks is a snowy owl (see sidebar). From her description, I think she’s right. That’s one raptor that’s hard to confuse with any other.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Snowy owls spotted in the Great White South

A snowy owl, like this one in British Columbia, was spotted recently in Rappahannock County.David Syzdek via Wikimedia
A snowy owl, like this one in British Columbia, was spotted recently in Rappahannock County.

Along with hawks, a less common raptor visitor, a snowy owl, also showed up in the county last week, according to a reader who contacted me. In another raptor order, and native to the Arctic, this owl species has been featured in news reports since 2013, when they “invaded” the Northeast. Since then they’ve been spotted as far south as North Carolina, according to eBird. A snowy-owl sighting was recorded in Virginia during the 2013 Christmas Bird Count, when one was spotted near the runways of National Airport, as reported by the Washington Post.

In fact, many of the lower-48 sightings of snowies have been at or near airport runways — probably because these open areas resemble the tundra of the snowy’s far-north breeding grounds. Snowy owls are actually ramblin’ guys, and such a large dip south is known as an “irrupt.” While the reason they get on the move so easily is not exactly clear, according to eBird, it has been linked to booms and busts in lemming populations: A lemming boom can lead to a boom in snowies, so they spread further south in search of territory, and a lemming bust can send snowies south in search of food.

According to a press release on Tuesday (March 3) on this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society (founders of the count and the eBird website), along with About Bird Studies Canada, the winter of 2013-14 was “a huge year for these owls.” They appeared in “amazing numbers” across the Great Lakes states, Northeastern United States, Atlantic Coast, and southern Canada.

The GBBC for 2015 also show a surge in snowy owl sightings across the same range, the release says, although the frequency of reports is about half of last winter’s. Snowy owls are known for having such an “echo flight” the year after a very large invasion.

But are the invasions of snowy owls pointing to a larger issue? The eBird website suggests as much:

“These owls are surely telling us something, but we still don’t understand exactly what. It could be that this is a large invasion that is part of periodic and natural fluctuations; or an unsettled Arctic environment could be part of the story.”

Snowies, true to their name, are mostly white with varying amounts of black or brown markings. This winter they would have a better chance of blending into our local landscape. They also have feathers covering their feet, to keep them warm in the bitter Arctic cold. If you sight one of these impressive raptors, you can help scientists solve the mystery of why they are here by reporting it on the eBird site, which tracks numbers and movements of birds across the globe.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 283 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”