It started last Tuesday when I saw one at Jamestown Community College. Driving back to work I saw two more. Wednesday, I spotted three along Route 62. And so it went the rest of the week - one here, two there.
What was I seeing? Red-tailed hawks perched on trees or telephone poles along the side of the road. As if a veil was lifted from my eyes, I was suddenly spotting them everywhere. Were they always there and I just unobservant, stuck in my own world? Or are the hawks really more active in this last bit of February?
If you see a hawk here in the winter there's a very good chance that it is a red-tailed hawk. Look for the distinctive white chest with a band of brown feathers across its belly and a dark back and head. The classic red tail, which is really more auburn than bright red, can be spotted in flight. If you are really looking closely at the soaring raptor, the light underside of their wings has a dark mark on the leading edge. And red-tails certainly have the Buteo group look of a chunky body, broad, round wings and broad tail.
As a bird of prey, red-tails are still hunters, which is why they are frequently seen perched on trees or telephone poles. They frequently sit high up scanning fields for prey. In John Eastman's Birds of Forest, Yard and Thicket, a hawk researcher states, "To list the feeding menu of red-tails in summer would be to name almost any living creature within their domain, from the larger insects to half-grown woodchucks." While their diet is a little more limited in the winter, I don't think they would be described as picky eaters.
It turns out I didn't just get "hawk eyes" recently and become a better spotter of birds. Red-tailed hawk courtship behaviors start in late February through early March. These hawks start to pair up prior to nest building. Just yesterday, there were two red-tails perched, one just above the other in the same tree. If they weren't a pair, it is unlikely they would tolerate being so close to one another.
This time of year you may also see the aerial acrobatics above their preferred habitats of forest edges and open fields. Pairs may soar together, circling and spiraling around each other. They may also lock talons for a moment. In the spring, the pair will build a nest of sticks and twigs high in a tree and lay one to five eggs.
While it would be a treat to see a red-tail nest, birders recommend you keep your distance as these raptors have been known to abandon their nest if disturbed. However, technology allows us to see into birds' lives like never before. Nest cameras (or nest cams) are available to stream on the Internet. Cornell University placed a camera on the red-tailed Hawk nest last year. Since they use the same nest year after year, there is a good chance there will be a clutch on camera this year. The male has already been seen visiting this month.
While there is a thrill and a joy at seeing animals in the wild, the nest cam provides access to the little details of a bird's life for anyone with access to a computer and Internet. A friend and I watched several nest cams last year and we chatted about them as if it was a soap opera.
"Did you see dad come back with dinner? Is that a pigeon?"
"OMG, the chicks are feeding themselves now. What lovely little predators."
"Watch the chicks start perching on the edge of the nest. I wonder how long until they fly."
Visit Cornell Lab of Ornithology to check up on the hawk nest, plus several other bird nests at cams.allaboutbirds.org/ .
Next time you are on the road, scan the trees and poles for hawks. There may be one watching you. And next time you are on the Internet, scan the Web for nest cams. You could be watching them up close.
As many of our Western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania creatures become more active as spring nears, Audubon does as well. Starting March 1, our nature center building resumed regular hours. Visitors can explore three floors of exhibits Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 1-4:30 p.m. Come down and see some old favorites such as Lincoln, our charismatic box turtle, the Windows on Wildlife bird feeding area and the children's fishing pond.
We've something new too. Staff and volunteers have been busy throughout the winter designing, building and installing a new pollination exhibit on the second floor. The grand opening for the exhibit will be on Sunday, March 17, from 1:30-4 p.m. and you're all invited.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.
The Audubon Center & Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, a quarter-mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren, Pa. For more information, call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org.