Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen
Unless you’re a rodent (and you know who you are), you’re most likely a fan of raptors, aka “birds of prey.” I would hope readers have had the pleasure of watching an osprey splash and snag a fish out of water, or have become absorbed in the majestic beauty of a red-tail hawk riding a thermal of hot air to greater and greater heights. Maybe it was the sight of a bald eagle dive bombing a school of fish (or a group of baby eiders), or when the sharp-shinned hawk picked off that annoying, bully blue jay at your bird feeders. But somewhere along the line a raptor has probably put a smile on your face. They are good like that.
The raptor I cross paths with more than any other in St. George is the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus). Broad-wings are a crow-sized “buteos” of the woods, a smaller version of a red-tailed hawk rather than an “accipiter” such as a sharp-shinned or cooper’s hawk with their shorter wings, and long tails. From mid-April through September it is rare to take a bike ride or trail walk on the peninsula where a broad-winged isn’t spotted hunting from a perch or seen darting through the maze of branches in a forest canopy. These are special times.
Measuring in at 16 inches in length (tip of the bill to tip of the tail) and with a three foot wing-span, broad-wingeds are relatively compact for a raptor. When perched, the hawk’s reddish head, and reddish scaling on the body make for an overall darkish appearance. In flight, open broad-winged wings show mostly white or light coloration surrounded by a distinctive dark brown border. A broad-winged’s tail has a series of white and black bands that can be seen at a distance, and along with the distinctive wing pattern make identification of this hawk somewhat easy even from far away.
Broad-wingeds prefer the deciduous and mixed forest habitats in St. George to breed. When they return in spring they fill the skies with courtship flight displays such as “pair flap” (when a pair flies close together, with synchronized flapping), “undulating flight,” “soaring in circles,” “talon drop” or straight up darting close to/at each other. The displays are often accompanied by the broad-winged’s high pitched whistle vocalization, which can be a surprising sound when matched up with a top predator. I’ll put it this way, the broad-winged’s whistle makes ospreys’ cries sound really macho and tough. But who are we to judge voices!
A mated pair will make a loose nest of sticks, twigs and leaves in the crotch of a deciduous tree 30’-50’ high. Construction takes about three weeks (plus), with the female making the finishing touches as she lines the nest with softish inner bark strips, lichen, evergreen sprigs and green leaves. Sounds cozy. She then lays two or three eggs which are then incubated for 30 days or so and it’s another five weeks before the young fledge and leave the nest. This is roughly the state of the St. George broad-winged hawks at publication time: woods full of young birds, honing the skills of flight, hunting and survival. Good skills to hone.
In the fall, broad-wingeds (our “local” ones included) embark on a hefty journey that can take them to Central America (Guatemala south) and even into South America to eastern Peru, Bolivia and southern Brazil. Broad-wingeds often migrate in huge groups, and in the right conditions tens to hundreds of birds can be seen forming “kettles” as they catch a “free” ride on thermals (an upward current of warm air, used by gliders, balloons, and birds to gain height). These huge broad-winged kettles are partly what have made hawkwatching hot spots like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania so legendary.
In the meantime, it’s fun to appreciate and check out the local broad-wingeds while they are still here! Personally, I like to give thanks every time I see a broad-winged carrying a red squirrel (nemesis!) in their talons, but to be honest I’ll cheer for them nailing just about any rodent. We are going to “lose” them soon, so maybe we should “use” them (check ‘em out) sooner before they go! Either way we’ll see you out there!
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen