31 March 2014 Grimsby ON. Birdwatching places tend to have their seasons; just when and where depends on the lifecycle and biology of the birds in question. Not too far from home there is a hawk watching spot, it’s a busy place during the spring migration, just two and a half months. Come snow or shine, a formal hawk count starts on the First of March and human socializing starts as soon as the weather improves; it started today.
I’ve been harping on about the weather, the persistence of winter and all that goes along with it for too long. Today the sun rose on time and stayed all day warming the earth and driving away the ice imps and frost-devils.
I knew it would be a worthwhile day at the hawk watch if only to catch up with some long-time-no-see friends. It’s been an astonishing thirty-six years since I first spent time here and there have been some notable changes in raptor sightings in that time. We used to celebrate a Bald Eagle or two per season, maybe one or two Peregrine Falcons and Turkey Vultures, though hardly rare, were not commonplace. Today Bald Eagles are regulars, Peregrine Falcons reasonably frequent and Turkey Vultures almost reluctantly counted.
Well what about today? A clear blue sky doesn’t necessarily mean good hawk-watching. Wind strength and direction is important, and against a bright sky with no cloud ceiling the birds can be too high to see. But for all of the limitations it wasn’t bad. Hundreds of Turkey Vultures sailed by, some almost directly overhead but most to them a mile or so distant and no more than big black dots. A lone Peregrine Falcon swept low overhead, its black wingtips contrasting against its otherwise pale under-parts. There were perhaps 30 or 40 Red-tailed Hawks, a handful of Sharp-shinned Hawks and best of all for me today a dozen Red-shouldered Hawks.
The Red-shouldered Hawk is one of just four species of hawk in the genus buteo that may be found regularly in Ontario. The others: Red-tailed, Rough-legged and Broad-winged Hawks are all captivating birds each in their own way, not the least of the attractions is the bold patterning, and whether seen from above or below doesn’t matter much.
Red-shouldered Hawks often exhibit a distinctive flight rather like Sharp-shinned or Coopers Hawk – a bunch of quick shallow-ish wing beats then a glide: flap-flap-flap-flap…glide. When circling to ride a thermal of rising air, and backlit, they can be breathtaking. There’s a finely banded tail, wings with dark trailing edges and black fingertips to set off lighter patches often called windows, and if you’re lucky enough to see it, there’s a wide sweep of robin-red across the forewings and chest. My camera struggled to focus on this rather high-flying bird but you’ll get the general impression I think.
Outside of about a three week migration window, we don’t see Red-shouldered Hawks all that much in southern central Ontario. We expect them to pass through in early spring long before there are any new leaves to be seen. While the species is widespread across the continent, (and downright common in Florida and California) in Ontario they prefer wet woodlands and there’s plenty to chose from further north. So this rather limited opportunity while certainly not a hardship makes sighting them a mini celebration, and all the more so when you get a beautiful full adult backlit one overhead. Ahh spring!