Our dogged determination to “catch up” on WMB continued this week, with a visit to Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary (IRWS) in Topsfield. This was a somewhat symbolic choice of locations as Joppa Flats and Ipswich River are now combined in Mass Audubon’s North Shore. It was a pleasure to meet there and be greeted by North Shore Director Amy Weidensaul. For those of you who don’t know Amy, she is the real deal. Amy has been leading Environmental Education (EE) programs for her entire career, and has been led birding trips all over North America and Central and South America. Amy has a PhD in EE, with a dissertation on the lifelong impacts of youth environmental education on adults’ environmental identity. She began her career as a plover warden on Plymouth Beach, where she was vastly outweighed by the fishermen she had to corral away from the nesting areas, but where she found that her intense commitment to wild creatures gave her all the stature she needed. Amy is also a very fun person, though this week she was way too busy with the recent Mass Audubon restructuring to go birding with us. She will someday soon, she will!
What to say about our slightly quixotic quest for birds in mid-July!? All jesting about Greenhead Flies aside, the real reason we took July off in the past is not the flies or even the beachgoers clogging the refuge. It’s the silence. There were two segments of our walk through the woods at IRWS this Wednesday that were utterly silent. There were birds there, they just were not letting us know what they were up to. Only one Ovenbird? Not one Yellow Warbler?? We did find this cool Slime Mold, and lucky for you nature lovers, I can always find a way to fill a vacuum of sound…
Things definitely picked up when we got up on the observation Tower. The freshwater marshes at IRWS are epic, and if you have never walked along the esker that winds through them, youhave to. In our two shifts climbing the tower we detected a nice little smattering of waterbirds, and could see this year’s crop of Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds.
The upland passerines did pick up somewhat as we made our way back up the hill. A family of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers arrested our attention for a time as the young of the year frantically begged for more gooey protein, vireos and pewees called reliably, and a Red-tailed Hawk that somehow has been habituated to humans sat phlegmatically in the lilacs near the yard. This Red-tail’s presumed mate soared around above, crying out in classic fashion. The annual mushroom crop has begun to appear, and this blue-staining Suillus was growing in a troop.
IRWS has a fantastic array of nest boxes, and we found some of the inhabitants, enjoyed the resident Hummingbird, and most of all enjoyed each others’ enjoyment of the birds on offer. It still feels incredibly special to be out with other birders!
Our List: Wood Duck (1) Mallard (5) Mourning Dove (2) Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1) Double-crested Cormorant (1) Great Blue Heron (2) Great Egret (2) Snowy Egret (1) Green Heron (1) Black-crowned Night-Heron (1) Turkey Vulture (1) Red-tailed Hawk (2) Downy Woodpecker (5) Pileated Woodpecker (1) Eastern Kingbird (2) Eastern Wood-Pewee (2) Warbling Vireo (1) Red-eyed Vireo (2) Blue Jay (1) Tree Swallow (~ 15) Barn Swallow (5) Black-capped Chickadee (4) Tufted Titmouse (2) White-breasted Nuthatch (2) House Wren (1) Marsh Wren (1) Carolina Wren (1) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (4) – including 2 fledglings. Eastern Bluebird (2) Gray Catbird (~ 5) European Starling (3) Cedar Waxwing (1) House Sparrow – common. American Goldfinch (4) Chipping Sparrow (2) Eastern Towhee (1) Baltimore Oriole (1) Red-winged Blackbird – common. Ovenbird (1) Common Yellowthroat (2) Northern Cardinal (5)
This Wednesday we completed our final episode of the “pilot” for pandemic-era Wednesday Morning Birding, during which we practiced a new list of physical distancing and health-safety precautions. We are now ready to open Joppa Flats’ foundational birding program to the public again. We will continue, of course, to carefully evaluate and adapt this old-but-new program as we go forward. And MAN, it has been great to go birding with our good WMB friends, no matter what the birds are up to. They have been interesting, even in their occasional absence.
On July 8, Susan Yurkus and I met a small group at Martin Burns Wildlife Management area in Newbury. It is that time of the season when the fledglings and chicks are plenty big and hungry. Parent birds therefore have little time to do much but stuff protein into young mouths. We therefore had no evidence of birds that we know are common at that site. We never even heard the following birds: Great-crested Flycatcher Blue-winged Warbler American Redstart Yellow Warbler! Chestnut-sided Warbler!! One excuse for that is that the program begins at 9:30 AM, and we knew that if we had been there much earlier there would have been evidence of species which are otherwise common in the intentionally disturbed habitats that are managed at Martin Burns.
But our little adventure was not a bust! As we walked in the road towards the open areas, some woodland birds were still singing. Of course one of the things that makes Martin Burns special are birds that like edges and open areas. We had great looks at male Indigo Buntings belting out their songs despite the growing heat. Common Yellowthroats just can’t help themselves. Gray Catbirds are never to be out done, and they sang, called, and flitted all over the place. Eastern Towhees sat up and leaned back, singing in the open. When a Scarlet Tanager sang a few phrases off in the distance, it was such a short little burst that it was hardly worth mentioning, but he made it onto the list. That is the way it is with birdsong these days: a male who is feeding his young pauses to do a little bit of territorial defense, but quickly returns to his pursuit of being a food-providing machine.
As we slowly wandered along, catching up on a social level and enjoying birds that no one would write home about for their rarity, it was more clear than ever to this observer that sharing birds with others magnifies the joy of it. Many of us have done some nice birdwatching this spring and early summer, and we have even done it with a friend or two. For me at least, observing the distant silhouette of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird sitting calmly beneath a singing Indigo Bunting was much better with eight friends all enjoying it alongside me.
When I say that you are my friends, the truth of that comes to me now with great force. What we have been going though makes it ever more clear how precious are the bonds we have formed with with each other, with our beloved Plum Island, the Great Marsh, all the other nooks and crannies of the area, and the incredible teeny feathered dinosaurs that inhabit them. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. We have experienced loss and struggle in a very short time, and the degree of that challenge makes what we do together ever more deeply meaningful. Nothing will stop us from continuing this pursuit, because it is the pursuit of wild creatures that has always compelled us to preserve what we can of nature in the onslaught of industrial expansion.
Now we are forming an even greater vision for how all us nature people of Mass Audubon can be of use to our world. We have various ways of chasing moments with nature, whether it is with birds, or bugs, brook or forest, or even simple awe of sand and sea. What ever it is that most connects us to nature, that connection means something now that we didn’t imagine before. While we have always known that nature is healing and vital, part and parcel of us, we now know that it is with nature alone that we will save ourselves from what human industry has wrought on the planet.
But we can’t simply set nature aside and hope for the best anymore. Rich, biodiverse ecosystems are now appearing as tools that will help us engineer our utterly necessary return to balance in the atmosphere and waters, in the very soil our food comes from. We are going to have to learn to restore our ecosystems on a large scale, to gently encourage their return following the laws of natural processes. What better thing could we be charged with? And what better signals of our success could we ask for than the birds that draw us out over and over again? Knowing this and holding close the moments of incredible beauty we see is what brings me to every birding expedition we show up to, any project or chore related to Mass Audubon. I am so thankful you are with me.
Our List: Mourning Dove 1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2 Turkey Vulture 1 Downy Woodpecker 1 Hairy Woodpecker 1 Eastern Wood-Pewee 1 Red-eyed Vireo 3 Blue Jay 2 Tree Swallow 8 Black-capped Chickadee 10 Tufted Titmouse 5 White-breasted Nuthatch 2 House Wren 1 Carolina Wren 1 Veery 4 Wood Thrush 1 American Robin 6 Gray Catbird c Cedar Waxwing 6 American Goldfinch 8 Chipping Sparrow 2 Eastern Towhee 8 Baltimore Oriole 3 Brown-headed Cowbird 1 Ovenbird 5 Common Yellowthroat 6 Scarlet Tanager 1 Rose-breasted Grosbeak 1 Indigo Bunting 2
Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamicensis) are a common hawk species in Massachusetts. Sometimes referred to as the “highway hawk,” Red-tails are often seen perched along the highways and hunting their small grassy edges and medians. By doing this, they are adapting to anthropogenic (man-made) factors that affect the environment and hunting in habitat disturbed by humans. It’s likely that you’ve seen these large birds along highways or near farms, fields, meadows, open forest plots, and suburban neighborhoods.
Look for Red-tailed Hawks perched up high, using their keen eyesight to hunt. Searching for prey such as rodents, birds, and snakes, Red-tailed Hawks rely on seeing tiny movements far below. Like most birds, Red-tails have binocular vision, meaning they keep focus on their prey with both eyes. Many predators, including humans, have binocular vision; our field of view is compromised in order to give us depth perception. A Red-tailed Hawk can see a mouse from 100 feet in the air, and dive at nearly 120 mph to catch it. Accuracy, which depth perception allows, is essential to scoring a meal.
Listen for Red-tailed Hawks around these areas as well. Their call, which is a loud, descending scream, is distinctive once you’ve heard it. In fact, you might even recognize the call from movies. That’s because the call of the Red-tailed Hawk is often dubbed in for eagles or hawks. If the natural call of an onscreen raptor isn’t really all that impressive, a Red-tailed Hawk’s piercing and powerful cry just sounds better!
Red-tailed Hawks don’t present sexual dimorphism in plumage; that is, both females and males appear the same. Red-tailed Hawks do, however, display a vast variety in their plumage. There are 14 subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, each with distinctive plumage from extremely dark to very light and by range.
Red-tailed Hawks are sexually dimorphic in size, with the female one third larger than the male. They both reach sexual maturity at three years old. In the spring, they attract mates by performing courtship flights. Soaring in circles high above the ground, a male will dive steeply before turning and climbing steeply back into the air several times over. If she is receptive, he will fly above her, reaching out to make contact with his feet. Much like eagles, Red-tails may grasp one another’s talons and free-fall, spiraling about, and even mating, before releasing each other and pulling away from the ground.
Successfully mated pairs of Red-tailed Hawks will mostly remain monogamous, staying together for years and protecting the same territory, until one dies. These birds reach ages of 10-15 years (one lived to be over 30!) and may remain together their entire adult lives if luck allows. Males and females each take significant part in raising the young, starting with building the nest. Working together, a pair will construct a nest near the top of a tree or on the edge of a cliff. Because they will continue to protect this territory, the nest may be used again in future years, if it can last that long.
Once the eggs are laid, female/male roles change. While the female incubates (sits on the eggs) for about 30 days, she will leave the nest only occasionally, while the male takes it upon himself to hunt for her. When the chicks hatch, the female will join the male in hunting, and both parents will provide food for the young. At 45 days old, the fledglings will start exploring away from the nest, but will stay close enough to be cared for by mom and dad for another month. Some individuals may stay with their parents for nearly double that time.
Red-tailed Hawks that breed in Massachusetts are year-round residents, but in the winter we also may see the individuals that breed in Canada and Maine as they fly south where winters are less severe. These individuals are partial migrants, who don’t need to go too far to weather the seasonal change. The ones that do migrate are able to do so efficiently by using thermals, or warm columns of air that are pushing upward, to keep them afloat as they soar. Flying from one thermal to another, many hawk species can travel great distances, expending very little energy.
What can you do for Red-tailed Hawks? If you’re looking to attract hawks to your yard, there are a few things you can do. Looking to deter hawks? We’ll cover that too.
Supply tall perches or nesting platforms. You can leave tall trees on your property intact, and keep an eye on any nearby telephone poles, which hawks often use. If you want to build a perch, just make sure it’s at least 14 feet off the ground.
Supply water in a tub or fountain that hawks and other birds can use. For safety you shouldn’t let the water become stagnant, so change it daily if you aren’t using a fountain to keep water circulated.
Don’t use toxic forms of pest management. If hawks visit your property they will consume many pest species that include rodents. Toxic chemicals can be passed from prey to predator, or pesky rodent to handsome hawk in this case, so it’s important to say no to pesticides, and let nature do its job so you don’t have to!
Tips for deterring hawks:
For people with animals at risk (such as chickens or rabbits), we recommend using top netting to deter hawks, not to mention a range of other potentially harmful species.
Get a rooster! Roosters are hardwired to protect their hens. They are tough birds that will take on a hawk, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll always win, just that they’ll always try.
A note on hawks at feeders: successful bird feeders are bound to attract the eye of hawks. Red-tailed Hawks might not be the most common bird of prey to visit a feeder, but it’s possible. This is the circle of life, and we can’t hold the hawk accountable for trying to survive. Remember – if you see that hawk, let it be. If it sticks around it will act as a pest control. Rats, squirrels, chipmunks, and yes – birds and rabbits – are all on the menu.
Learning Tools From Mass Audubon
Read more about the Red-tailed Hawk breeding habits on our Breeding Bird Atlas page.
Consider the change in Red-tailed Hawk populations in Massachusetts.
Compare with other Massachusetts hawk species on our Bird of Prey page.
Looking for More Resources and Activities?
Observe Red-tailed Hawks through this live stream.
Watch this video on a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk learning to hunt.
Watch and learn from this video depicting the journey of three young Red-tailed Hawks to adulthood.
Read this iNaturalist’s Notebook story about young Red-tailed Hawks. Great for kids!
What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.
Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.
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