Close encounters: Spotting hawks in winter woods

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | A red-tailed hawk taking to the woods.

Graceful fliers riding warm air currents hundreds of feet above us — we usually view hawks from a worm’s eye view.

At rest, they are  as elusive as their prey and are nearly impossible to spot when hidden by foliage. But with the canopies bare, hawks are more easily observed. You may be surprised by how abundant they are on the East End if you consciously look for them.

And you may also develop a new appreciation for their beauty when you view them perched.

All the time I’ve lived on Shelter Island, there are still two animal groups I take note of when I see them; seals and hawks. The sheer size of an adult red-tailed hawk always inspires awe in me. They are by far the most commonly seen hawks in our area. Large open areas pocketed by woods offer the perfect habitat for these “apex predators,” or predators who don’t have predators, who live atop the food chain. Rabbit, squirrel, opossum, mice and just about anything else furry and smaller than a breadbox are on the red tail’s menu.

In the woods around my house I’ve seen huge hawks that easily push the 24-inch-long body and 40-inch-wide wingspan extents set in birding guides. When hovering lower than a few hundred feet, this bird’s tell-tale markings are easily spotted. Its underbody is pale and exhibits varying degrees of dark brown streaking, but the red tail is the giveaway. Within its range, which covers most of North America, plumage variations in individuals are extensive but fall in these simplified guidelines — brown head, back and upper wings.

As breathtaking as an airborne red-tailed hawk may be, I am more impressed when I see one on an oak tree in the woods. That impression grows grander when the bird springs from its branch and effortlessly navigates a path through the matrix of limbs and branches. It is within this crowded confine the hawk’s physical grace is so apparent. The mind and eye of the observer are pushed to their limits when deciphering the movement being viewed. It always takes me several seconds to process before I confidently conclude I’m seeing a red-tailed hawk flying in the woods.

Earlier this fall I was driving along a tree-lined road and saw a bird I couldn’t identify. In researching it, I found it had been a Cooper’s hawk. These birds are much rarer than their red-tailed cousin of the Buteo genus and fall under the genus Accipiter. Sighting this bird became more incredible due to the long duration of the encounter, as the bird flew above and ahead of my vehicle for several hundred feet before veering left down a path in the woods.

A Cooper’s hawk can reach lengths of 20 inches and have a 28-inch wingspan. What I saw was an adult bird whose upper parts were dark blue and gray with a very dark crown and pale nape. Its belly and chest were paler with burnt orange barring. This is just as it’s described on the website, from which I culled most of the information for this column.

The red-shouldered hawk is easy to identify with the naked eye thanks to its barred reddish-orange coverts (small feathers lining the base of the wing and tail quills) on its body and wings and the barred black and white flight and tail feathers. This bird falls between the two I’ve already mentioned when it comes to size. When perched it is commonly misidentified as a red-tailed hawk. Its brown head and reddish shoulders resemble its cousin. In flight, the distinguishing markings are more evident. The red-shouldered hawk’s body and wing coverts have a reddish-orange banding and its flight feathers and tail are banded in black and white.

“Accipiter” is the genus name of certan winged predators, and North America’s lagest of these is the northern goshawk, a raptor well-adapted to hunting in woodlands. In body size, the goshawk rivals the red-tailed hawk, but its wings are shorter and rounded at the tips. Hunting small mammals and songbirds in forested areas requires stealth and agility, which comes from this bird’s wing and tail structure. I’m not sure how many, if any, of these hawks are permanent residents of this area — they follow the food which is typically scarce here in winter. But you can glimpse the occasional migrating goshawk this time of year.

Goshawks range from 20 to 26 inches in length and stand out with their yellow legs, orange eyes and very pale supercilium (commonly called the “eyebrow”) that contrasts with the grayish-brown head. Adult birds are grayish brown above and paler underneath with fine grey banding. In flight this bird exhibits a long, broad banded tail that fans out impressively when the animal is soaring. I’ve spotted these birds by this appreciable characteristic and confirmed identification using binoculars.

Moving from the region’s largest accipiter to its smallest, we find, if we’re lucky, the sharp-shinned hawk. I mentioned luck since this bird is hard to spot for many reasons — it’s rarer than the others, quicker, camouflaged in a shadowy cloak and can look almost exactly like its cousin the Cooper’s hawk. Adults average a foot in length with a wingspan of 21 inches. If you’re searching the tree tops for this hawk, look for its dark blue-gray back and wings. To distinguish it from a Cooper’s hawk, examine its head, underbody shape and tail feather uniformity. According to the Cornell Cooperative website, the sharp-shinned hawk can be distinguished by its hooded appearance (its dark head feathers flow down past its nape) as well as its broad chest leading to narrow hips (whereas the Cooper’s hawk’s girth is more uniform throughout). Finally, the sharp-shinned hawk’s tail feathers are all one length, generally speaking, while its cousin’s are varied.

On a good day in mid fall you may spot two or three of these species, with the red-tailed being the most prolific. In fact, there aren’t many places on the East End where you won’t spot a soaring hawk when the sun is at its zenith on a bright day. They are most difficult to find in the woods where their bodies blend with bark and their feather bandings meld with tree branches.
Careful, quiet walking and scouting ahead with binoculars is the only way to catch a napping hawk in the woods. When you do, you’re filled with a great sense of accomplishment.