The red-tailed hawk elegant, noble & mysterious | WHIDBEY BIRDING

January’s a good time to watch for that other winter raptor, the one that is smaller and browner than the familiar bald eagle. I’m sure you know its name, but can you identify the red-tailed hawk? Especially when it doesn’t have a red tail?

A mature red-tailed hawk lets out a cry as it soars the skies over Whidbey Island.

January’s a good time to watch for that other winter raptor, the one that is smaller and browner than the familiar bald eagle. I’m sure you know its name, but can you identify the red-tailed hawk? Especially when it doesn’t have a red tail?

Red-tailed hawks live here year-round, but in fall many more leave their northern breeding territories and look for winter feeding areas. Hundreds of them settle into wide open areas, such as the Skagit Flats, and a fair number are satisfied with Whidbey’s open fields and grassy margins.

Right now we have many of these football-shaped, mid-sized raptors sitting on power poles, tree branches along Highway 525 and maybe even perched above your bird feeders. A pair of red-tailed hawks sometimes sits in the lone, bare-topped cedar tree close to the highway at Greenbank Farm. There’s another that often settles in a tree across the highway from Whidbey Island Bank in Freeland.

According to Robin Clark, who works on wetland restoration with Whidbey Watershed Stewards, those tall poles located in the open area on the eastern side of Cultus Bay Road, a bit north of where French Road intersects, were installed as raptor perches and have already been claimed by red-tailed hawks.

Typically it’s the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks that hunt for the small birds that visit our bird feeders. However, this winter my husband has noticed a red-tail resting in a dead snag outside his home office, above where a suet feeder hangs.

One morning the red-tailed hawk was hunkered on the ground right under the feeder, wings spread around its head claiming and protecting a recent kill, probably an unsuspecting junco. The bird stayed in position while my husband walked slowly into the office. 

When hunting for food, these birds adopt a sit-and-wait posture. They can pick out a mouse from 100 feet in the air. When prey enters their strike zone, they drop like a bullet and seize their meal with their talons. They’ll eat small to medium sized mammals, birds, snakes and even large insects.

Most of our adult red-tails are deep chocolate brown with a dark head, pale creamy chest with a dark bellyband and a russet red tail. White spots on the birds’ scapulars help with identification when viewing the bird from behind.

Males and females look similar. It’s the juvenile birds that might confuse you, since they don’t get their red tail until they obtain sexual maturity at about 4 years of age.

Red-tails are found all across the United States and southern Canada. The species is highly variable throughout its range and some authorities recognize up to 16 subspecies. Those subspecies vary in coloring, from completely dark brown — even the tail — to very pale cream with a light reddish tail. This makes the hawk somewhat difficult to identify.

I recommend that birders learn to depend on the bird’s size, shape, call and specific identification markings, rather than overall coloring for identification.

During breeding season these hawks become very acrobatic. Both the male and female perform spectacular aerial maneuvers accompanied by shrill cries. A few years ago, my husband and I observed such a display while driving along Wilkinson Road near the Comforts’ winery. Two red-tailed hawks circled and called above us.

The male appeared to dive-bomb the female from above, and at the last minute the female flipped over and they locked talons. They flopped and spiraled toward the ground, disengaging at the last minute before safely landing close to each other. When they noticed us, they took flight again.

At first we thought the birds engaged in this fierce display were males fighting over breeding territory. Only when I researched this behavior did I learn that it was part of the courtship ritual.

Of course the bald eagle remains our most commonly seen and majestic raptor. But keep an eye out for the elegant, noble and more mysterious red-tailed hawk. You’ll be amazed how many are wintering with us here on Whidbey.

Contact Frances Wood at wood@whidbey.com

Photographer Craig Johnson, an avid birder and author, can be contacted at Craigjohnson@whidbey.com

 

More in Life

Annual street dance, live bands set for Saturday

Langley’s new annual dancing-in-the-street summertime tradition is back for the third year,… Continue reading

New public art debuts in Langley

Steel and glass shape pieces chosen by arts commission

Denis Zimmermann and his wife, Cheryl, run Langley’s new ramen restaurant, Ultra House, which opened in May 2018. Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times.
Langley restaurant owner is recreating his childhood with new ramen house

Denis Zimmer-mann said he’s not re-inventing the wheel with his ramen restaurant… Continue reading

Shakespeare Festival plays emotional range

Female directors, perspective at the forefront

A 1941 Graham Hollywood, owned by Roy Deaver of Clinton, was chosen as Best of Show in the Cool Bayview Nights car show Saturday.
Rain doesn’t dampen the fun at Cool Bayview Nights car show

Attendees selected the mildly modified and rebuilt 1941 Graham Hollywood, owned by… Continue reading

Congolese Festival is a chance to celebrate, educate

Last event before Northwest Cultural Center relocates

Mucking about for clams

‘Digging for Dinner’ a popular Sound Water activity

Scorch is a play about gender identification showing at Outcast’s black box theater on the Island County fairgrounds June 13-17. It’s a one-person play, performed by Carmen Berkeley. Director and co-producer Ty Molbak went to middle school in Langley was was active in Whidbey Children’s Theater. Both will be seniors at Rutgers University in the fall. One scene in the play “Scorch” portrays the main character looking into mirrors and wondering what others see.
‘Scorch’ looks at first love and ‘gender fraud’

Irish play revolves around one character’s confusion

Whidbey Island Garden Tour highlights five homes

Tickets still available for Saturday event

Jordan Shelley, 18, stands outside his home in Greenbank. He recently received the Sydney S. McIntyre Jr Scholarship from Skagit Valley College to go toward his tuition at the University of Washington. Shelley will pursue his childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News Group
SVC grad earns full 2-year scholarship to UW

A lot has changed since Jordan Shelley was 7 years old and… Continue reading

Expanding knowledge

Whidbey Institute adds more lodging, plans open house

Shhh…it’s a surprise party for old-timer Bill Lanning

Friends, customers invited to celebrate former owner of Bill’s Feed Tack