Red-tailed Hawks: “Stay Away”

The loud screeching screams of the two Red-tailed Hawks sent a clear message: I was in their nesting territory of Eliza Howell Park and I was not welcome.

The Red-tailed Hawk, a large raptor (about 20 inches long with a 45 – 50 inch wingspan), regularly nests in the park.

         Note: All the photos here were taken by Margaret Weber.

Red tail hawk closeup head

By the middle of February, the resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks has usually claimed its nesting territory and is protecting it. For most of their long breeding season, I avoid going close to their nest, but early in the year I usually walk the probable area once in order to verify that they are again intending to nest here and to observe their territory-protecting behavior.

I cannot decide if the call of this hawk is best described as a screech or a scream, so I think of it as a “screeching scream.” It has been used for decades in movies and on TV to depict the scary call of any large raptor, including a Bald Eagle. Listening to the call of the Red-tailed Hawk and the call of the Bald Eagle (via a Google search) will explain the movie maker’s preference for the hawk call to depict a scary atmosphere when showing a picture of an eagle.

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I was impressed again this year at how scary the loud screeching screams of the Red-tailed Hawk really are, especially when I know that the two birds circling overhead are screaming directly at me. As soon as I confirmed that the nest they used last year is still intact and that they are patrolling that specific area, I left, at an increased walking speed.

Their nest is made up of piled sticks with an inner cup of bark and vegetation. They often use the same nest more than once. The picture here is of one that they used in Eliza Howell a few years ago, before it fell.

redtail hawk nest 2.2016

Though it can often be identified by the reddish tail when flying (see picture above), the Red Tail is usually best recognized by the dark belly band clearly visible when it perches.

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Red-tailed hawks primarily eat rodents and other small mammals, occasionally including reptiles and birds. They have two hunting patterns, soaring or perching. They are the hawks most commonly seen perched on trees and poles along highways, apparently a good place to wait for a rodent to show.

Red tail hawk

If I have a bird-watching specialty, it is locating bird nests and showing them on field trips.

Red-tailed Hawks, probably the same pair, have nested for years in Eliza Howell Park. Yet I have very seldom guided others to see their nest. When they scream at me as loudly as they did last week, I have a definite sense that they are much more disturbed by nest watchers than most other species. I try to respect that.

And I don’t like being screamed at.

 

Red-tailed Hawk Nest: The Beginning of the 2018 Bird Nest Season

About the middle of February, I commented that the behavior of two Red-tailed Hawks indicated that they would likely nest in Eliza Howell Park again this year. I can now report that I have found the nest. It’s great to have this raptor nesting in the park again!

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The basic strategy for successful bird nest hunting is to let the bird lead one to the nest. Using three pieces of information:

  • where I have most frequently seen the hawks soaring during the last month;
  • the fact that they call/scream most when I walk in a particular section of the park;
  • the location of last year’s nest (they are one species that may re-use a nest from the previous year);

I knew the general area in which to look. The plan was for a one-time-only approach, simply to confirm the fact of nesting. After that I would observe only from a long distance to minimize disturbance.

Because there are no leaves on the trees yet, the nest was not hard to find.

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The nest is bulky, made of twigs with a finer lining inside, and may be over a foot deep. Hawks can be in a high nest like this without being visible from below. Right after I took this picture, a hawk flew out and scolded me. I headed away immediately, satisfied. It is likely that there are 2-3 eggs in the nest, which need to be incubated for about a month.

This begins one of my favorite annual bird-watching activities, locating active bird nests. I observe an “active” bird nest when I see it being built or see a bird on it or entering it/exiting it. I don’t consider a nest without the bird an active nest. In the winter, when leaves are down, I often see additional no-longer active nests that I have missed during the previous breeding season.

In each of the last three years, I have located the active nests of at least 16 different species in Eliza Howell Park. Over the years, I have found the nests of 37 different species here.

Most are song bird species and each year in early June, Detroit Audubon sponsors a breeding bird walk in Eliza Howell Park during which I can guide participants in their observation of nests and nesting bird behavior. Baltimore Orioles are among the EHP nesters each year.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Invitation:

The 2018 Detroit Audubon Breeding Bird field trip in Eliza Howell Park is Saturday, June 9, from 8:00 a.m. to approximately 10:30 a.m. Detroit Audubon membership is not required. Anyone interested is welcome.