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.

Red-tailed Hawk: Soaring, Screaming, Nesting

It was a very good February sighting: I recently watched as a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soared together over Eliza Howell Park. It reminded me that nesting season is getting close.

Red-tailed Hawk pairs usually stay together for years and nest in the same territory, sometimes in the same nest. So this soaring duo is probably the same pair that has nested in the park in the last few years. I haven’t named them (as some New Yorkers have named the hawks of Central Park), but maybe that would be a good idea.

These large hawks (wingspan = about 50 inches) are year-round residents and are most commonly seen soaring.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Red-tailed Hawks nest early; March is the time to look for the nest. While the first sign of a breeding pair in the area is their soaring together, it is the bird’s cry that helps me locate the nest. Red-tails are territorial and patrol their territory looking for intruders. When they see something in their nesting territory, they give their shrill cry, appropriately described, I think, as a scream. When I get screamed at every time I walk through a particular section of the park, I know I am pretty close to the nest.

American movie makers must have decided long ago that the Red-tailed Hawk cry is just what a raptor should sound like because they have almost always used their scream whenever they show any flying eagle or hawk, of whatever species.

Red-tails build their nests in trees, using branches and twigs, usually 40 feet high or higher. This is their EHP nest a few years ago, built in the woods over a vernal pond.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

Red-tailed Hawks soar frequently, but they do most of their hunting from a perch, from which they will fly down to grab prey on the ground. They eat mostly rodents and other small mammals, though they will sometimes eat birds and insects. These are the hawks that are often seen in the winter perched on trees and poles along interstate highways, probably searching for small animals in the ditches along the road.

Red tail hawk

          Photo by Margaret Weber

When the perched Red-tail is seen from the front, the red tail is not visible. The best identifying marks are the dark splotches across the belly. When seen soaring, another characteristic feature is the dark bar on each wing near the shoulder (see first picture above). The reddish tail is often evident on the flying bird, especially when the top of the tail is visible.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

It is great to see that the/a pair of Red-tailed Hawks is again likely to nest in the park this year. In the next few weeks, I will watch for the soaring pair and will listen for the territorial screaming at me. While I will look for the nest, I will try not to get too close. I don’t want them to see me as a threatening intruder.

Birds of Eliza Howell: Monthly Variations

Over the years, I have seen 145 different species of birds in Eliza Howell Park.

In January, 2018, I saw 22 species.

Both numbers are important. The total number of birds recorded is an important indication of the diversity of birds that visit the park. The monthly number is important for human visitors interested in observing birds at a particular time of the year.

The birds of Eliza Howell can be placed in the following categories:

(1) All seasons (or year-round residents). These species can be found in the park all seasons of the year (though not usually in the same numbers at all times). They do not migrate north-south or, if they do migrate, Eliza Howell is within both their summer and their winter range.

Approximately 21% of total species are all-seasons birds.

An example of an all-seasons EH bird is the Red-tailed Hawk.

Red tail hawk

          Photo by Margaret Weber

(2) Summer only. These species can usually be found in the park in the breeding season and are typically seen between spring and fall. They are birds that migrate south for the winter, but their summer range includes Eliza Howell.

Approximately 33% of total species are summer only.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one such species.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

(3) Migrants. These are the migrating species that breed further north and winter further south. They are in this area only as they pass through and can normally be found in a short timeframe – a couple weeks to a month or so. The peak spring migration through Detroit occurs in May and the peak fall migration month is in September. Some species pass through in April and October.

Approximately 41% of the total species are migrants.

The Magnolia Warbler is one of many migrating warblers that stop briefly in Eliza Howell each year.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

(4) Winter visitors. These few species spend the breeding season further north and migrate south for the winter. The “south” for these species includes the Detroit area. They arrive in fall and leave in spring.

Approximately 5% of the bird species are winter visitors.

The American Tress Sparrow is one of the 5%.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

Group 3 is the only one referred to a “migrants” above, but species in groups 2 and 4 also migrate twice annually; however, they stay much longer. While the migrants that pass through in the spring and fall are the most numerous, they can easily be missed because they are in the area only for a short rest and refueling stop.

The most species are usually seen in September and May because all-seasons birds, most summer residents, and many migrants can be found in these months.

Average number of species seen per month over 13 years (2005 – 2017):

  • January       = 19
  • February    = 16
  • March         = 31
  • April            = 45
  • May             = 64
  • June             = 45
  • July              = 42
  • August        = 51
  • September = 69
  • October      = 55
  • November  = 32
  • December  = 24

Based on experience, I have a very good idea what birds to expect each time I visit Eliza Howell. But nature is always somewhat unpredictable, so I also expect the unexpected. Continue reading “Birds of Eliza Howell: Monthly Variations”