Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Really Big Buteo

Yesterday I was down in Prince Edward County, at a place near Milford, where I've posted from before, and where I go about once a week (small, regular gig). The house is at the road, and the property drops fairly sharply away down to the shore of Lake Ontario (South Bay). You can stand at the edge of the drop-off and look into a small hardwood stand, eye-level at 10 or 15 metres above the forest floor. I was standing there yesterday when an enormous buteo swooped by, avoiding the trees with delicate precision, to land on a branch not 10 metres from me.

Clearly this was no red-tailed hawk--the neatly banded tail and the look of the bird made that plain. But what was it? Again I was face to face with my dismal knowledge of the raptors. Two factors came to the rescue: a clearly banded tail, and a gray squirrel flattened against the trunk of the same tree. The three of us held position for a good few moments. The squirrel watched the hawk, the hawk glanced back and forth between the squirrel and me, and I watched both of them, wondering if the hawk would take the squirrel. Eventually it decided against it--I don't know if it was my disturbing presence or the position of the squirrel that turned the trick--and flew out of sight.

The banded tail narrowed the choices for identification to the broad-winged hawk and the red-shouldered hawk. This is where the squirrel comes in. The bands of the two species are quite different, but immature individuals show banding that muddies this water. The size difference though is significant. The broad-winged hawk is a significantly smaller buteo, the red-shouldered hawk is a big brute of a bird--approaching the size of the red-tailed hawk. This bird not only appeared very large to me (a sense that I find varies according to the last birds I've seen--in this case chickadees), but it was also very large compared to the squirrel. A red-shouldered hawk--first I've identified.

The red-shouldered hawk is a species at risk. (Here's a link to BSC's red-shouldered hawk survey project) It lives in mature mixed forest (hence the amazing ability to fly that big body between branches), habitat that has declined due to harvesting of the forests and development of the land for agriculture. But it is certainly not unknown around here. Here is a link to the Ontario Breeding Atlas map of this bird's breeding status in the province--lots of confirmed breeders in south-eastern Ontario. In fact a breeding pair was identified (unfortunately not by me) in my atlas square, in Vanderwater Conservation Area, just a few kilometres from the hamlet. It's not confirmed as a breeder anywhere in Prince Edward County--but it is recorded as a migrant by the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory. And there may be more to come--this bird tends to travel late.


John B. said...

I think red-shouldered hawks are my favorite buteos. The adults have such lovely black-and-white checkered wings. And the way they scream back and forth at each other is kind of comical. It's like the bird version of the Honeymooners.

We seem to have at least two pairs in DC, one based around the Arboretum area and the other in Rock Creek Park. There may be others.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh Lucky you! Though swamped with broad-wings, this is the first year where we have not seen a red-shouldered hawk. It does cause concern.