Every winter hawk you see along I-95 is a red-tailed hawk. To that, most Americans would say, “Well, duh.” Red-tailed hawks are abundant and widespread across the continent. It is by far the most commonly seen hawk year round.
But we’re a little different here in Maine. We’re the most forested state in the nation, and red-tailed hawks are not fond of forests. We do have our share of summer breeders, but not nearly as many as other states. Those states can offer more farms, parks and golf courses. All we can offer are trees. And more trees. Let’s just say that most red-tailed hawks are looking for greener pastures.
Then comes winter. Our highways offer a perfect hunting corridor. Red-tailed hawks can just sit on a preferred tree limb and wait for prey to make a roadside move. Anecdotally, I would say that I’m seeing above-average numbers of red-tails this year. I’m also seeing more road-killed hawks. When they spy a field mouse in the median strip, they can be unwary of traffic.
Red-tailed hawks prey mostly on small mammals. They perch and pounce much of the time, sitting on a limb and waiting until lunch shows up. Otherwise, they circle above, watching for prey over a wider area. They are neither fast nor sneaky. Rather than swoop down in falcon-like fashion, they dive more slowly with their talons outstretched, counting on their meals to be unaware of impending doom from above.
Whenever a species enjoys widespread distribution, it is likely to show locally specific plumage variations. Maine’s red-tails are mostly a dull gray-brown. But out west, you might encounter a truly dark variant. This “Harlan’s Hawk” ranges from the western Canadian provinces into Alaska. South of there, a very pale variation called “Krider’s Hawk” haunts the Great Plains. The Texas version is dark above, white below and lacks a belly band.
Ah, the belly band. The red-tailed hawks we see in Maine are pretty consistent. They are bright white through the chest and belly, save for a narrow band of red streaks across the midriff. It’s the dead giveaway. If a hawk is facing you, you won’t see the red tail, but you will see that belly band. Congratulations, you’re now an expert hawk-spotter.
So it is with a bit of embarrassment that I now declare my first sentence to be inaccurate. It’s not White House press conference inaccurate, but it’s not completely true either. A few days ago, I spotted a hawk along I-95 that had a reddish chest. No belly band. What the—-?!
Hawks are divided into various families. The red-tailed hawk is a buteo, characterized by broad wings, short tail and lazy hunting habits. Our most common hawk — the broad-winged hawk — is also a buteo, but it migrates all the way to South America for the winter, utterly abandoning the state in September. However, Maine has a third buteo species that breeds here in summer, and sometimes hangs around in winter. The red-shouldered hawk is much more common south of our border, but danged if I didn’t see one along the roadside in Wells.
And then another. I can count on the fingers of one finger the number of wintering red-shouldered hawks I’ve seen over the past decade. Suddenly I have two in a matter of minutes.
To make matters worse, my confidence was already shaken. A fourth buteo is occasionally seen in Maine during the cold months. Rough-legged hawks nest in the Canadian Arctic, wherever there is scant vegetation. When they come down to Maine, they tend to be along hay fields, blueberry barrens, coastal plains and naked offshore islands. That describes the hayfields adjacent to the highway around Sidney pretty well. As I drove south on the interstate, a northbound hawk crossed the road. It was in bad light, at a poor angle. But I thought I spotted some telltale field marks, including dark underwing patches at the elbow. I’ll never know for sure, but three other rough-legged hawks had been reported around the state during the same period.
So I amend my advice. Almost every winter hawk along I-95 is a red-tail. When you spy a whitish blob on a road-side tree limb in the distance, call out “red-tail!” and impress your friends. You won’t be wrong often.
By the way, I can say with complete confidence that every hawk you see near the backyard bird feeder in winter is a Cooper’s hawk.
Unless it’s a sharp-shinned hawk. Dang it.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.