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It’s In Your Nature: Our Buteo recluse

On almost every drive on a secondary road, or en route to the busy Lehigh Valley, most people have seen our largest hawk, the “red tail.” Red-tailed hawks are rather conspicuous and generally choose a perch that allows them to drop to the ground to snag an unsuspecting meadow vole or an unwary rabbit. They often choose a dead tree, or quite surprisingly, a light standard along a busy highway. They’re often seen atop utility towers that often parallel our turnpikes and major interstates. Since they choose these perches, they are the most often seen.

Their Buteo cousin the broad-winged hawk is rather common but seldom seen. Buteos are a group of hawks with relatively broad wings and are designed for soaring. “Broad wings” or “broadies” live in the forests of the Times News area but their habits are much different than the “red tail.”

Broad-winged hawks are about 15 inches in size with a wing span about crow size. The adult, when soaring, displays a banded tail of alternating dark and light feathers. It almost appears to have wings attached behind its head to nearly the tail, hence the name broad-winged hawk. The wings are proportionally shorter than the red-tailed hawk probably because they feed in the forests and can maneuver around the foliage and limbs easier.

That leads to how they feed and what they eat. Being more at home in the forests, their diet is a bit different than its larger cousin, the “red tail.” Broad wings eat chipmunks, red-backed voles and amphibians, and have a particular fondness for snakes. They like to perch along an old logging road or stream edge where they can drop down to pluck a rodent or snake crawling beneath them. I have seen a few “broadies” with a snake firmly in the grip of their talons. They do not actively pursue birds like a cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks, which are adapted for short, quick chases through the trees. The “broadies” will sit on a perch, patiently waiting for their potential meal to appear.

Probably the most notable things to remember about these hawks are their migration habits. They breed in the northern U.S. and Canada, and by early September begin their movement southward. It may surprise you that their several thousand-mile migrations take them to Peru, Bolivia, or the Western Amazon areas. I’m also impressed at how they have a short migration window. Hawk watch areas close by, like Bake Oven Knob and Hawk Mountain, record 90 percent of these hawks in the middle of September. They all seem to get the “office memo” at the same time and their numbers can be spectacular.

My first trip to Bake Oven Knob got me hooked. I received my first paycheck from Lehighton Area School District in early September 1975. My late father knew a friend who was selling a used Minolta camera and I used most of my check to purchase it. Using it for the first time that day, I sat on the mountain rocks and in over 3 hours watched nearly 3,000 “broadies” fly by my ridge top seat. They ride the thermals forming huge kettles of sometimes hundreds of birds. If you get a chance, head to the Bake Oven Knob parking area, pull out your folding chair, and maybe you’ll “hit” one of those banner days.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these world-famous hawk watching sites records the most broad-winged hawks each autumn? Hawk Mountain or Cape May, New Jersey?

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: A squirrel’s leafy nest is called a drey.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

A broad-winged hawk displays its adult plumage with a rich colored breast/belly and the telltale barring.
Broad-winged hawks circle together rising ever higher as thermals warm the air. The kettles can number hundreds of individuals. “Broadies” avoid flying over water so they funnel along the Appalachians, the Great Lakes' shores, the Texas coast, and sometimes thousands can be seen at one time above Panama where the land narrows. BARRY REED PHOTOS
A juvenile broad-winged hawk soars over Bake Oven Knob. Note it has tear-dropped shaped breast markings and not the rich colors of an adult.
An adult “broadie” feeds on a “fresh” road-killed cottontail. Though not normally scavengers, this parent bird has hungry young to feed so they will be opportunists.
Broad-winged hawks are a forest living and feeding raptor and will be harder to locate in dense woods compared to the red-tailed hawks feeding from perches in more open areas.