Earlier this month, while visiting some relatives in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, I happened upon a pair of hawks that I was unfamiliar with. I was canoeing on a small pond along the edge of a large cypress swamp, looking for sign of the river otter that occasionally visits the pond and which my cousin Chris had captured on video.A chorus of loud, rapid, somewhat frantic-sounding high-pitched “kee-aah!” calls diverted my attention. Overhead, a stout, compact hawk flapped and glided, very accipiter-like, across the pond, landing in the very top of a large pine in my aunt and uncle’s front yard, where a second hawk was already perched. The two hawks, one slightly larger than the other but similarly marked, proceeded to mate.
After finishing a lap around the pond’s margin, and locating the otter latrine site, I headed inside to look up the unidentified hawk.
Although from my vantage point I did not see the “red shoulder” patch for which it gets its name, the information in Sibley’s matched the birds I watched: “rather compact, stocky and accipiter-like with relatively short, broad wings” and “very vocal with distinctive, far-carrying calls … a high, clear, squealing keeyuur keeyuur … repeated steadily; often imitated by blue jay.”
These were the paler Florida race of the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), a bird that can be found on Long Island but which I’ve never noted. Steve Biasetti, an avid birder, has seen this species on Long Island only six times over 25 years; his last sighting was in 2007, a decade ago. Several of my references mention that the red-shouldered hawk is rare on Long Island at any time of year, including during migration, when it usually avoids the entire coastal plain.
It was formerly a common breeder on Staten Island, with 13 confirmed nesting pairs noted in 1908. During the 1980-85 breeding bird survey, two confirmed nests were documented on Long Island, one of those on the South Fork. The 2000-05 survey did not document any Long Island nests for this species. Statewide, its breeding population increased over that same survey period and, over most of its range between 1966 and 2015, the breeding population also showed an increase.
The red-shouldered hawk’s preferred habitat is lowland forest and wooded swamps, and habitat loss is listed as a major threat.
Forest fragmentation favors the larger and more aggressive red-tailed hawk; however, the reversion of farmland to forest in much of New York State appears to have more than compensated for fragmentation impacts outside of Long Island.
As was the case in Tampa, the red-shouldered hawk can tolerate human disturbance if mature trees and a high canopy is maintained. Their hunting technique is to perch quietly, watch carefully, and swoop down on small mammals, snakes, lizards and other reptiles, frogs and even crayfish within reach on the edge of ponds.