Signs of spring, in terms of noticeable changes in our native flora on eastern Long Island, are still quite subtle in early April.Most of the plants showing signs of flowering and leafing out are non-natives, such as snowdrop, daffodil, crocus and forsythia. Among our common native plants that are currently exhibiting obvious signs that winter is over are red maple, whose flower buds have opened on their otherwise bare branches, and skunk cabbage, whose four-inch tall, pointed leaf buds protruding from wet, swamp soils are unfurling into what will soon become huge, dinner plate-sized solar collectors.
Other than the longer days, changes in the habits and composition of our native fauna are more easily seen at this time of year, especially among the birds. Osprey are back and busy adding material to their nests. Songbirds are calling to attract mates and establish territories. And game birds—the American woodcock and wild turkey—are doing the respective aerial and ground courtship dances.
I had been keeping track of a pair of red-tailed hawks this winter, perched on the deer fence posts at Balsam Farm in Amagansett most days, and keeping a close eye on the rodents and other small mammals in the farm field and adjacent compost piles. Occasionally I would see one of the pair fly into a nearby woodlot, and one day I glimpsed as it perched in the leafless beech grove scrutinizing a large stick nest.
Checking that last weekend, I could just make out the head of one of the pair peering out from the top of the jumble of sticks. A few minutes later, its mate appeared, clearly not happy with my snooping around. They had decided this was a good spot to nest and are most likely incubating eggs right now.
Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are the most common hawk species on Long Island, possibly more common in winter than any other season when northern breeders migrate here from Canada and upstate. They are often seen perching on utility poles and in leafless trees along our highway corridors.
Females are larger than males, but other than that, both look similar. Among those in the eastern race (borealis), the topsides of their tails are a very light, reddish color for which they are named (usually not visible from below as the hawk flies, unless it veers and banks to expose the top of the tail), the breast is white, and the belly has a dark, brown-streaked band. Juveniles lack the red coloring on the tail, but the tail has discernible white and brown banding.
Standing 19 inches tall with a wingspan of four feet, the red-tailed weighs in at 2.5 pounds. This species has been able to adapt to a wide variety of habitat types. It does not breed in the far north where there are no trees or hunting perches, nor is it found in extensive, closed-canopy forests. One exception to the latter is its use of closed canopy tropical forests in Puerto Rico where, according to biologists, it hunts for birds by soaring over the forest and treating the canopy as a type of pasture habitat.
It has also adapted to urban areas, utilizing building ledges as nesting sites and hunting in nearby city parks where rats, mice and pigeon prey abound. A pair that successfully nested in Manhattan since 1995 was made famous by articles, videos, a film and a book. It also takes advantage of highway medians, using roadside poles and trees for perches to search for small mammals and roadkills.
Red-tails benefited from the extensive forest clearing activities of early settlers, expanding their range into eastern North America and replacing the forest-dwelling red-shouldered hawk. It has also expanded its breeding range into the once treeless Great Plains over the past 100 years.
On Long Island, Bull’s Birds of the New York area states that it was a common breeder here prior to 1930, when the Long Island breeding population began a decline that lasted until 1960. No reason for this decline is given.
Ornithologists list this species population as secure. Historically, the greatest threat to the red-tailed hawk has been shooting. Today, concerns include collisions with wind turbines, pesticide and lead poisoning (the latter from ingesting prey containing lead shot), and electrocution at utility pole hunting perches. But none of these are considered a major threat to the overall population of this bird of prey.