Sigrid Sanders
Broad-winged hawks

The southern woods in mid-summer keep their secrets well. The mingled leaves of oaks, hickories, tulip poplars and maples form a shifting green canopy that fractures and confuses the sunlight. Sycamores and river birches shroud furtive creeks. Dogwoods, box elders and paw-paws spread out through the understory, and the vines of fox grape, poison ivy, honeysuckle, trumpet creeper and greenbriar ramble and slither and twist up trunks and over fallen branches. The heavy foliage disguises and obscures much of what goes on here, and the heat, humidity, bugs, spider webs and thorns help create a prickly and wary atmosphere.

So that's my excuse - though it's not a very good one. A more experienced birder would have recognized the distinctive call of a broad-winged hawk immediately. But I have to admit that it was several weeks before I identified the elusive, high-pitched whistle that sounded as if it came from a small bird impossibly hidden somewhere among the tangle of leaves and vines. It didn't sound like a hawk. And while broad-winged hawks are not uncommon in much of eastern North America, they were not commonly known to nest in the woods of Oconee County, Georgia, where I found them in the summer of 1998.

My husband and I lived then in a rural part of the county where second-growth forest spread over fairly large areas of former farmland. Our own 16 acres sat deep in the woods, bordered by a creek that flowed into a series of beaver ponds. Around us, clearing and construction had begun on at least four new subdivisions, which meant the character of these woods would change dramatically in a short time. It also meant that this place was like many others in this part of the South today, where woodlands are rapidly being replaced by suburban development.

The broad-winged hawks I found and observed over a period of two summers are one example of what we're losing as these woodland communities disappear. Beautiful and in many ways mysterious birds, Broad-winged Hawks nest in forests throughout the eastern part of North America, yet many aspects of their lives remain unknown. They are, at the same time, common and widespread, but quiet and little noticed in their private, day-to-day lives - a paradox they share with these southern woods.

The first young hawk I saw, tucked back on a low branch of a pine behind a screen of green needles and flickering shade, could easily have escaped my attention if things had happened a little differently, so well did it blend, in every way, with the woods around it. On a warm, quiet morning in July, a little after eight o'clock, I had come out for a walk on the edge of the woods. I followed our driveway, a rough dirt and gravel pair of tracks that gradually wound uphill through the woods for about half a mile. Soft, thin white clouds drifted across a pale blue sky. Cicadas sang. The summer had been hot and dry. Brown and yellow leaves already splotched the tulip poplar trees. Hundreds of dandelions speckled the weedy strips of grass along the driveway with pinpricks of gold.

I passed through a sunlit section of water oaks, pines and sweet gums. Behind them the taller, denser hickories and white oaks shimmered in a haze of wet heat. Although the morning had seemed quiet when I first came out, as I walked I became more aware of the sounds. I heard the dry WHEET-sit of an Acadian flycatcher from deep in the woods; the sweet, insistently repeated song of a red-eyed vireo; the chatter of titmice and chickadees. The hum and buzz of bees, wasps and flies. The distant caw of a crow. The hammers and radios of carpenters at work on another new house not far away through the woods.

When a large hawk emerged from the treetops ahead of me, I paused and watched as it rose, working its way up quickly, and began to circle. Another hawk flew in and joined it, and together they climbed higher and higher. I assumed they were red-shouldered hawks, a familiar resident of these woods, and watched them only casually until they disappeared from sight. If anything about them looked different or not quite right at the time, I shrugged it off - and saw what I expected to see.

I walked on up the hill. It was getting hotter. Sweat began to run down my neck. Red ants swarmed over the green carcass of a small grasshopper lying on the hard red dirt. A sleepy orange butterfly passed by, and a dusky, tattered black swallowtail. A rabbit startled me by suddenly breaking and running through the grass and into a mass of shrubs. I hadn't gone far before the two hawks returned, flying low and quietly, and settled into an area of pines, where I spotted one of them and was able to approach close enough to see it well.

It sat on a low branch, facing me and lightly screened by a haze of green needles, melting beautifully into the shadows. This time, it was not what I expected to see. Though small compared to a red-shouldered hawk, it looked strong, stocky and powerful, with a comfortable, confident demeanor. It did not seem disturbed by my presence. The most striking thing about its appearance was the dramatic contrast between its expansive, creamy white breast, with only a few dark brown streaks on the sides, and a chocolate brown back, wings and head, with faint barring on the dark-brown wings. The chin and neck were white, with one dark mark under the center of the chin, and dark crescent-shaped markings like sideburns. The tail showed narrow bands of dark and light. As I watched for several minutes, it turned its head from time to time to look one way or the other, with fierce, frowning eyes and hooked beak.

Then it opened its bill and called in a surprisingly high, thin, strained-sounding whistle, peee-eeeeeeeee. It was answered by another peee - eeeeeeeee from not far away. I realized then that this was the source of the calls I had heard frequently during the last few weeks, and had been unable to identify, though it wasn't until I got back to the house and checked my field guide that I was sure - they were broad-winged hawks. The one I had seen most closely, with the white, unstreaked breast, was a juvenile. The other might have been another young hawk, or one of the parents.

Broad-winged hawks are relatives of our more familiar red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, but smaller and more compact in shape. A mature broad-winged hawk has dark brown wings and back, a breast with dark reddish-brown barring, and wide black and white tail bands that are most obvious in flight. Their distinctive high, thin whistle is easily overlooked or mistaken for the call of a smaller forest bird. They're best known among birders for their spectacular migration flights, especially in the fall, when thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of broad-winged hawks congregate and move together toward their winter homes in Central and South America. During their summer breeding season, however, they are the opposite of social or flamboyant. Field guides and life histories describe them, during the nesting season, as secretive, retiring, rather docile birds of the deep woods. They nest, hunt and raise their young quietly in the forests of eastern North America, and because of their reclusive habits, are seldom noticed.

To me, the broad-winged hawks are a vivid illustration of how little I often see of the natural world right around me - and of how much I miss. How many times had I walked right past one, perched on a branch only a few feet away? How many times had I heard their calls without recognizing them or even trying to identify the source? I just didn't look. For the rest of that summer, I didn't often see them, but I heard the calls of the broad-winged hawks almost every day. I came to realize that their high, thin whistles, elusive and subtle, with an almost fairy-like quality, were almost always there, weaving through the fabric of the woods like a needle, pulling one of the thousands of gossamer threads that held it all together.

I heard them most often in the woods about a hundred yards east of our house, in a densely tangled area of hickories, oaks, sweet gums, and heavy undergrowth. The terrain was low and often wet there, with a lot of gullies, vines, briars and poison ivy. I suspected that they might have a nest in this area, but didn't try to find the spot. I also frequently heard them in an area we called the wetland, which was where our small creek ran into a series of beaver ponds, home to an abundance of frogs, turtles and insects - undoubtedly one of the hawks' favorite hunting spots, and probably one of the main reasons they nested nearby.

Broad-winged hawks hunt from a perch for insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Their method of hunting is often described as "cat-like," as in this excerpt from a monograph published in 1911 by F.L. Burns:

"The rather sedentary Broad-wing most frequently waits for its prey while perched on a convenient stub or dead limb. A slight stir below and it bends forward with dilating pupils, cat-like, with twitching tail, swaying body, light foothold it springs forward with marvelous quickness, snatching up the object with its talons; if its captive is not too heavy it carries it to one of its favorite perches, there to devour it unless disturbed, when it reluctantly retires after a whistled protest."[1]

Broad-winged hawks will eat a wide variety of prey, depending on what's available, including mice, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, several kinds of birds, snakes, toads, lizards, crayfish, moths, dragonflies and earthworms. They are said to be particularly fond of reptiles, amphibians, and the larvae of some large moths. They are known to sit for long periods of time in the same place, so patient and unhurried that they've even been described as "sluggish."

A.C. Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, describes them as gentle, unobtrusive, and unsuspicious. "It is the tamest of all the hawks," he says. "One has no difficulty in approaching it as it sits on some low limb in the woods calmly watching the intruder with apparent indifference. If forced to fly it flaps along through the trees, much after the manner of an owl, and alights again at no great distance."[2]

Bent goes on to add, however, that a Broad-winged hawk is "far from sluggish in its soaring flight," and while I've never witnessed the spectacle of Broad-wings in migration, I was lucky enough to see some glimpses of this side of their lives. One morning in early August, a warm, restless wind rushed through the heavy green foliage of the hickories and oaks in our woods, dry from several weeks of heat and not much rain. The sky was burning blue and thick with big white clouds, many of them gray-bottomed, drifting swiftly south. A few cicadas rattled, and I heard the voices of titmice, blue jays and Carolina wrens, and the whirr of a red-bellied woodpecker as I headed out for a walk before lunch. Grasshoppers sang in the weedy patches along the edges of the woods.

I heard the calls of a juvenile broad-winged hawk before I saw it, sitting in a tall, thick old pine, and crying over and over, plaintive and insistent. I could hear no answering call, but the young hawk spread its wings and left the trees, lifted by the strong wind. It circled directly over me, then began to climb, continuing to call several times a minute. It circled up and up, banked a little awkwardly, then sped downwind, breathtakingly fast, and disappeared out of sight. It wasn't long before I saw it again, circling and climbing, soaring up among the towering clouds, and then plummeting down again. All the while, the young hawk never stopped crying.

After four or five minutes of flight, it returned to its perch in the same pine. It rested for a few minutes, then flew again, circling up as before, and this time it was joined by a second hawk, with a reddish breast and wide white band in the tail that identified it as an adult. For several minutes I stood, watching them soar and dive and swoop, until my neck hurt from leaning back. They swept upwards until they were hardly more than specks against the big white clouds and deep blue sky, then they came streaking down fast, wings tucked back, leveled off and circled around low for a while before lazily climbing back up again. They continued to exchange high, shrill whistles, which were distinct and audible even when the birds were so high they were almost out of sight, though if I had not been aware of them, the cries could have escaped attention altogether. The adult called in a three-syllable cry, with the accent on the third syllable - pee-a-eeeee, pee-a-eeeee. The juvenile cried peeeee-eee, peeeee-eee, peeeee-eee, with the accent on first syllable, raspy and even higher in pitch than the adult. Abruptly, both were gone, flown off in the wind. This time they did not return, and the woods seemed suddenly quiet and empty.

Much later, I read a description of the flight of a family of broad-winged hawks observed in 1926 by a Mr. Shelley, who is quoted by A.C. Bent: "They resembled more than anything else a batch of dry leaves lifted and tossed and whirled on a zephyr of brisk autumn wind,"[3] he wrote, and his description captures better than my own words the spirit of the flight I watched. It was a spectacular display of flying skills - and maybe of a young one learning from its parent - performed with what appeared to be joy, an easy command of the air, and a communion with the wind. I knew better than to make any assumptions about what the birds might be feeling, but I couldn't help imagining. Going from the quiet, leafy, dim retreats of this rough little patch of woods up into the open sky and among the clouds, and back again - these birds owned the best of both heaven and earth, I thought.

Sometime in late August or early September, they disappeared completely, gone to spend the winter in Central or South America. I don't know exactly when the breeding pair returned the next year, or even if they were the same pair for sure, or where the juvenile might have gone. All I can say is that on a warm, humid morning in mid April, two broad-winged hawks announced their presence in spectacular fashion. I had just stepped outside to check out the morning before settling down to work in my office. The spring sky was blue, but restless with big gray and white clouds. Overnight, a strong wind had blown down dozens of the showy blossoms of tulip poplars. Blooming dogwoods still laced the woods, and the songs of warblers, vireos, tanagers and wrens surrounded me. A pair of phoebes were hunting near the nest they had built on a ledge at the peak of our roof.

For the first time in several months, I heard the whistled calls and looked up just as two broad-winged hawks came swooping down very low over the small clearing around our house, calling as they flew, then soaring up and around, just over the treetops, making several passes and flying directly over me again and again. The sunlight filtered through the wide white and black bands of their tails, intensified the deep red streaking on their breasts, and gleamed on their broad brown, outstretched wings, which were pale and almost silvery underneath. I laughed with the sheer exhilaration of standing under them as they flew over and around, and with delight, because I had hoped they might come back.

It seemed to me that they were checking out their old territory that morning and reasserting their control of it, but I don't really know. It's possible they were engaged in a mating flight. Little seems to be known for sure about the mating behavior of broad-winged hawks. The species account in Birds of North America says that their pair formation has been little studied. They are thought to be monogamous, but further study is needed.[4] Bent speculates, "As this and other Buteos are probably mated for life, the lovemaking is largely expressed in nuptial flights in which both birds flap or soar in small circles, frequently passing close together and occasionally darting down at one another in a playful mood."[5]

For the next two or three weeks, the hawks flew low over our house several times every day, and I think it's likely that during that time they began nesting. They probably were flying back and forth between their nest and the beaver ponds, collecting nesting material as well as hunting for food. The nests of broad-winged hawks may be built in either deciduous or coniferous trees, usually lower and in smaller trees than those used by red-shouldered hawks, with which they often share a breeding area. Although they appear to return to the same territory year after year, they usually build new nests, rather than reusing old ones. Both members of the pair help construct the nest, but the female does more of the work. The nest is built of dead sticks and fresh twigs, and lined with bark chips and other materials, such as "corn husks, moss, inner tree bark, red cedar, wild grape vine, lichen-covered bark, chicken feathers, or pine needles."[6]

The most interesting detail about the nests of broad-winged hawks is that fresh green sprigs are brought to the nest almost every day, beginning soon after construction begins and continuing for the entire nesting period.

Bent, quoting a Dr. Gibbs, says, "An almost invariable custom of the Broad-wing is that of placing sprays of fresh green leaves and sometimes blossoms, of the chestnut, oak, poplar, maple, wild cherry, basswood, cottonwood, elm, pine, spruce, hemlock, balsam, and in one instance, evergreen vine and swamp grass, in the nest, under and around the eggs or young. . . it is frequently renewed. The sprays are broken from the tops of trees and carried to the nest by means of the beak."[7]

[1]F. L. Burns, "A monograph of the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)," 1911. The Wilson Bulletin, Volume 23, Nos. 3 and 4, pages 146-320.

[2]Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, Part One, 1937, page 246 in the 1961 Dover edition.

[3]A.C. Bent, page 246.

[4]L.J. Goodrich, S.C. Crocoll and S.E. Senner, 1996, Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

[5]A.C. Bent, page 238.

[6]Goodrich, Crocoll and Senner, The Birds of North America Online.

[7]A.C. Bent, pages 240-241.

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