Sigrid Sanders
Broad-winged hawks
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In one study cited by the Birds of North America account, an average of three fresh green sprigs were delivered to the nest every day.

The female broad-winged hawk lays from one to four eggs, most often two or three. They are white, cream or off-white with brownish or various colored markings, and are incubated mostly by the female. The males bring food and incubate for brief periods when the females leave the nest. The eggs hatch in about 28 to 31 days, and the young birds are ready to leave the nest in about 30 more days after hatching.

In the woods where we lived, Red-shouldered hawks also nested, and we frequently heard their loud keee-yer! and saw them perched on a low branch or flying low through the understory, weaving through the trunks of the hickories and oaks with amazing skill. The red-shouldered hawks were larger and more flamboyant, more noticeable than the broad-wings. I often saw the two species soaring at the same time and in the same general area, without any obvious interaction, but on one occasion, I watched a particularly interesting encounter.

It was late in the morning on a hot, steamy, buggy day when the sun was struggling to come out after several days of rain. The rasping chorus of cicadas rose and fell like the sound of waves on a beach. A red-eyed vireo sang, and from down near the creek came the deep drum of a woodpecker. A mosquito whined around my ear. A red-shouldered hawk, calling a sharp, loud keeee-yer! flew low through the treetops and eastward, with a whistling broad-winged hawk close behind it, and they both disappeared over the trees.

As I walked uphill along the edge of the woods, to see if I could find them, I passed black-winged dragonflies and heard the staccato pik-a-tuk of a summer tanager. The sky was slowly but steadily clearing, damp blue with a wide band of white clouds like tire-tracks in the west. Suddenly, two red-shouldered hawks and onebBroad-winged hawk flew in low over the treetops again, and all three settled in an area of large pines, several feet apart from each other. I could see both of the red-shouldered hawks, though they were well back in the pines, but could not see the broad-winged, even though I could tell it was nearby. For several minutes they stayed there, all crying - keeee-yer! keeee-yer! and peeeeeeee-eeee! over and over, but always one at a time, as if they were having a major, loud and passionate dispute that remained at least somewhat courteous or within some kind of understood bounds. After a while, they all flew again, but stayed low and did not go far before settling again in the trees and continuing to carry on their dispute.

I don't know for sure, but - judging in part from the area in which this happened and the time of season when it happened - I suspect that the broad-winged hawk was chasing the two red-shouldered hawks away from its nest area and its still-vulnerable young. It was about the time when the young broad-winged hawks might have been leaving the nest. I wish I knew the whole story, the drama behind this small glimpse of action - it was like seeing a clip of a movie that made me want to see the whole thing. Had the red-shouldered hawks tried to take one of the broad-winged juveniles? Had they succeeded? I'll never know.

There's a great deal about the lives of the broad-winged hawks in our woods that I'll never know. What I learned about them came in broken pieces, an observation here and there. We were aware of their presence all day every day that second year, mostly from their calls. Late in the summer, we often found a juvenile perched, but it was unusual for us to see an adult perching - I think they usually stayed very well screened - and for this reason, one sighting stands out in my memory.

About 5:30 one afternoon, a sudden fierce but brief thunderstorm passed through, darkening the sky, tossing trees and green leaves around in a furious wind, and pouring rain in a gray blur for about an hour. When it was over, my husband and I walked outside to enjoy the rain-cooled air. Water dripped from the trees all around so steadily it sounded like more rain. The sky was clearing from the west. The low, sinking sun cast a strange, dramatic gold and rose light on the dark purple of the storm clouds retreating in the east, and lighting the tops of the hardwood trees a brilliant wet green. Against this background, we saw a mature broad-winged hawk perched in the top of a tall dead pine where red-bellied woodpeckers had nested a few weeks earlier.

The hawk faced southwest, toward the setting sun, and sat with black and white striped tail spread wide and both wings held out in an awkward-looking cupped shape, as if to dry itself after the rain. Its head was chocolate brown and well-defined against the sharply-lit gray sky, hatchet-shaped and fierce. It turned its head one way and another, but did not change the position of its body, wings or tail. Its breast was heavily streaked with reddish brown. At first the hawk was silent, but after a few minutes, it whistled, and once started, it whistled repeatedly, opening its bill and calling again and again in the high, strained-sounding whistle. We could not hear an answering call. After about ten minutes, it spread its wings and dropped off toward the east, gliding at treetop level and then below, through the trees, still whistling, until it sounded as if it had landed again not too far away.

Although I was sure the broad-winged hawks had nested somewhere near our house, I had no idea just how close they were. I assumed the nest would be well hidden deep in the woods, and that it wouldn't be easy to find. So I never tried. I was busy with other things, and content to hear and see them as often as we did. It was only by chance that I discovered the nest in mid July. Around the middle of the afternoon, I had taken a three-legged stool to a spot where I could study an interesting patch of weeds and grasses with a variety of plant species, spiders and flying insects. On summer days when not much seems to be happening in the woods, the weedy areas around the edges of the woods often are full of activity. Watching grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, yellowjackets, solitary wasps, bees, dragonflies, ants, butterflies and lizards requires a good change in perspective from my usual habit of focusing on birds.

It was hot and humid, of course, and I was sitting on my stool and sweating, watching a black and green dragonfly on a leaf of a small sweet gum, when I heard the whistle of a broad-winged hawk approaching. There was nothing unusual about that - but as the hawk entered the trees it was met by a small flurry of whistles from two or three or more voices. It clearly sounded like the response of young birds in a nest when a parent arrives with food. It seemed late in the year for nestlings - but it got my attention. I got up from my stool and walked closer to the edge of the woods. At first, I could see nothing, but I followed the voices of continued whistling and found two mature broad-winged hawks perched high among the foliage. And then I saw the nest. It was tucked in a three-way fork of a tall sweet gum, maybe 80 feet up. For several minutes, the two adults sat nearby and whistled, then they left. For almost an hour after that, I sat at the edge of the woods where I could see the nest, and watched and waited. I did not see any sign of birds in the nest, and the adults did not return to feed them while I was watching, though I did see one of them arrive, uncharacteristically quiet, and settle nearby. I finally decided that they must be disturbed by my presence and left - even though the nest was so close to our house and to where we were outside working almost every day that I thought they must be fairly used to having us around. On the other hand, I think it's not unreasonable to suppose that hawks might be able to tell the difference between people who are busy with their own business, and one person who is sitting and doing nothing else but watching their nest.

That day was July 15. For a week after that we were out of town on a trip, so I couldn't watch closely and don't know if there might, in fact, have been young ones still in the nest. It's possible, but from what I learned later, it seems more likely that what I heard was adults feeding one or two young hawks that had left the nest but were staying close to it.

"Even when they have become fairly well fledged," says Burns, "one or the other of the birds seem always in attendance in a nearby tree top. The whistled protest of the parents as they shadow one through the woods is all the hint one often has of their presence and unceasing vigilance. How long they are guarded after leaving the nest, I am unable to say, but for a week or two after the nest is vacated, a protesting whistle from a hidden form in the neighboring foliage informs one of the jealous care of the juveniles doubtless also hidden nearby."[8]

Certainly by the time we returned from our trip and I went out to check on our hawks again, late in the day on July 22, the young were out of the nest. Around 6:00 pm, with temperatures still in the 90s, I stood at the edge of the woods with my binoculars - at that time I didn't own a scope - exploring the area around the nest. I had to watch my step to avoid several yellowjacket nests that peppered the edge of the woods in just the area where I needed to stand to get the best view. I had heard no whistling, but quickly spotted a hawk perched in a hickory tree that stood beside the sweet gum with the nest. It was a juvenile, with a creamy white, relatively unstreaked breast, chocolate brown back and wings, and the shadows of striping on the tail, darker brown on brown. On its back, a faint white specking was visible beneath the dark feathers.

For several minutes, the young hawk sat silent on the branch. It turned its head frequently, sometimes seeming to look almost directly backward. Insects flew around it, and it shook and ruffled its feathers as if to discourage them. At least once, it snapped up one of the insects in its beak. After a while, another broad-winged hawk began to call from not far away. It whistled several times before the one I was watching answered, but once it did, they called back and forth. Finally, the young hawk I was watching flew to join the other. They discussed something for maybe three or four minutes, then they both flew away.

I waited. About ten minutes later, two hawks returned to the branches of trees on either side of the nest. They flew in silently, and sat without calling at all. I waited for several more minutes, until I thought again that I must be disturbing them, so I walked away and sat down again on a bench near our house, about a hundred yards away from the nest area. No sooner had I sat down - literally immediately - than I saw two hawks fly to the area of the nest from trees on the opposite side of the driveway, whistling their calls as they flew. I could hear, even from where I sat, a brief flurry of other whistles mingled with theirs for a few seconds. The calls of two hawks - which I now felt sure were the parents - continued near the nest for several minutes more.

For the next two or three weeks, we saw and heard a juvenile hawk around the nest area and around our house often, and several more times heard what I believe were the sounds of parents feeding the young. Once, I saw a young hawk on the ground, maybe chasing an insect, and it did not fly up until I got quite close, and even then, only flew to a low branch nearby. I don't know for sure if there was only one juvenile, or one or two more. I believe I saw two young ones and two adults at the same time, but because of the way they could come and go in the trees so quietly, it was hard to keep track of them and would have been easy to mistake one for another. So that's another thing I'll never know for sure.

In August of that year, my husband and I moved away from our home in the woods. I was sorry to leave, for many reasons. The story of the broad-winged hawks, like the stories of many other parts of the woodland community I had only barely begun to explore, stops suddenly and feels unfinished.

I went back once, three summers later, and walked a "nature trail" through a subdivision near the land where the hawks had nested, but did not find them or hear their calls. A number of new houses had gone up in the area, and construction was still going on nearby - but there were still enough tall trees and wooded area so that they might have been there. After three summers of unusual drought and heat, however, the wetland where they used to hunt had almost completely dried up, another discouraging sign. Tall grasses and small trees covered the area where the first pond used to stand, though I hoped some of the other flooded areas between there and the river might remain.

In June 2003, on a breeding bird count for the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, my team saw a pair of broad-winged hawks soaring and calling in a different area, several miles away in a neighboring county, but at least we had proof of their nesting in the region, and two birders more experienced than I am confirmed the sighting.

In that particular patch of woods, I do not know if the strange, high whistle of the broad-winged hawks is still heard, if it still weaves together the fabric of the woodland community. I wonder about that - but I also wonder how many other broad-winged hawks might nest in this area, and if so, where are they? The southern woods in mid-summer keep their secrets well. There are many things we do not know about what lives and happens there.
[8]F.L. Burns, "A monograph of the Broad-winged Hawk."

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