One afternoon recently I visited Forest Lawn looking for the rare yellow-throated warbler that had been reported there. I didn’t find the warbler, but I did have an opportunity to witness a quite remarkable hawk flight.
When I arrived, I found Alec Humann and Rick Bacher counting hawks, and Rick immediately pointed out a migrating kestrel. More impressive, however, was the number of broad-winged hawks passing. They had already counted more than 400 and, when I looked, I could see another dozen.
Some were flying in what hawk observers call kettles, whirls of high flying hawks that circle like bubbles on steaming water in a kettle. But the ones I saw were more often sailing straight northeast. Even when I was looking where the warbler had been last seen, I couldn’t help but notice that six or eight broad-wings seemed always to be passing overhead.
Hawks that occur in this region are divided into three groups. Accipiters – Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks and goshawk – have narrow, blunt wings. Falcons – kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon – have narrow, pointed wings. Broad-winged hawks belong to a third group called buteos. They have wide, blunted wings. Our common local resident, the red-tailed hawk, is a buteo. So, too, is the less common red-shouldered hawk.
Although broad-winged hawks claim a major share of the migrating numbers passing through this region in late April and early May, they are rarely seen in summer in the Buffalo Niagara region once the migration is over. The birds we were seeing were almost certainly heading for the Adirondacks or the Canadian shield.
There is a reason for this. Unlike the red-tail that enjoys open country, the broad-wing is a bird of extensive forests. Historically, it was considered rare throughout Western New York, but it has increased in numbers as abandoned farmlands have completed the transition to woodlands in our Southern Tier and in nearby Pennsylvania.
This is far and away my favorite among the hawks. When hiking the Finger Lakes Trail, I would often observe one soaring a few feet above the trees, usually near a ridge where it could take advantage of updrafts.
Only once, while censusing the Bolivar area, did I come upon one perched at the edge of an isolated open area in the woods. More often I would hear their plaintive calls, similar to the pewee’s whistle of its name, but all on one pitch.
Arthur Cleveland Bent described broad-wings as “gentle, retiring, quiet birds,” and a number of stories confirm this description. John James Audubon told of how his assistant climbed to a nest where the female sat quietly. He brought the hawk down in his handkerchief, where the artist measured it and drew its picture.
John Hooper Bowles described a similar incident. He and a companion climbed to a broad-wing nest where “the bird stayed perfectly still and did not show the least bit of fear or anger. We stroked her and finally lifted her off her nest and tossed her into the air. She flew to a nearby tree where she was soon joined by her mate. They then flew about among the trees uttering creaking, wheezy notes, never showing a sign of the anger that is common with most of the other hawks. I have never seen a bird that was so docile as this female hawk when we were handling her.”
The food of this small hawk, which weighs only slightly more than a third that of the red-tail, is correspondingly small, ranging from spiders and earthworms to rabbits and weasels. Birds do make up part of their diet – about 10 percent – as do snakes and frogs, moths and mice, crayfish and dragonflies. Almost half of their diet is insects.
The next time you visit the Southern Tier or a northern forest, look for this small hawk. If you see it in flight, you’ll notice the broad bands on its tail and the dark wingtips of its flight feathers.
A word about that yellow-throated warbler is in order. It is often confused with another warbler called a yellowthroat. The yellowthroat is a common summer resident here, but the yellow-throated warbler is a Southern species that occasionally reaches this region by overshooting its migration target. Several have this year.