Red-tail faces the sunrise. Hawks in winter always do. Her bright and speckled breast a beacon against the gray of early morning. The land beyond is empty. The hills in silence hug themselves. Even the pallid sun is shivering. But Red-tail is not. Perched high in the blank scrawl of limbs she warms her vulnerable core in the parsimonious light. Minutes pass. An hour. The sun expanding in the sky. She turns her back soaking the dark flight feathers. And still she waits. And flies, only when she has a mind to.
Over the days, she will patrol the land until its secrets are her own. Where the doves feed. Where the rabbit hides. When the fox heads for home and then the field is hers. Birds she takes mostly from cover, hiding then striking out, dispassionate as a sniper. Squirrels more agile are harder but no match for the crushing power of her talons. She will drop on them from the blind side. They know it and hate her for it. They can do nothing except chatter.
I once watched a red-tail on a kill she made on the ground, a pigeon, the feathers dusting off the carcass like early snow and even though the victim was someone else, the squirrels edged close to harass her, running in and out. Three quarters of an hour of this and she’d had enough and took the bloody remains away with her.
If the squirrels thought they’d won some small victory they were fooling no one but themselves.
Red-tail circles a seething, wheeling flock of grackles like a shark. The little birds ball and spread and turn, and turn, and are no match for her. Later, she lands at the top of a low cedar. A mockingbird drops and strikes her, her shoulder, above her tail. She does not even look at him. When the crows find her it will be different. They will not dare to touch her, but they are loud.
She will tire of them as she tired of the squirrels, and she will leave.
But then the sun will be down and she will be able to see, perfectly. And the crows will not.
Beginning in October and all along the shoreline of southern New England, the presence of red-tailed hawks increases. You see them coasting from cover to cover, perched above the marsh lands, appearing, disappearing into the fall colors of birch and rock maple and hickory.
As the leaves tumble, and the cold of winter settles in, red-tails give themselves away. After the chill of night they are greedy even for the scant heat of sunrise. If they turned their dark backs to the sun instead of that nearly white breast they would absorb more, reflect less. But their backs are hidden under insulating wings and these keep the sun’s heat out of the core. Why then isn’t the breast dark also? Certainly, more thermal energy would penetrate. The reason is that the breast faces downward in flight as do the undercoverts of the wings, and a bird that is light colored against the sky is harder to spot from below. Prey are not so likely to detect a soaring redtail - unless the shadow passes directly over them. In the evolution of red-tailed hawks, camouflage matters more to survival than keeping warm.
However, except perhaps in that very first part of their winter day, when redtails perch camouflage is not their concern. They much prefer an unobstructed view. A dead limb. The high point of a juniper. Or better yet, the top of a telephone pole from which Redtail only has to spread his wings to take flight. Seeing of course means being seen so that the favorite strategy of close ambush is out of the question. Instead the perch gives a survey of things. Perhaps on occasion there is a target of opportunity, which must be at some distance - a mouse in a field perhaps - and then Redtail makes a long approach, low or high, trying to come from behind so that it cannot be detected until it is too late. But mostly it is for the view and because, a high perch is also defensive. Hawks (and eagles too) like high roosting places.
If you find a spot frequented by redtails, it is likely that over time, you will find other hunting birds using it as well. You cannot sneak up on a bird of prey with a 360 degree view and consequently for them that view feels like safety.
Except from us.
For some time there was a red-tailed hawk nailed to a pole near on the Metro North line into New York. There were chickens in an enclosure beside the tracks and the owner killed her and left her there.
Mark Seth Lender’s fieldwork and travel are arranged exclusively through Destination: Wildlife TM. If you would like to visit the places Mark has been, you can contact them at www.DestinationWildlfe.com; used with permission, © 2019 Mark Seth Lender, All Rights Reserved. Mark is the author of the illustrated children’s book, Smeagull the Seagull, A True Story, www.Smeagull.com