Red-shouldered Hawks

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a secretive woodland hawk which can be difficult to find in the Ottawa area outside of a few known locations where they breed. They prefer dense, mature hardwood forests close to wetlands and lakes, and in Ontario, are most abundant along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield and on the Frontenac Axis. In Ottawa, they are most commonly seen west of the city, with the Constance Lake and Constance Bay areas the best spots to find these birds. They are more conspicuous when they first return to their breeding grounds in late March and early April, vocalizing frequently during courtship and up until incubation begins. Once the breeding season gets under way, however, they fall silent and become difficult to detect.

I got my lifer Red-shouldered Hawk in February 2008 when one over-wintered near Huntmar and Old Carp Roads. Since then I’ve seen them at Constance Bay once, and at the South March Highlands once, but the place where I’ve seen or heard them most frequently is actually in Stony Swamp, five minutes from home. I saw my first one there on September 1st, 2012 when I spotted a juvenile buteo flying around the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail with two unidentified accipiters. It was larger than the two accipiters, and had distinctive red patches on the upper side of its wings. While flying, the crescent-shaped translucent “windows” were visible in the wings.

The following year, on June 29, 2014 I heard both a Red-shouldered Hawk and a Broad-winged Hawk calling at the same time along the hydro cut next to the Rideau Trail parking lot. When I whistled the two notes of the Broad-winged Hawk’s call, it flew out in response. This week I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling along the hydro cut on two different dates, though I was hesitant to add my observation to eBird the first time because I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a Blue Jay, which is pretty darn impressive when it comes to imitating buteos.

On August 30th, however, when I arrived at Sarsaparilla Trail I found one accipiter perching in a dead tree to the south of the boardwalk and two buteos flying around in the trees on the north side. All three were juveniles, and though I suspected the accipiter was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, it was too far away for me to be sure. I got better looks at the buteos, which had a pale reddish patch on their wings; this confused me at first, as Sibley’s field guide refers to buff-coloured wing patches. I wasn’t able to see whether they had translucent “window” in the wings. As I have never gotten such good looks at a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk, I took some photos with the extended zoom on my camera and posted the images to Facebook. My learned friends confirmed it: these were Red-shouldered Hawks.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The two of them kept chasing each other around the swamp. I managed to take one photo of the two birds together; although it was suggested that one may be a young Broad-winged Hawk, eventually it was confirmed they were both Red-shouldered Hawks, possibly siblings.

Red-shouldered Hawks

Red-shouldered Hawks (click to enlarge)

A few other birds were around the pond, notably a single Green-winged Teal, five Hooded Mergansers, a single Pied-billed Grebe, a Solitary Sandpiper (new for my Sarsaparilla list), a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a Gray Catbird (both of them heard and not seen). Although warbler migration is under way, the only one I observed was a Common Yellowthroat, which I heard singing somewhere across the pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawks were new for my year list, and a great find in Stony Swamp. I wasn’t surprised when I heard one calling at Rideau Trail on September 5th, although I didn’t include it in my eBird list; several Blue Jays were squawking noisily in the area, and I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t hearing one imitating the hawk. However, when I heard one again in the same area the following day (with no Blue Jays calling this time) I had difficulty believing that there wasn’t at least one in the area, and included it in my eBird list. I’m curious now as to whether they breed in Stony Swamp. The habitat seems suitable, and the presence of two juveniles in the fall does make me wonder – though if they do breed here, why I haven’t I heard or seen them here before? I will definitely have to spend more time in Stony Swamp in the spring, listening for them when they begin courting. They return to Ontario in late March, so while looking for the first butterflies and Chorus Frogs of spring at the Rideau Trail, and the first waterfowl on the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail, I will certainly watch for these intriguing woodland hawks.


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