Broad-winged hawks staging for migration

The broad-winged hawk needs a better publicist.

Photo by USFWS • Broad-winged hawks nest in the region during the summer, but these raptors stage massive migration flights every fall to return to their winter range in Central and South America. These hawks are smaller relatives of such raptors as red-tailed hawk and red-shouldered hawk.

Monarch butterflies with their impressive migration flights to reach mountains in Mexico where they will spend the winter and ruby-throated hummingbirds with their twice-a-year non-stop crossings of the Gulf of Mexico have consumed much of the press coverage for long-distance migrants. Even the Arctic tern, a bird most people will never see, has monopolized the phenomenon of migration due to its astounding migratory journeys from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. That feat, incidentally, equals a 18,641-mile round trip. 

The broad-winged hawk, known scientifically as Buteo platypterus, thrills onlookers every September by staging phenomenal migratory flights that can include hundreds or thousands of individual birds. Outside of birding circles, however, the broad-winged hawk is not nearly as widely known as the monarch butterfly or Eastern North America’s ruby-throated hummingbird.

The genus Buteo includes the broad-winged hawk’s larger kin, including red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, red-shouldered hawk and ferruginous hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe such as the common buzzard.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. There’s an endangered sub-species of broad-winged hawk known as the Puerto Rican broad-winged hawk that resides in forests on the island of Puerto Rico. 

Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk, as well as long-legged buzzard, jackal buzzard and red-necked buzzard.

The broad-winged hawk is a relatively small hawk, ranging in body length from 13 to 17 inches. As is the case with most raptors, females are larger than males. The broad-winged hawk is a predator, but they prey on relatively small prey, including  insects, amphibians, snakes, crustaceans, rodents and the occasional songbird.

These hawks are extremely vocal during their summer stay in wooded areas across the Eastern United States. It’s their piercing two-part whistled call that often draws the attention of onlookers to the bird’s presence. 

These hawks are already growing restless. In the first days of August, I saw three broad-winged hawks in different locations in the span of a couple of days. Young hawks have left the nest and are gaining a degree of independence. They will soon join their parents for the yearly migration to southern wintering grounds as far south as southern Brazil. 

Some famous places to witness the annual broad-winged hawk migration include Hawk Ridge, Minnesota, and Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. 

Closer to home, birders have gathered every September since 1958 for the Mendota Fire Tower Hawkwatch. The site is located atop Clinch Mountain at an old fire tower near Mendota, Virginia. The site straddles the county line between the Virginia counties of Russell and Washington and reaches an elevation of 3,000 feet.

Even without traveling to a hawkwatch site, it’s not too difficult to see one of these raptors in September. I’ve seen large flocks, or kettles, of broad-winged hawks while birding on Holston mountain near Elizabethton.

All too often, hawks and other raptors don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.

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Stevens has been writing weekly about birds since 1995. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

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