While enjoying a mid-day lunch break in an oak woodland on the south end of the Willits Mitigation Bypass Lands, I was fortunate to experience three Red-shouldered Hawks putting on an early spring display. The incessant shrieking of this forestland raptor sent alarms throughout the canopy. As the hawk’s calling grew louder, it appeared from out of the sky and landed on top of an oak, about 50 feet up. It stayed perched for a few minutes, intent on making its presence known. Off in the distance, another Red-shouldered Hawk began vocalizing. Several moments later, a third hawk spoke up off to the north. The chase was on as the hawk in front of me left its perch and began circling off to the southwest. The other two began flying in the same vicinity and sounded very agitated. One of the bird’s vocalizations were higher pitched than the other two. It was difficult to make out what exactly was going on through the tangled canopy, but it seemed to be an interaction between an established pair and another male coming into their territory. At one point I could see a single hawk flying away further south, and at that moment the excited calling stopped. The stillness of the oak woodlands returned, with smatterings of light ‘chirps’ as chickadees and other small canopy foragers began to stir.
Red-shouldered Hawks begin defending their territory early in the spring, returning to the same nesting territory every year. The Red-shouldered Hawk populations here in the west do not typically migrate and usually stick to the same home range throughout the year. These hawks are a common sight in the stands of ash trees that line the creeks of Little Lake Valley and the pockets of oak woodlands. Nests are often reused from season to season. Both sexes contribute to nest construction, building with sticks and bark with a lining of moss and green vegetation. The hawk nestlings hatch after thirty-three days of incubation. For the first three to five weeks, the female stays with the young hawks while the male brings food to the nest. At about five weeks, the young leave the nest but are still fed by the parents for another couple months until they are fully independent.
Red-shouldered hawks are one of the most vocal raptors, usually heard before they are seen. The white bands on their tail allow for quick field identification. Red-shouldered Hawks are an accipiter-like buteo, with shorter wings, longer tail, and a bit slimmer than Red-tailed hawks. Witnessing their impressive mid-air maneuvering is always a highlight of the day.