1-7 August 2003
Installment #183--Visitor #

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Although we've written about Red-shouldered Hawks before, an event on the morning of 7 August gave us cause to revisit this raptorial species. Shortly after breakfast we were sitting at our computer desk in the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center, observing a couple of young Eastern Chipmunks chase each other around a Shagbark Hickory that shades the office windows. Something else also must have been watching, for suddenly we saw coming at us the head-on profile of what could only be a bird of prey.

On the other side of us and the chipmunks, however, stood a seven- foot-tall mist net we had opened at dawn to catch hummingbirds, and the fast-moving raptor was making a bee-line for it--undoubtedly with its eye on lunch rather than the fine mesh of a net. Whump! The hawk hit the net with noticeable force and might have bounced out, but the small hummingbird mesh caught on its talons and the hefty bird fell into a loose bag of net adequate to hold it. We quickly ran outside--it's not uncommon for a large bird to release itself from a small-mesh net--to see if we could extricate the bird before it got away.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

One does not casually remove a Red-shouldered Hawk from a net or trap. Its raptorial feet are powerful and its three-quarter-inch talons are stiletto-like, easily capable of penetrating deep into the hand or finger of a careless bird bander. A netted hawk often lies there calmly with its toes widespread and talons at the ready, but during removal from a net the bird typically clenches up (below right)--preferably NOT around any part of the bander's anatomy. A close view of the powerful foot reveals a hawk's reptilian ancestry, with tiny rough scales on the undersides of the toes, and broader plates on the tops.

We carefully grabbed the snared hawk's lower legs--the scaly, featherless part known as the "tibiotarsus"--and then went to work uncurling the toes enough to remove the netting. Despite the strength of its foot, the bird came out fairly easily, and as we stood beside the net with a one-handed grip on the bird's upper legs it began to flap with both wings. Had it been a Roc instead of a Red-shouldered Hawk, it would have lifted us skyward and we would have been flying over Hilton Pond like Sinbad--or like some soon-to-be-eaten dead chipmunk.

The hawk calmed down almost immediately, so we carried it inside for measurements and banding. Its wing chord was only 295mm, quite smallish for a Red-shouldered Hawk and an indication it was likely a male. In many raptor species, sexes look the same but the female is 25-30% larger--rather unusual in the bird world. Unfortunately, overlap of sizes in red-shoulders makes the wing chord an unreliable indicator for a bird's sex.

After taking a few other measurements we got ready to apply the band, which for larger hawks and owls is different from that used on other birds. Waterfowl, songbirds--even hummingbirds and woodpeckers--take bands that are opened with special pliers and then closed down with the two ends of the band butting together. Not surprisingly, the hooked beak of a raptor is an ideal tool for re-opening a band, so to keep the hawk from "throwing a shoe" we used a "lock-on" band. This type has two flanges, one of which is longer and folds over a shorter flange, effectively locking the band closed (above left). The band can still move freely on the bird's leg, but there's not much way a hawk or owl can open or lose a lock-on band. Eagle banders have to go one step further, using a unique band with a hole through which a pop rivet is inserted!

Although we weren't able to positively determine the sex of our just-captured Red-shouldered Hawk at Hilton Pond, there was no question about its age; it was a young bird hatched out in sometime in 2003. We observed several indicators of the hawk's youthfulness, as depicted in the photos at right and below: 1) an eye with pale gray iris, which turns deep lemon yellow in most adults; 2) dark vertical streaks on the breast, which are replaced by fine horizontal reddish bars in mature birds--hence the scientific name of Buteo lineatus; 3) lack of the well-developed red shoulder patch found in older individuals; and, 4) lack of pronounced narrow dark and white bands in the tail, a contrast that is easily seen in adults perched or soaring overhead.


Red-shouldereds are widely distributed across the eastern U.S. In the Carolina Piedmont many are year-round residents, but breeding birds from New England and the Great Lakes States usually fly south for the winter. At Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania, it's not unusual to see Red-shouldered Hawks streaming past North Lookout in mid-October--just before the cold days of autumn arrive. Wherever they range, red-shouldereds can avoid competing with the larger Red-tailed Hawk by working moist woodlands and other riparian sites rather than vast open fields.

Since 1982 we've caught and banded six Red-shouldered Hawks at Hilton Pond Center: two adults with dark yellow eyes, two second-year birds with pale yellow irises, and two young birds-of-the-year with gray eyes. We suspect the juvenile we caught on 7 August was hatched locally and has been hanging around the Center since this spring, harassing--and eating when it can--various frogs, rodents, and birds. If the organic residue on the yellow cere at the base of its bill is any indication (left), the bird is has been quite successful at capturing prey, and it won't be deterred from raptorial behavior by this week's banding experience. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised to look out the window almost any day to see we're being re-visited by our young Red- shouldered Hawk, flying with talons spread and after some unwary Hilton Pond chipmunk that may just be lucky enough to be saved by the net.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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In 2003, informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations are scheduled at locations in North Carolina, Kentucky/Tennessee & Virginia.
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Please report your sightings of

1-7 August 2003

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--10
Black-and-white Warbler--1
Northern Cardinal--1
House Finch--11
Red-shouldered Hawk

* = New species for 2003

5 species
24 individuals

47 species
752 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
42,866 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)


All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--On 1-3 August we departed York for a weekend at Woodlands Nature Center within Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area, Kentucky/Tennessee. There we conducted lectures and hummingbird banding demonstrations for more than 1,000 people attending Hummingbird Fest 2003. During the event, held in conjunction with Hilton Pond Center's annual Hummingbird Mornings, we caught 20 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and showed the crowd how bands were formed and applied to hummingbirds, getting in some feeding and conservation tips along the way. The next Hummingbird Mornings event is on 9 Aug in Fredericksburg VA, followed by one near Charlotte NC on 16 Aug. As they say here in the South, ya'll come.

--An adult male Rufous Hummingbird was videotaped visiting a feeder in the Dutch Fork area just north of Columbia SC on the weekend of 1-3 Aug. The vagrant was not seen on 4 Aug, but we visited the site for an attempted banding on 5 Aug; the bird apparently has moved on. Photos are in the Gallery for Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project. This may be the earliest summer sighting of a vagrant adult rufous for the state, beating by almost a week another male banded by us at Sharon SC on 6 Aug 1994.

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