Instead of sitting out on the front porch, as per usual custom, I sipped my early morning coffee at Dollar Lake from inside the cabin. I was awkwardly perched on the edge of the couch arm in a “half-cheek” manner and craned to get a good view out the window towards the lake. A hawk was perched on a side branch of the scraggly Black Willow next to the shoreline cattails. Any attempt on my part to open the door would have frightened the thing for sure. The door sticks mightily, you see, and opens with a pistol-shot crack every time it is un-sealed for the day.
This hawk was well worth the discomfort. Instead of being the usual Red-tailed variety the red on this bird was higher up – it was a much rarer Red-shouldered Hawk. He was in “my” yard and in hunting mode.
A century ago I could have expected such a sight even from my Monroe home in S.E. Michigan. I and my yard, of course, weren’t around then but at that time the Red-shouldered Hawk was the most common buteo (larger bodied hawks) in Michigan. Their southern Michigan population was nearly wiped out, however (95% reduction according to some estimates). Being creatures of mature woodlands and water, they did not respond well to the intensive agriculture which cleared the woodlands and pushed the bulk of the population northward. Today they are un-common residents of the forested reaches of the northern Lower Peninsula and eastern U.P. and are listed as a State Threatened bird.
So, you can see why I was interested in observing this fellow close-up. I often hear the familiar “Kee rah” call echoing over the lake from the State Land on the opposite shore but for all (my) practical purposes these are ghost birds.
The bird was presenting his back side to the gawker in the window at first glance. From this perspective the most distinguishing characters, apart from the obvious crow sized body (much smaller than any Red-tail), were the checkered wing feathers and the black and white banded tail. The tail bands consisted of three or four wide black ones separated by thin white stripes. A sharply hooked, rather small, beak was framed by a bright yellow cere (the fleshy part where beak meets face).
In the early morning light it was near impossible to detect the “red” shoulders but they expressed themselves in the rufous red-brown shading of the upper wing coverts and back if you looked hard enough. This is not a character that defines the bird in spite of the name.
As the hawk surveyed his surroundings he divided his attention between the cattail patch immediately under him and the mowed portion of my yard behind him. He spent much of his time peering over his shoulder. I was hoping he would make a dive at something and he eventually did make an attempt in the mowed grass. Whatever his intended victim was it got away. After a few probing grabs with his talon he flew up and perched on a Maple limb over our firepit. There he resumed his vigil with an eye towards the corner of the yard and his belly facing the porch.
The chest/belly of a mature Red-shouldered Hawk is covered with reddish brown striping – the effect of which is to make the bird look robin-breasted. From this angle, the bright yellow legs and intensive yellow eyes were also very apparent. About the only hawk you could confuse it with at this point would be an over-inflated Cooper’s Hawk with a tail problem.
The rufous bellied bird made one more unsuccessful attempt at predation from this location. As to what he was not catching I can only guess, but that corner of the yard is ripe with leopard frogs, garter snakes, and more than a few skinks. Over half of the diet of a typical Red-shoulder consists of rodents, but reptiles and amphibians make up nearly a third of the fare, so I suspect it was one of these cold-blooded options that frustrated him.
Red finally left the place after about 40 minutes or so. His departure was certainly stimulated by the lack of success but finalized by an entourage of angry local birds which persistently hovered near him like a cloud of mosquitoes. Robins, red-winged blackbirds, some titmice, nuthatches, and a very bold hummingbird buzzed the hawk on a regular basis. The hummingbird returned several times to make a statement against the much larger bird (no doubt humming a verse from “Hit the Road Jack.”). Finally, it was all too much and the harassed hawk took wing with two robins in pursuit.
I also arose from my precarious (and painful) perch to allow the feeling to return to my hinder parts. I poured a new cup of Joe, walked out onto the porch, and waited for the next installment of the Dollar Lake Nature Theatre.