Our morning started with a walk through our local state park, Highlands Hammock. On this day it was breezy, so the heat was tolerable and despite the high water, the mosquitoes were not yet bothersome. As we walked the elevated walkway of the popular Cypress Swamp Trail, the cicadas throbbed overhead, and the cries of the Red-shouldered Hawks broke the silence.
Found year round in Florida, Red-shouldered Hawks are birds of prey commonly seen in our region. A bit smaller than a red-tailed hawk, they stand about 18-24 inches tall and have wings spanning just over three feet. Their broad, rounded wings have a dark-and-white checkered appearance when you see them perched. When they are flying overhead, there is a translucent crescent effect that can be seen and helps to easily identify from below.
A strikingly beautiful buteo, the feathers are barred or horizontally striped and marked with a reddish coloration while their backs are dark, mottled brown with that checkering complement by a rusty plumage on the shoulders. The tail markings of adults show narrow black and white bands, further helping to identify them.
Immatures are more of an overall brown color with almost a speckled appearance on the belly. When flying overhead, that speckling of brown and white is also visible and their tails lack the defined barring of an adult as they are brown and white in color. Even more intriguing, the coloration of this species varies throughout the country with our Florida birds being a lighter color than those of other regions.
True forest hawks, it was no surprise to find them in the flooded swamp on this morning. They are also often seen in the picnic area or campgrounds hunting small prey. Feeding on frogs, rodents and squirrels, it can be quite surprising to see them tangling with snakes as well. Perched overhead, they wait silently for the perfect moment to drop in a surprise attack. This makes for fantastic photo opportunities for those patient and fortunate enough to see them.
Chances are you’ll hear them before you see them. As they circle overhead in the open canopied forests, their distinctive cry — a rising, whistled kee-yeear — is unmistakable.
Returning to nest in the same regions each year, both the male and female will refurbish the prior year’s nest or rebuild a new one nearby. Located high in the treetops and spanning nearly two feet across, a raptor nest is rather obvious, especially when mom or dad brings home a meal. Why not make a visit before the bugs get unbearable and see if you can spot this gorgeous bird of prey?