This is the season of the hawks. Local populations are at their peak now, with the addition of young of the year. Daily totals and variety of species will be greater during fall migration and again in spring. The birds we see now are those that were raised here.
What hawks you see will depend largely on where you look.
Identifying hawks presents some challenges, but these are not insurmountable. “Hawk” is a general term. Many birders find it maddeningly vague.
In general, though, the term refers to daytime hunters. These fall into four broad classes, all of them represented in our area.
In our area, these are—in alphabetical order—accipiters, buteos, falcons and harriers.
In Grand Forks, the most numerous hawk—though not necessarily the most easily found—is an accipiter, Cooper’s hawk. Like other accipiters, the Cooper’s hawk appears to be shaped like a lowercase letter T. The wings and tail are long and rounded.
Within the past decade, Cooper’s hawks have colonized Grand Forks, probably in response to strong numbers of smaller birds attracted to backyard feeders. It’s become quite usual to hear reports of these crow-sized hunters sweeping into a backyard and carrying off a songbird.
The next most numerous hawk in the city is the merlin. This is a small falcon with the falcon family’s characteristic swept-back wings and relatively short tail. This gives these birds a kind of bullet shape.
The merlin is a smaller relative of the peregrine falcon, which is the hawk species most easily seen in Grand Forks. The single pair nesting on the UND campus have become local celebrities. I spent a bit of time admiring them last week. I was on the Columbia Road overpass; the falcons were on the UND water tower.
A third kind of falcon also occurs here, and it might be seen within the city. The kestrel is much more common in open country, however. It’s often seen perched on overhead wires, on sign posts and hay bales watching for passing prey. Unlike the other local hawks, the kestrel has the ability to hover, and this marks it out from others.
Another accipiter also occurs in our area. This is the sharp-shinned hawk, essentially a smaller version of the Cooper’s hawk. The two are difficult to tell apart except at close range. Sharp-shinned hawks are less common and more likely to be encountered in rural woodlands rather than city backyards.
The other local hawk species are much more likely to be encountered in open country.
The most likely is red-tailed hawk, the bird that many local birders visualize when we hear the word hawk. The red-tailed hawk is a buteo, a group of broad-winged, broad-tailed soaring hawks. In flight, they look rather boxy, almost square.
The red-tailed hawk is frequently encountered hunkering on the crossbar of an overhead pole, though not often on the overhead wire. They’re too heavy to be comfortable there. They also use tree limbs, hay bales and rock piles as lookout posts. I’ve also seen them perched on farm equipment, including irrigation pivots.
It’s a characteristic bird of woodland edges, and so it occurs along streams and rivers, lake shores and in farm shelterbelts.
Two other buteos might be seen here, though both are more common farther west. These are Swainson’s and ferruginous hawks. The best clue to the latter is a conspicuous light spot in the wing, almost as if there were a window through the feathers. Swainson’s hawk has a brick red upper breast. The leading edge of the wing appears white from below, the opposite of most buteo species.
A bit farther west, in the Turtle Mountains, especially, broad-winged hawks are fairly common nesters.
Finally, there is a single representative of the harrier clan in our area. This is the Northern harrier, a species that occurs around the northern half of the globe. The harrier is emblematic of open grassland, where it is often seen “quartering,” or flying back and forth near the tops of the grass. In flight, it appears unsteady, rocking back and forth.
Harriers are dimorphic. Males and females appear different. Males are gray with black wing tips, so they look as if they might have skimmed a mud puddle in their rocking flight. Females are golden brown. Both males and females have a white patch on the rump, in front of the tail. This clinches the identification.
This list doesn’t exhaust the hawk species that might be seen here. Several others are migrants or winter residents and a couple of others occasionally stray into the area.
Adding these up, and including the eagles and osprey, which are closely related, produces a list of 17 species occurring locally that fit the general term “hawk.”
Then, of course, there’s an 18th hawk about to make its mark on the UND campus, the Fighting Hawk—misnamed since hawks are not fighters, but welcome anyway.