Thursday, August 2, 2012

(Not) Seeing Red

Photo courtesy of USFWS

As I wandered through the field adjacent to the road into Norm’s Island, I heard a strange call that was entirely unfamiliar to me.  It sounded like a weak Bald Eagle call, but, upon locating the bird that had made the call, I instead observed brown and gray plumage and a brown head.  Making an educated guess (not so educated as a later found out) I immediately thought of a Golden Eagle.  That was a truly amazing moment as I filled myself with (false) hope and excitement that I had chanced upon such an amazing find!  It was then that I heard the famous screech of a Red Tail Hawk fill the air as the raptor took flight overhead.  As I observed the magnificent Red Tail Hawk take flight and find the nearest thermal air column to utilize its perfectly designed wings, I could not help but to look for the distinct red tail.  But, to my surprise, it was not there!  Now I was truly stumped, for this particular Red Tail Hawk had not only made a strange call that I had never heard, but it also did not have the red tail as described in its name.   
Intrigued, I followed the Not-So-Red Tail Hawk as it made its way to the next dead cottonwood tree to search for prey.  Being a raptor, it had a curved beak and keen eyes, a perfect combination for hunting small mammals and birds.  I was able to see it in action as its long and wide wings helped it ride rising air columns and circle over a field full of prey without even flapping its wings.  Then, as if out of thin air, a second one appeared!  Now this one was practically the same bird, about 2 feet long with a wingspan of 4 to 5 feet and still no red tail!  It too made the mysterious eagle-like call in addition to the famous screech, and had seemed to join the other one in the hunt.  Now this was quite a sight, two elegant raptors in the hunt!  I was even more surprised when I observed one perch on a branch overlooking a field while the other circled overhead, as if they were spotting for one another.  I continued watching them as they worked their way through the woods, until, after what seemed like moments since I first spotted them, they flew off across the road over towards Lake Josephine, most likely in search of a young duckling.  
Photo courtesy of USFWS
 As I walked back to the ACEC, I could hear the Red Tail Hawks distant calls in the distance as dozens of questions and theories ran through my head to explain what I had just seen.  Upon returning, I quickly looked up the different calls of the Red Tail Hawk, and was rewarded when I happened upon the same call that I had heard.  The call that I had heard was the Red Tail Hawk’s mating call, thus solving the mystery of the unknown call and why they were hunting together. However, this still left the absence of the red tail unsolved!  But, as usual, a little more work revealed the truth.  As it turns out, Red Tail Hawks begin reproducing at the age of 2, but do not reach full maturity until the age of 3 or 4.  So the two that I had stumbled upon must have been old enough to mate, but not entirely mature, resulting in two very bland colored hawks and one thoroughly confused me.  All in all, I felt pretty good about my detective and reasoning skills.  After all, I did identify it as a bird pretty quickly, if I do say so myself.   
~ Jeremy Brooks, High School Naturalist in Training

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