Winter sightings of hawks aren’t uncommon

Posted Jan. 09, 2009, at 9:07 p.m.

On my way back from an errand Sunday, I was driving along Spurwink Road in Cape Elizabeth when the unmistakable silhouette of a hawk caught my attention. I pulled over and focused my binoculars on the bird, which was perched in a roadside tree.

The bird was small — not much larger than a crow — and its long slim tail was straight-edged; pretty reliable field marks to identify the raptor as a sharp-shinned hawk.

Although the majority of these birds have long since migrated south for the season, a number of them do winter here in Maine. Sightings of sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and red-tailed hawks are not all that uncommon.

This is especially so of Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, which primarily prey upon small songbirds and larger birds such as rock doves. They’ve been known to frequent backyard bird-feeding stations, and, considering the number of people who feed birds, it isn’t surprising (and only natural) the birds would focus on such a good food source. It’s either that or face death by starvation when things get tough.

Red-tailed hawks, however, prey primarily upon mammals such as mice, voles, and rabbits. They will take other birds such as waterfowl and songbirds in winter, although they aren’t as specialized in hunting birds as are other hawks and rely more on their mammalian prey. Their ability to winter here may depend on the amount of snow cover and the population numbers of their prey.

The sharp-shinned hawk I was viewing soon flew off, and on a whim, I decided to see if I could relocate it. I drove down the road and pulled into the parking lot of a small pumping station which overlooks a wet field — perhaps part of Spurwink Marsh.

I couldn’t relocate the hawk, but something kept me there scanning the area anyway. After a few minutes, a small flock of geese approached, silhouetted against the evening sky. I almost dismissed them as Canada geese, but something about them was different. Their bodies were slightly smaller and chunkier, their necks not as long and sinuous. As they flew below the treeline I could see them clearly; the birds were all white with elegant, black-tipped wings: snow geese.

Snow geese are a special treat in Maine. They are extreme high-arctic, circumpolar breeders that usually winter in large numbers in the valleys of central California and along the gulf coasts of Louisiana and Texas, as well as along the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey to the Carolinas. During migration thousands of them will congregate at “staging” areas, and it is the goal of many a birdwatcher to witness such gatherings.

After a few moments I could no longer see the geese; they had effectively hidden themselves in the rolling landscape. Just as I was about to leave, I noticed another bird flying above the sere grasses of the field. Another raptor — with a beautiful slate-blue upper body and startlingly white underbody feathers — was systematically quartering the field. Its long, slender, black-tipped wings and white patch at the base of its tail further identified it as a male northern harrier, or marsh hawk.

These birds of prey hunt small- to medium-sized mammals and birds; according to the “Birds of North America” species account, they may hunt water birds if mammals are not available. I wondered if the harrier had made a pass at the geese, although a snow goose is as large or larger than a harrier — especially a male harrier — as the males of raptor species are smaller and slighter than females.

Harriers are partial or full migrants: some individuals only travel a slight distance from their breeding grounds; others make a full migration to the southern U.S.

The marsh hawk continued to quarter the field, then abruptly dipped into a swale, hopefully snagging a mouse or vole. It didn’t reappear, so maybe it was successful.

As the sun was setting, and the high, wispy clouds were blushing pink, I was honored nature had given me such a show, and vivid color images of the dazzling snow geese and the electric blue-gray marsh hawk played themselves again in my mind. It was a perfect ending to the day.

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