Hawk display proves puzzling

Posted May 14, 2010, at 10:55 p.m.

Making the most of a short visit to Orono, I went out for a quick bit of birding with my friend Paul Markson one afternoon recently.

As we exited the car in the parking lot on Taylor Road in Orono, the blackflies found us immediately. But, we were determined as we set off to scan the first of the ponds there for bitterns or other waterfowl.

The day was unusually warm, midsummer-like instead of early spring, and the sun was bright in a robin’s egg-blue sky, marred by only a few puffy clouds. The first bait pond revealed no birds, save for a pair of Canada geese quietly foraging on the far bank.

As we headed down the road, we heard the calls of a northern flicker. The nasal sounds resembled the word “clear” and were repeated three or four times in quick succession. Peering through the sparsely leafed trees, we spotted movement and trained our binoculars on a thick branch of a maple, being rewarded with great views of a male and female flicker.

Because of the blackflies, though, standing still for very long was not a favorable option. At least, not for a pair of flickers; so we continued at a moderately brisk pace down the road, only stopping when we saw a raptor soaring over Newman Hill.

At first, I thought it was a red-shouldered hawk, but it lacked a key identification mark of these birds seen in flight: a crescent-shaped “window” near the tip of each wing. This mark is caused by a lack of pigmentation near the base of the outer flight feathers, which allows light to pass through. According to the excellent “Hawks in Flight,” by Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton, this mark is visible from great distances and one of the best ways to identify flying red-shouldered hawks.

So our mystery bird was not a red-shouldered hawk, then. Thinking back to “Hawks in Flight,” I tried to remember the marks of a broad-winged hawk, for that was my second guess. Key characteristics are thick black and white bands on the tail (check), and clean white underbody and underwings, which are bordered by a thick black band extending from the tip of the wing down the entire length of the trailing edge of the wing (check, check). It was, indeed, a broad-winged hawk.

The bird disappeared (or so we thought), and we continued walking, only to be brought up short by the calls of another broad-winged hawk from within the mixed deciduous woods to the left of the second pond. The bird repeated its high, two-noted whistle, “see-geeee,” as we anxiously tried to spot it through the trees.

Suddenly, the first hawk (so we assumed) was back, soaring over the spot where the perched broad-winged was calling. It then flew out and perched on the bare branch of a maple at the head of the pond, giving us excellent views. After a few minutes, it flew into the woods toward the second bird again, perching somewhere nearby.

The first bird continued to vocalize, while the second bird again flew out to its original perch in the tree near the pond. We were fascinated, and wondered what exactly was going on. I was inclined to think it was a mating or territorial interaction, but the next actions of the birds blew that out of the water and completely mystified us.

The bird near the pond took off and soared over Newman Hill, caught a thermal, and began circling up through the column of air. The hawk in the woods suddenly appeared as well, flew out over the pond, and also caught the same thermal. Both birds began rising higher and higher into the air, and were joined by yet two more raptors from a good distance away.

All four birds were rising in the same thermal; the second pair was higher up, and as I watched through my binoculars, one of these birds dove at one of “our” pair. Because the birds were so high at this point, it was impossible for me to identify this bird. It appeared smaller, but I couldn’t be sure.

As the broad-winged hawks reached the top of the thermal, they set their wings in a glide, heading north. The second pair of raptors headed in a north-westerly direction. It was a fascinating scenario and raised many questions. Had the hawks been in the middle of migration, stopping in the area to rest and re-fuel? Was the pair that had been interacting a mated pair, and were they migrating together?

The whole thing held us captivated, and we hardly noticed the black flies. That was, until the birds disappeared for good; then it was time for us to move on, as well.

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