The blade of my hoe cut easily through the garden soil, loosening the roots of pesky weeds so that I could remove them entirely from the bed. Tomorrow I hoped to plant carrots here, and I wanted their tiny seeds to have a good place to start, so that their tasty orange roots can grow deep without competition from weeds.
The first high, piercing whistle barely tickled my consciousness. But the second “tee teeeeeee,” and then the third made me look up. Expectantly, I searched the clear blue sky for a familiar shape. I still remember the first day I heard it – while reading Sigurd Olson in the spring sunshine under a tree on the Northland College campus. The faint but penetrating whistle made me look up, then scramble to grab my binoculars.
Still a beginning birder, I carefully noted the broad, pointed wings on this soaring hawk. The tail was most distinctive though. Thick black and white bands made the short tail very conspicuous. After studying my Sibley Guide to Birds for a minute, I landed on an identification of Broad-winged hawk.
Since that day, that distinctive call has penetrated my awareness many times. Each time I hear it, and always look up to find that distinctive tail silhouetted against the blue. Sometimes, in September, I’ll look up and see hundreds of broad-wings all swirling in a kettle as they migrate en masse to Central and South America. Their group migration is famous, and dependent on thermals. Because they rely on the rising warm air of thermals to save energy on the long journey, all broad-wings on this continent need to fly south around the same time in the early fall when the sun is still high and thermals are common.
Today there was only one hawk, surfing a hot wind as it whipped around the hedge of pines along the road. Swooping up and down, it cavorted acrobatically with only imperceptible tilts of its wings. Broad-winged hawks are said to avoid human development, but they also seek small forest openings in which to hunt. Somehow the agreeable configuration of trees and clearings along the road must have outweighed the homes and cars nearby.
Perhaps the proximity of Perry Lake (where my elementary school field trips have found many frogs and tadpoles recently) also helps sweeten the deal for this amphibian-eating raptor.
After a minute of admiring the single hawk’s antics, I caught a glimpse of another dark shape among the trees. Two broad-wings! Was this a pair engaging in a courtship display? If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might see a display that includes cartwheels, dives, and breathtaking, foot-joined tumbling.
The birds moved out of view behind the trees before I witness any such magic, but still I hope that they will have a nest nearby.
If they do, the larger female will lead the process of placing sticks for a nest, with some help from the smaller male. It can take two to four weeks to construct the nest, thirty days to incubate the eggs, and eight weeks for the chicks to become independent.
Turning back to my hoe, I concentrated once again on preparing a nest for my carrots, looking forward to the day when they, too, will grow big and strong, and fledge from this cozy nest of soil (into my kitchen!)
The most distinctive feature of a broad-winged hawk is actually the stripes on its wide tail. Photo by New Jersey Audubon.