We had barely set foot inside the park when the glorious aquatic plants splashed into view. Before we could walk the short distance to the water, though, a silent bird whipped past us. A series of shallow, yet powerful wing beats carried it through the woods and into a tree down an adjacent path. The pond could wait, as we detoured toward the forest edge.
When we found the crow-size raptor a minute later, it was perched 20 feet almost directly overhead, facing away from us.
Its black-and-white patterned back was in plain view. The bird swiveled its head to the left, obligingly affording us a nice view of its black eye set off by an earthy brown head. The hawk's bill was yellow and black. The slice of its side that we could see was orange- brown. The tail showed alternating black and white bands. We were looking at a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus).
Had we not been directly underneath the perched bird, we would have been able to see the reddish orange patch of feathers on its shoulders that give the bird its name. When the hawk took off, it would display a distinctive, pale orange wing pattern superimposed on its black-and-white under wings. The pale orange would be visible along its chest as well. The breast is more distinctly orange when the hawk folds its wings, compressing its feathers into a compact series of orange and white bars. A translucent crescent sets off the wing tips when they are extended.
Both sexes of red-shouldered hawks look alike, although females are slightly larger than males, which is typical among raptors.
Red-shouldered hawks are forest birds. They have relatively short, broad wings that are ideally suited for their darting flights through trees. They usually hunt from a perch, just like the one above us. Using its extraordinary vision, the hawk can spot a field mouse or other mammal on the ground. With remarkable speed, the bird will be upon its prey, clutching it firmly in deadly talons. The dangerous-looking beak is made for tearing flesh from its victim, but it is the sharp, powerful feet that kills its meal. While mammals make up the majority of its diet, red-shouldered hawks will also eat amphibians, reptiles and small birds.
That diet explains in part why we saw this bird here. Red-shouldered hawks favor wooded areas that have water nearby. Mammals can be found in a variety of habitats, but the frogs and salamanders that make up part of the bird's diet need fresh water. Red-shouldered hawks are opportunistic hunters. With woods, marsh and ponds in close proximity, the prey choices here are many.
Red-shouldered hawks, who are monogamous, build nests of sticks and twigs. They produce one brood annually, usually hatching two to five eggs. The baby birds fledge after spending more than a month in the nest. While there, they are sometimes targeted by great horned owls looking for a meal.
These hawks are year-round residents of the Chesapeake watershed. They can be found from here south to the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Mississippi River. During summer, some will migrate north to the Great Lakes and New England.
In winter, a few will fly to eastern Mexico. There is a distinct and geographically isolated population of red-shouldered hawks in California. These birds range down into Baja, but don't overlap with the eastern birds. The California birds are richer in color than the birds in the East. The red-shouldered hawks found in Florida display the palest morph of all.
The orange tones of the bird we were watching marked it as an adult, as juveniles don't acquire russet tones until their second year.
The hawk showed no signs of leaving its perch, and after a leisurely look, we headed back to the showy flowers of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens that brought us here. Lily pads the size of our dining room table, lemon-yellow water callas and dwarf white lotus tinged with fuchsia fill these ponds with a remarkable palette.
Like the water-loving red-shouldered hawk, we have chosen to live near these gardens, and that day, we imitated the bird's behavior. These extraordinary gardens are what initially attracted us, but a willingness to follow an unexpected opportunity led us the red-shouldered hawk. Variety, it seems, has multiplied our chances for success.