The melancholy voice of k.d. lang filled the car with stories of lost love as we wended our way up the mist-shrouded mountains of western Pennsylvania. The intermittent slap of wipers, locked in their standoff with the light rain, punctuated the anguished tales of loneliness. The valley below was lost in a drifting fog.
We climbed another corner and a solitary raptor, huddled against the elements, sat perched high on a leafless tree along the roadside.
The weather had turned the world into a series of gray tones fading into blackness. I couldn't distinguish the eponymous rust color of its tail in this low light, but the bird's bulky silhouette and iconic pose left me no doubt: this starkly beautiful sentinel was a red-tailed hawk.
The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is the most frequently seen roadside hawk across the United States. The big hawk has resident populations in all of the lower 48 states.
A sizable number of red-tails migrate into Canada every summer to breed. By this time of the year, they have all returned to the states. Some birds will continue their journey to Central America as far as Panama or into the Caribbean for the winter. Given their widespread distribution, it is not surprising that they are our nation's most common hawk.
Like many of the other big birds of North America, red-tails mate for life. The birds engage in a captivating mating ritual. The male and female face each other in flight as they spiral down, legs outstretched, until they land on an exposed branch.
Both birds construct a substantial nest of sticks, twigs, bark and other vegetation. The female does almost all of the incubating, while the male brings food to the nest and stands guard when his mate takes a brief respite from her duties.
When the chicks hatch, he will work even harder: He hunts for the entire family. Once the chicks have fledged, both parents will supplement their diet until they become proficient hunters themselves.
While red-tails can be found throughout the country, they show so much plumage variation that some experts divided them into separate species until recently. Today we recognize five distinct populations: eastern, western, southwestern, Krider's and Harlan's.
Here in the East, red-tails exhibit a white underside interrupted by a dark-spotted belly band. This wide belt is an excellent field mark for distinguishing red-tails from the other hawks in the buteo family.
Red-tails in the East also have a white throat, a characteristic they don't share with the western and southwestern populations.
Regardless of where they reside, most red-tails have brown and black heads, backs and wing tops. With the exception of the small Harlan's population, they all have that namesake red tail.
The sexes generally look alike, although females are typically noticeably larger than their mates.
When red-tails fly overhead, they show a dark inner wing and a pale outer wing pattern. All of them have sharply hooked, fearsome-looking beaks.
Like the red-tail I had just seen, these birds like to perch on tree limbs bordering open areas. From that vantage point, they use their extraordinary eyesight to spy field mice, voles and rabbits scurrying through nearby fields. With a few beats of its big, rounded wings, the red-tail will be upon the little mammal. Like most hawks, red-tails kill with their powerful sharp talons. The deadly looking bill is designed to rip apart an animal post-mortem.
When the red-tail is not perched on a tree, telephone pole or fence post, it can often be seen soaring aloft. The bird's 4-foot wingspan easily lifts the 2.5 pound bird. Like other soaring birds, red-tails are wizards of the winds. They find thermal air masses and rise into the sky in an ascending spiral. As the warmer air mass dissipates, the red-tail will flatten its wings and soar out over the landscape in search of prey.
The notched primary feathers, the elegant "fingers" at the end of the out-stretched wing, spill air, thus reducing drag. This allows the hawks to fly slower.
The birds often fly into the wind. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, flying into the wind increases lift. On a windy day, a red-tail can be slowly moving over its hunting ground with its head down, looking for a meal, while maintaining sufficient airspeed to stay aloft because the headwind is doing much of the work.
The red-tail I had just seen was quickly lost back into the shrouded mountain's mists as we continued our climb into the low clouds.
In this fleeting moment, I recognized my life. It is a momentary appearance in a timeless journey, with me struggling to navigate through life's fog, hoping to catch a glimpse of the proud and solitary strength of the world around me.