You’ve most likely seen a red-tailed hawk. It is the most common hawk in North America, and recognizable usually by, you guessed it, a reddish tail.
Yosemite Lakes is prime redtail country, and they are year ‘round residents. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t see one circling high above, or sitting on a telephone pole looking for a meal. Their distinctive screech, kee-eeeee-arr, can be heard for some distance throughout the valley.
We have just the habitat that red-tailed hawks love: open country, high perches (bull pines and oak tree snags, utility poles, etc), and a plethora of small mammals to hunt: ground squirrels, voles, mice, rabbits. There is no shortage of any of those here; the supply appears endless, doesn’t it? So, like the turkey vulture I wrote about in an earlier post, red-tailed hawks play an important ecological role in our neighborhoods.
There is frequently a redtail lurking in the trees around the mailboxes by Blue Heron Lake. I saw one waiting patiently on a dead oak tree branch while I was getting my mail. Suddenly, with legs and talons outstretched, it dove to the ground and nabbed a squirrel on the side of the hill. On another occasion, I was looking at some small birds in the brush along the lake trail, only to look up and find a hawk just 15 feet away, sitting on a bare tree branch, eyes fixed upon a motionless squirrel near my feet.
Red-tailed hawks are large, muscular-looking birds weighing up to about three pounds. They stand somewhere between a crow and a goose in size. The female is larger than the male. Broad wings, spanning 45 to 55 inches, are designed for soaring effortlessly over long periods of time while in search of prey.
Redtail plumage can be quite diverse across the continent. Generally, though, they are brownish on top, and whitish underneath. A common field mark is a belly band of dark streaks. On the leading edge of the wing underside you may see a dark bar, or “dash,” and what looks like a “comma” further toward the wing tips. The tail is short, and spreads out like a fan. Juveniles, however, don’t have a red tail; instead, their tail has several dark bands.
Last spring I was fortunate to observe a pair displaying their fascinating courtship behavior involving a variety of aerial acrobatics. As the two birds were circling high above, I heard loud, continuous screeching. The male climbed to a higher altitude, and then made a steep dive. It swooped upward again. With its legs dangling down, it then approached the female from above and touched her. It was all a very exciting performance to witness, even though far away.
Next time you are out and about, perhaps driving through the cattle ranches along Highway 41, be on the lookout for this widespread “highway” hawk.
Robert Groos is a published photographer and keen observer of nature who lives in Yosemite Lakes Park. He shares some of his outstanding images of our local feathered friends along with some tidbits of interesting facts about each. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.