On a recent trip down the Suwannee, a large bird of prey flew across the river about 25 feet in front of my canoe.
My paddling partner, a relative newcomer to the Great Outdoors, asked what kind of bird it was.
"A hawk," I replied.
"What kind of hawk?" she asked.
"A red-shouldered hawk," I replied, thinking I had a 50-50 chance of being right. Then I added, "Or maybe it was a red-tailed hawk."
This led to a brief conversation about how to tell the difference, and I of course uttered the obvious, "… one has a red shoulder and one has a red tail." But to tell the truth, when you're on the water or in the woods and you see one of the magnificent birds, it's hard to tell which is which.
So I headed down to St. Petersburg's Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, where they have a great collection of birds of prey, to sharpen my identification skills. The Preserve, one of the city's greatest treasures, is hosting a Raptor Fest this weekend, in case you want to do the same.
Let's start with the red-tailed hawk:
One of the most common hawks in the United States, you've probably seen this bird on any long car trip. Red-tailed hawks love open country, and you'll often spot them soaring over open fields hunting for food. These birds of prey feed mostly on mammals — mice, rats, squirrels and rabbits.
You will also see them perched atop telephone poles or fence posts along the roadside. These are big, powerful birds, with broad, rounded wings, and a short, wide tail. From a distance, it is easy to confuse a female of the species with a bald eagle.
Now the red-shouldered hawk:
This bird of prey is a little smaller than its red-tailed cousin. If you have good eyes, or binoculars, you might be able to identify this bird by the distinctive wide dark and narrow white bands on its wings.
But a far better way to tell this hawk from the larger red-tailed hawk is to simply consider the place. If you are hiking down a wooded trail and see a bird of prey moving through the trees, chances are it is an owl or a red-shouldered. And it is pretty easy to tell the difference between those two … i.e., owls have big, round heads.
These forest hawks focus on smaller prey, mice, frogs and snakes. With that said, the hawk that flew across the Suwannee was most likely red-shouldered, since this woodland raptor is more often found along rivers and swamps.
So next time you are out on an adventure with family and friends, and a hawk flies your way, don't bother trying to count feathers. If the bird flies over an open field, it is probably a red-tailed hawk. But if you are hiking or canoeing, chances are it is the smaller, red-shouldered hawk.
But don't take my word for, go check out Raptor Fest. It is a great way to introduce family and friends to Florida's fabulous birds of prey. In addition to trained raptors in free flight and live birds of prey exhibits and presentations, there will also be a variety of environmental exhibitors.
To learn more, call Boyd Hill Nature Preserve at (727) 893-7326.