Soaring birds seem to be everywhere. This morning, as I drove through Red Canyon watching great clouds of fog lift from the valley, I watched a swarm as they floated on the rising thermals. Most of the birds I saw this morning were likely vultures, with their typical v-shaped dihedral. On most mornings, I assume that any raptors without this telltale vulture shape are red-tailed hawks, but this is only because I know these are the most common of the Colorado raptors. But every once in a while, I see something that doesn't look quite right, and I wonder if maybe I'm watching something entirely new and different.
The soaring birds are broken up into several main groupings, each relatively easily identifiable by different sizes, wing shapes, habitats and behaviors. The Buteos are one of the largest groups locally, including red-tailed hawks along with less commonly known species such as swainson's and ferruginous hawks. The Buteos are identifiable by their broad, rounded wings and robust body, as compared to the more pointed wings and slender bodies of the accipiters and the falcons. Individual species are much harder to differentiate due to the tremendous variation in plumage. Many species show light, dark and intermediate forms, and then juveniles also differ from the adults, which further complicates the issue.
Most of us identify the red-tailed hawks by their namesake, the rusty colored tail feathers. In truth, though, some morphs of this ubiquitous species don't even have a red tail! According to an old friend and avid birder, the real telltale sign that you've spotted a red-tailed hawk are the substantial black tips on the underside of its wings. When these patches are absent, I eagerly scan the bird, trying to memorize markings to look up when I return home. The problem, though, is when you're not sure what to look for, especially when you only catch a quick glimpse of the bird as it sails high above you.
Swainson's hawks vary tremendously in their colors and markings. Most color phases, though, share a dark "bib" on their upper chest, with a white throat patch. Swainson's hawks are only found locally in the summer months, preferring to spend the colder months in South America and returning to the northern climates to breed and feed. These hawks are typically hunters of the open plains, and you would be more likely to see one east of the Continental Divide, but they are seen locally, particularly above open meadows or sage scrublands, where they hunt for small mammals and insects.
The other Buteos commonly confused with the local red-tails are the ferruginous hawks. These are typically our largest Buteo, recognizable by their distinctive wing patterns. The lower portion of the wing is clean white, with a very tiny bit of dark at the tips. The wings are also slightly tapered and more pointed than those of the other Buteos. Like the Swainson's hawks, these are also typically birds of the grasslands, hunting small mammals from perches high up, or sometimes from the ground.
Looking skyward, I often hear myself say, "It's just another red-tail." The excitement of spotting and recognizing different species is sometimes all-consuming. But whatever the species, the hawks that frequent our valley shamelessly flaunt their gift of flight, teasing me as they sail effortlessly on the winds, occasionally making a beeline for some hapless little creature on the ground. Swainson's, ferruginous or red-tailed; these big birds inspire us daily with their freedom, wildness and beauty. As we watch them sail overhead, we can capture just a tiny bit of these feelings for ourselves, making our own lives richer and wilder.
Jaymee Squires is the graduate programs director at Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys spotting raptors of all sorts and is always looking to expand her "life list."