The Juneau area will be seeing the peak of southward bird migration this month and into October. Many interior Alaskan hawks migrate through Canada, but you may get a glimpse of the red-tailed hawk which can be found searching our open areas for small mammals, naïve fledging birds and opportunistic edibles. Good places to look are the meadows by Echo Ranch and Amalga Harbor, the Auke Recreation area, or the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge.
Birds of prey travel during the day making use of favorable winds. Perhaps, that day pattern pushes other birds to favor migration at night. The red-tailed hawk is headed for the lower 48 and Mexico.
The red-tailed hawk departs from interior Alaska, leaving behind its tall, spacious nest in the crown of a tree or on a rocky ledge with a good hunting view. When the life pair returns next spring, they will recycle their nest, building it higher, unless a great horned owl, who arrives a month earlier, has appropriated the nest.
If not hunting in slow aerial loops using its phenomenal binocular vision, look for this hawk perched atop a stiff, high tree with a view. It tends to return to a good lookout. On a windy day, you may see the bird kiting; the hawk faces into the wind with drawn in wings and scans for lunch while suspended, motionless in the air.
The red-tailed hawk is part of the buteo group. It is stockily built with broad wings, rounded at the tips, and a short wide tail. Notched ends of the wings, looking like spread fingers, enable the bird to create drag for slow flight and enable the bird to avoid a stall. It attacks in a controlled dive with its legs stretched forward. The capture is with the talons. The hooked beak tears apart the meal.
The female, 25 percent larger than the male, at a distance can be mistaken for an eagle. This time of year, the bird is mostly silent and listeners won’t hear the typical rasping scream voiced over for an eagle as in many a movie. The young bird may appear longer and larger than an adult; that’s pre-planned, so to speak. The feathers of young birds are going to take a beating while perfecting flight and the hunt.
The difficult part in identifying this hawk is the wide range of plumage color. You might see a light, dark, or rufous color variation. Common is a white belly crossed by the suggestion of a brown band. At least, you see a reddish tail on top, looking paler from below. An immature bird has a tail patterned with many dark bars and an underside that is darkly spotted.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects red-tailed hawks in Canada, Mexico and the United States.
• Patricia Wherry is the education chairperson for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at education@juneau_audubon_society.org.