In March 2016 I noticed a large nest high in a hackberry tree at Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus. At that time I could only speculate on the bird it might belong to.
Along came April. The trees had erupted in green, camouflaging any signs of a nest. I almost forgot to stop the Gator to check on it.
To my discovery when I stopped and looked up my eyes were greeted with a red-tailed hawk mother (Buteo jamaicensis) sitting in the nest camouflaged against the dense green leaves of the hackberry tree. Her partner was flying low overhead calling out in its raspy voice, scraping and screaming “kree-eee-ar” every few seconds. She never moved in the nest while I was observing and photographing her.
Red-tailed hawks lay between one – five eggs and incubate them for around 28 – 35 days. It’s the female’s responsibility for incubating the eggs, with the male gives her a break on and off during the day for hunting and flying. Their eggs are between 2.2 – 2.7 inches long and 1.7 – 2 inches wide. The color of the eggs is white/buff color speckled with brown or purple.
This particular nest at Comanche Springs is almost in the crown of the hackberry tree giving the hawks a view of the landscape. You can tell by its size and construction it’s been in that tree for a number years with it being refurbished every year with new sticks and foliage. Red-tailed nests are typically tall piles of dry sticks with the inner layer being lined with bark strips, fresh foliage, or dry vegetation.
While leading a hike of a regional group of high school students in May our turn-around point was at this nest. As we paused a loud scuttle from the grass around the hackberry tree was heard. No grunting. One baby feral hog shot out from underneath the hackberry tree with the nest. Then four more feral hog babies ran one by one at lightening speed across the path in front of us. The 200+ pound mama was not far behind and darted out from under the tree in pursuit of her babies. All were scared as much we were. (This became a first for me at Comanche Springs.)
After catching our breaths, that’s when the husband of one of the teachers, said look at the red-tailed babies. Off to the side of the large hackberry tree is a large juniper tree. Sitting on its dead branches were two juvenile red-tailed hawks. One looked in really poor shape.
The parents were circling overhead screaming out their calls of warning.
The yellowish, bug eyes staring and observing us were indescribable as I photographed it. Knowing that this juvenile was just a mere egg back in April and seeing its size now only proved how fast avian babies grow.
Born naked and blind they are brooded by their mother while their dad brings food to the nest. She tears the food into smaller pieces before feeding her chicks. The chicks fledge at about 42 to 46 days old. During the fledging period of around 10 weeks, they learn to fly and hunt. Initially, they will forage on the ground, looking for small prey like insects and spiders. Once they have perfected their flying skills, they will hunt larger prey from the air.
Most juveniles are able to catch their own food at six to seven weeks after leaving the nest. Some juveniles stay with their parents for up to six months after they leave the nest.
By the time I got back to photograph them again about an hour later, the second juvenile had completely disappeared. Not wanting to disturb this lone young red-tailed hawk I did not venture near the dead tree to see what happened to its sibling. It might have taken off in flight or it could’ve fell injured never to recover. At least I know one of the mated pair’s brood’s survived.
To this day as I continue to check my camera traps the mated pair’s “kree-eee-aring” is still my music over the sound of the Gator. Often they are circling overhead flying near the hackberry tree. Often they take a rest from their flying and land on the tall electrical poles – ever watching me.
Other notable facts about red-tailed hawks include them being year round species in the U.S., as well as the most common hawk in North America. As they are soaring they are slowly seen turning in circles. They are often spotted atop telephone or electrical poles with their eyes fixed on an object on the road. Red-tailed hawks are monogamous and remain with the same mate for life. The cries of hawks in movies are often red-tailed hawks.
Photographs – © Christena Stephens Photography