Red-tailed Hawk Questions

Red-tailed Hawk

While hiking on the Middle Sister a couple of days ago, I heard a call that sounded enough like an eagle, that I might have passed it off as a strange eagle, had I not seen the bird. Fortunately, as I hiked up, it flew from its perch and landed in another tree. My brother saw where it landed, and I was able to find a position where I could get some pictures of it through the trees. The first three photos with this entry (including the one above) are of this bird. I think this bird is a Harlan’s Red-tail Hawk, though I am not positive about that. Comments are welcome.

A short distance later, I heard a second bird making the distinctive ‘creee’ call that Red-tailed Hawks are known for. I knew it was a different bird because the first bird was still calling below us, and this one was calling from higher up. This bird took off and I did not get a good look at it, but did see that it was not a Steller’s Jay imitating a hawk. I heard this hawk calling several more times as it soared by while we were hiking up.

While taking a break on an open slope near the tree line, I saw and photographed a ‘cree’ calling hawk soaring below. Unfortunately I was not well prepared, and the shutterspeed was slow, leading to a blurry picture (see last photo with this entry). However, it seems clear from the photo that this hawk looks a bit different than the first one. It appears that it might be lighter in color, but the most striking difference is the tail. The second hawk has a much redder tail with dark then white bands at the tips of the tail feathers. My thought on this bird is that it’s a Western Red-tail Hawk, though again, I’m not sure about this at all.

In addition to my questions about the identification of these birds, I also wonder about the calls. If these are separate subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, is it just coincidence that I heard the different calls from them? Is the first one a juvenile still begging for food (and would that imply it was hatched out near here)?

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

3 thoughts on “Red-tailed Hawk Questions”

  1. Hi Matt,
    Saw your message on Eaglechat about the hawks. I’m jealous – I’ve only heard a red-tailed hawk once since moving to Sitka (unfortunately I never saw it) while near the top of the Gavan Hill Trail. Looks like you found an adult and juvie and even got some photos to prove it! They definitely look like Western Red-tailed Hawks to me. The first one is a light-morph juvenile. The characteristics that I notice are the overall brownish color of the bird (rather than the more black and white of a Harlan’s) and the dark patagiums of the underside of the wing (a light morph Harlan’s will show distinct dark patagiums as well but the bird will show a “cleaner” and whiter chest and belly. Also, light morph Harlan’s make up a very small percentage of the population). The key to knowing it’s a juvenile (other than the red tail of course) is the white “window” that you can see near the end of the wing (at the base of the primaries) in the second photo. These windows are gone in second year birds and older. From the looks and sounds of it, you had an adult Western red-tail and a begging juvenile that just doesn’t want to grow up. It sure would be fun to find the nest someday!…
    Okay, enough of my blabbing. You probably knew or figured out all of the above already. By the way, your website is great. Your 1000 Species Project is especially impressive!


  2. One of the funniest things I’ve ever heard was a young red-tailed hawk trying to give a juvenile’s food call to nearby mom/dad with an adult red-tail’s voice. This poor thing would roam up and down the ridge for hours, calling mom and dad and begging for food, but the sound didn’t come out “right” because his voice had changed. Mom and dad ignored the calling, and I’ve always wondered if that bird ever figured out how to feed itself. So yes, the calls can be different. Nice photos!

    Carolyn H.

  3. Hi Matt, I also think these birds were likely adult and young western red-tailed hawks. Its possible the young bird could be an intermediate/light morph bird which would explain the heavier markings but the overall impression is still that of a brownish bird rather than the blackish characteristics typical of a harlans. Also, the moderate to heavy barring on the leg feathers are more typical for red-tails but not usually seen on harlan’s. I am not sure of the documented occurrence of red-tails in southeast. Up here in south central at our spring hawk watch site we see a very few western redtails and many folks doubt we even see those! Further research to document this species this far north in AK is undergoing including genetic analysis. Sure wish I could get pictures like yours to support our reported red-tailed hawks! BTW, Our percentage of light morph harlan’s to dark morphs is higher than previously thought at 5-8%.

    Thanks for posting your photos and sighting.

    Cecily Fritz
    Palmer AK

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