Red-tail Spring

Red-tailed Hawk by Doyle Dowdell

Cape May, NJ – Another Red-tailed Hawk!  It was my 11th since leaving Cape May and I’d not even made it to Somers Point.

The date was February 24 and spring was barely in the air.  Red-tailed Hawks were in the air, doing what they always do when spring is about to pop in South Jersey.

See More Early Signs of Spring in Cape May

Each spring, in anticipation of the coming nesting season, Red-tailed Hawks set up territories and begin courting their mates. This behavior is easy to see as these hawks soar hour after hour overhead. It is safe to say that each time you see a bird soaring in a limited area at this time of the year, there is a nesting territory below.

While you usually will see only one bird soaring, if you keep watching, you may see both male and female soaring together, or a male chasing another male out of its territory. These aggressive birds strictly guard their territories and drive away all interlopers.

If you take a careful look at these birds as they soar, you will see that they are all adults. You can tell by the red tail. Immature Red-tails have a duller, brown and white barred tail, which is easily distinguished if there is any sun to reflect the brick red of the adult’s tails.

Red-tailed Hawk by Doyle Dowdell

Young birds will not be present until later in the spring. They will likely hatch in April or May. Any young bird from the previous year will simply be driven away from prime nesting territories and forced to wander until they find unoccupied ground. Here in Cape May County, real estate is limited and young birds generally have to wander long distances to find new territories.

Driving the Garden State Parkway is an easy way to see Red-tails. It’s as if they line up their territories along the marsh and parkway edge. The marsh, forest, and grassy fields along the Parkway provide a perfect habitat for these birds to hunt, nest, and rest. The small forests along the parkway and marsh edge also provide the updrafts that Red-tails need to soar when they are patrolling their territories or hunting for mice and other small animals.

While daffodils, warmer weather, and greening grass are all dependable signs that spring is nearly here, seeing Red-tailed Hawks soaring along the Garden State Parkway is the clincher for me.

About Paul Kerlinger

Paul Kerlinger, Ph.D. is a scientist, author and nationally known expert on bird migration. He's done extensive studies on hawks, Snowy Owls and neotropical song birds. Kerlinger is the former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, His books include How Birds Migrate and Flight Strategies of Migrating Hawks. He's an ardent fly fisherman and organic vegetable gardener.