Ripples 7/9/21

Red-shouldered hawk

Written by Jordan Troeger, land management intern

There comes a time in every aspiring biologist’s life that leaves them speechless. A moment where their heart races, their brain halts, and the only thought they can formulate is “Wow”. For me, it was finding the threatened Red-shouldered hawk nest.

My fellow interns and I were out in the woods when all of a sudden, one of them noticed a plethora of droppings on the skunk cabbage surrounding a tree. Naturally, we looked up. There, sitting among the branches, was a stick nest. We’d been told there was a Red-shouldered hawk on the preserve, and that the staff at Woodland Dunes had been searching for it for nearly 20 years. Could it be? Could we have found it?

My heart began to race. We tried to keep our expectations low. It probably wasn’t the Red-shouldered nest. That would be too lucky. We examined the area. It was in the right kind of habitat. But that could have been a coincidence. We started to research the hawks. We discovered that Barred Owls co-habitate with Red-shoulders. We’d been hearing the owls daily. But, again, what are the chances of that?

We began to search for signs of the birds. A feather lay neatly at the base of the tree. Another of the interns picked it up. It looked like a Red-Shouldered Hawk tail feather. All of a sudden, a stream of gooey, white poop rained down from the nest. The chick was staring down at us. We immediately backed up, both to not agitate the chick and to get a better look.

Sure enough, it was a Red-shouldered hawk chick, about two weeks out from flying the nest. His fuzzy head and sleek body created an ugly-yet-beautiful combination that stole my breath away. I was speechless. I couldn’t stop smiling. I teared up.

We’d found it.

The adult circled up ahead, calling to her baby. We backed even further up, but she didn’t land. We barely made a sound. This was the discovery of a lifetime—this nest had been hidden for years, and we’d found it. We quietly left the woods and told our fellow staff members. It was an afternoon of celebration at the office. None of us could fathom the fact that we’d found the nest. Looking back on it, it seems like a crazy dream.

Jim, the director of Woodland Dunes, called in a Red-shouldered hawk expert. The expert had us show him the nest, and upon further investigation he told us that, rather than just one chick, there were three! We had found a whole family of threatened hawks; I was speechless yet again.

We fondly named the hawks after Greek gods: Hera and Hades (the parents) and Apollo, Artemis, and Athena (the chicks). I was content with the knowledge that we’d found them. I didn’t need anything more. But our luck continued when John Jacobs (the hawk expert) let us come band the female with him.

We set up the net, turned on the Great Horned Owl lure, and left John and his wife in a blind. We walked out of the woods—John told us that Red-Shoulders seem to know if people go into a blind but not out, and that they’ll follow you out of the woods, as if to make sure you leave—and sat in silence to await John’s call. For nearly thirty minutes, we heard John’s prerecorded Red-Shoulder call echoing through the forest, enticing the hawk in. But with each recorded call, our spirits sank slightly. Those calls meant the hawk wasn’t in the net.

After forty-five minutes, and fifteen minutes of near silence, we got the call: John had caught the hawk! We raced to the sight and helped tear down the trap, the hawk safely tucked into a canister.

She was the most gorgeous bird I’d ever seen. I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was stunning. Her sleek, strong body was brown and white, her feet and beak bright yellow. Her shoulders, named oh-so-well, were a stunning shade of orangey-red. Her eyes were fierce and wise; she was unlike anything I’d witnessed before.

Once at the car, we got to watch as John banded, measured, and examined the bird. We helped write down data as he taught us how to identify newly grown feathers, who was leading the way in Red-Shouldered Hawk research, and various facts about their lives and behavior. After he was done processing the bird, he strapped a GPS backpack onto her back so he could observe her movements and overwintering patterns.

Then, he said something that left me more speechless than I’d been that entire week:

“Do you want to hold her?”

My heart left my chest. Of course I wanted to hold her! We each took a turn holding the beautiful bird, beaming as Jim snapped pictures of us. Finally, it was time to release her. John gently set her on the ground and she took off, soaring into the trees with the grace of an acrobat.

As she flew away, back to her nest, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. How lucky am I to have been one of the people to find the nest? How lucky am I to have gotten to speak with a Red-Shouldered Hawk expert? How lucky am I to have been able to watch said expert catch and band her? And how lucky am I that he trusted us all enough to hold her?

This was one of the most rewarding, exhilarating, and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. As someone dedicated to working with and protecting wild animals, this was something out of a dream. I am honored to have been one of the lucky few to have had this experience. However, it has made me more aware of my contributions to the decline of Red-shouldered hawk and other wildlife populations. Logging, wetland-filling, and collisions are some of the greatest human-induced threats facing Red-shouldered hawks today. And it is up to us—the common citizens of the world—to help protect these marvelous creatures.

Look into your ecological footprint, choose more sustainable ways to live, and research your local wildlife. In doing so, be on the lookout for an upcoming Red-shouldered hawk program at Woodland Dunes with John Jacobs, and head out to Yellow Birch trail for a chance to hear the keer-keer-keer of Hera and/or her family.

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