Minnesota Outdoors: Broad-winged hawk of the forest often heard before it is seen if at all

Blane Klemek

    In Minnesota there are 12 species of owls and around 20 species of hawks, eagles, and falcons, including the osprey and the turkey vulture. Indeed, from the migratory scavenging turkey vulture to the year ‘round resident and supreme aerial predator the northern goshawk, Minnesota is replete with raptors.

    Raptors include hawks, falcons, ospreys, eagles, owls, and even vultures.  Here in Minnesota where we’re fortunate to enjoy not only four biomes coming together across our vast state, we are also blessed with a diverse array of avian species, particularly with regard to raptors.

    The broad-winged hawk, the hawk of the forest, is a bird that is often heard before it is seen, if at all.  Pay attention the next time you explore a woodland and you might be alerted by the high-pitched, thinly whistled territorial “tee-teeeeee” of the broad-winged hawk.

    Several springs ago while searching for morel mushrooms on the forest floor beneath mature quaking aspen trees, I heard the telltale cry of this nondescript crow-sized raptor.  Quickly searching the treetops for its location, I managed to spot the hawk perched on a branch of a leafless aspen.

    A brownish raptor at a little over a foot long with a 30-inch wingspan, the broad-winged hawk would be better named for its tail, not its “broad” wings (buteos are so classified together because of their relatively short, broad wings).  Next to its distinctive call, the tail feathers of the broad-winged hawk should be all that’s required to correctly identify this bird.

    Perhaps sensing that I discovered its hiding spot or the bird was unnerved by my standing motionless, the hawk took flight, unintentionally exposing itself for me to see, and thus positively concluding its true identity, the evenly spaced, alternating black and white bands of its tail.  As such, wouldn’t then the broad-winged hawk be better named for its tail, the “band-tailed hawk”?  Maybe so.

    Broad-winged hawks, actually most if not all raptors, have concluded their nesting season by now. With incubation periods of about a month in duration, the subsequent hatching of young coincides wonderfully, as Nature intended, with the arrival and springtime-through-autumn abundance of prey such as mice, voles, ground squirrels, birds, amphibians, snakes and other reptiles, and even insects.

    A sight predator that prefers hunting from perches in trees that provide the species with unobstructed views of the forest floor below, broad-winged hawks swoop down from these vantage points to capture their prey on the ground. Sometimes hunting by wing, broad-winged hawks are less frequently observed soaring, but they do so from time to time.

    The hawks are also known to engage in mating rituals that involve midair pair-bonding as they circle together high in the sky, followed by long dives toward the ground. Soaring behavior is also a means of establishing breeding territory establishment and defense by making visible to nearby pairs of broad-winged hawks and other raptors of territorial ownership.

    Last weekend after birding with my niece Grace on the shore and adjacent woodlands of Clearwater County’s Upper Rice Lake, we jumped in the truck and began making our way out of the forest when she suddenly remarked, “There’s a hawk!” while pointing toward something through the windshield on her side of the cab.

    Straining to see what she was looking at, I backed up the truck and peered through the window where she gestured, and was surprised to finally see the bird she was excitedly looking at—a broad-winged hawk.  Perched on a limb of a dead jack pine tree just 50 feet off of the trail, we were thrilled to watch the bird basically watching us for a full minute through our binoculars. What a treat to study the bird up close.

    Observing broad-winged hawks at such close range, any raptor really, is something we Minnesotans are able to frequently do given our many and diverse habitats from prairies to pines and all places in between, including even our cities and towns. Considered abundant and of low conservation concern, lucky we are that broad-winged hawks call Minnesota home for a few months every year as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

    Blane enjoys getting feedback from readers and hearing about your stories from Minnesota’s great outdoors. Email him at bklemek@yahoo.com.