Log Cabin Chronicles
Beth Girdler: Doing It Naturally
Beth Girdler
Beth Girdler
is a naturalist based in Ayer's Cliff, Quebec.

Her previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 01.22.01
Ayer's Cliff, Quebec


Spotting hawks

"On the fence post, what a beauty! 22 for me."
"Over there on the sign, see it?"
"Good one, 19 for you!"
"…top of the tree? No, it's a crow!"
"Nuts! Back to 18."

Most families adopt one or two car games to help pass the time on long road trips. Count the cows; lose your total if you pass a graveyard. Count red cars or Fords vs. Chevys, (popular with my brothers over 30 years back.) How many Volkswagen Beetles can you spot? "Punch buggy – no paybacks!" "Ow!"

My father taught us to watch for hawks as we hurtled down the highway.

"Keep your eyes peeled" he'd say, pointing out individuals perched on the topmost branches of trees, atop telephone poles, fence posts and road signs, flying over fields or flying overhead.

This proved an excellent diversion for five fidgety kids. We would compete to see who would be the first to spy each bird.

Now my husband, children and I play the hawk game. We have created our own rules. When spotting is good and the competition fierce, we enforce the crow rule. It is easy to mistake crows for hawks if you are not careful. Cutthroat hawking –you snooze, you lose. Mistaken identity - lose a point. During breeding season when the small, colourful kestrels, Falco sparverius, can be seen on almost every telephone wire we exclude them from our count or give them half points. Sometimes we forgo the game and, together, keep track of the total number of hawks we see on any particular trip.

A drive from the Eastern Townships to Montreal can render around 10 to 20 sightings. You can chalk up 30 – 50 sightings on a good day between Montreal and Toronto. The Don Valley Parkway into Toronto can be excellent with hawks every 500 feet on some stretches, some birds sitting only a few yards from the edge of the highway. Travel the Toronto to Windsor run for the best viewing.

Check it out! I bet most of you have driven by hundreds of hawks in your lifetime and never noticed they were there.

The most common roadside species seen in our area at this time of year is the red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis. Red-tails are big heavy-looking birds, over a foot tall. Larger than a crow and with lighter colouration (the belly is often white), Red-tails perch in a much more erect manner. You may or may not be able to discern the rust red tail feathers on the adults that give the bird its name. There are many colour variations within this species and immature birds bear no rust colour at all. These birds perch in a prominent place and watch for the movement of mice, shrews, voles and other prey. If you are lucky you may see one leave its perch for an attack or rise from the ground with something clutched tight in its talons. A truly impressive sight is that of a hawk mantling. This behavior is typical of birds of prey wherein the animal fans its tail and spreads its wings in a protective manner over a fresh kill.

Less common but still observed in winter are the dainty kestrels. The smallest member of the North American falcons at around 8 - 9 inches tall, the kestrel is the only falcon with a rust coloured back. Both males and females bear black sideburns and a black mustache.

These are not the only hawk species you can see from a car but will most likely be the first you'll notice.

Remember that stopping on a major highway is never a good idea however passengers may get a clear view of hawks as you drive. On some of the smaller roads and highways, you might be able to pull over for a better look, your car acting as a blind.

Once you know what you are looking for and where to look you may want to take a stab at identification. Take a bird book and binoculars with you when you travel. Peterson has a field guide to hawks. If you are in the right place at the right time, you may be lucky enough to see other birds of prey. Snowy owls occasionally move into the southern reaches of Canada during the winter. A few of the birds of prey I have seen along Canadian highways include ferruginous hawks, a peregrine falcon, prairie falcon, bald and golden eagles, hawk-owls, snowy owls, great gray owls and short-eared owls.

I find something surreal about catching a glimpse of a wild animal as I flash past in my car. When I spot a big hawk, feathers fluffed against the cold and scanning the road allowance for dinner, I get the strange sensation that the animal is reality, and I am but a blur, an image, a passing thought.

Next time you find yourself en route on one of our highways, keep your eyes peeled, you just might find that something is looking back at you.