red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk Banding

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June 6 was a beautiful day to spend outdoors learning about the state -threatened red-shouldered hawk and helping band young red-shoulders. We were very fortunate to have Wisconsin’s red-shouldered experts, the Jacob brothers, Gene and John, come to the red-shouldered hotspot in Columbia County to band young. http://www.raptorresearch.com/ and  https://raptorservices.rezgo.com/

The goal was to remove the chicks from the nest, place them safely in a cloth bag, and lower them down for banding and taking scientific measurements, and return them back to the nest.

Video by Arlene Koziol

Team members joining the Jacob brothers included Mark Martin, Graham Steinhauer, and Tanner Pettit (summer intern) from Goose Pond Sanctuary; Goose Pond volunteers Arlene Koziol, Brand Smith, and Bob Bennicoff; MAS board members and photographers David Rihn and Pat Eagan; local resident Cole Hollander; and Savanna Grayless from the DNR Columbia County Wildlife staff.

We began at the first nest located 53 feet high up in a shagbark hickory tree located 20 feet from the front porch of a home in the Wisconsin River forested floodplain of Portage. The brothers are very safety-oriented and spent some time analyzing how to approach the nest.  A 10-foot vine of poison ivy on the tree truck presented a challenge, however they had a 12-foot long ladder that could help them get them above the ivy.  The thick and shaggy bark also presented a challenge for climbing up the trunk. They decided to not climb the trunk but climb a rope if they could propel and position the rope over a limb about four feet over the nest. 

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in the nest. Photo by David Rihn

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in the nest. Photo by David Rihn

They assembled their fancy device, a seven-foot long slingshot, and skillfully shot a thin lead rope over the desired limb on the first try, an activity that can sometimes takes an hour to get into place.

While getting a larger rope safely secured Mark asked which of the young team members was going to climb.  John, the older brother and the oldest of everyone present, brought a smile to three of the four younger people when he said that he would climb this nest.  This was John’s first climb of the year.  Everyone was impressed and learned that it takes a strong person and someone not afraid of heights to make the climb. 

John was exhausted when he reached the nest and very disappointed that he could not reach the young and get in a better position. While at the nest an adult brought in food for the young and after noticing John began swooped around. John was wearing a hard hat but luckily the adult did not hit him. 

John approaching the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

John approaching the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

It took John about one minute to descend compared to many minutes to pull himself up the rope. He stated that he was done climbing for the day.

Before lunch Gene suggested that the rope be left in place in case the second nest was not active. John stayed behind to rest and eat his picnic lunch on the front porch.

After lunch we headed to the next location about 1/3 mile away.  This nest was in a swamp white oak 47 feet from the ground and about 30 feet from buildings. Team members were helping get the safety ropes in place when someone spotted a fledgling hawk in the water below the nest. Only its head and part of one wing was not submerged. We all thought the young bird was close to death, however Brand Smith quickly called the Four Lakes Wildlife Center in Madison to see if we could bring it to them for care.

Red-shouldered hawk nestling recovering from a near drowning. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Red-shouldered hawk nestling recovering from a near drowning. Photo by Arlene Koziol

The bird was dried off and placed on a towel in the sun to recover. On close examination by John, he found the crop almost full and thought that the bird would survive without assistance. It was exciting to see the chick recover, move its wings and start chirping. John banded the bird and the young male was ready to return to the nest.

Gene harnessed up and ascended the tree, negotiating a number of limbs as he climbed. Only one young hawk was present in the nest and it was lowered down to the team who banded the bird and Gene placed both safely back into the nest.

Back at the first nest, John and Graham had been talking and John asked Graham if he would like to make the climb. Graham was waiting for John to ask him! Graham has climbing experience and with coaching from John, it did not take him long to reach the nest. He was also in a good position at the nest and three young were lowered to the ground, banded, and safely returned to the nest. Graham was pumped to be able to help out and John hopes that he will become a “raptor climber.”

Graham Steinhauer made it to the first nest! Photo by Mark Martin

Graham Steinhauer made it to the first nest! Photo by Mark Martin

Additional information:

  • The banding data is used by the Bird Banding Laboratory. From their website: the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) is an integrated scientific program established in 1920 supporting the collection, archiving, management and dissemination of information from banded and marked birds in North America. This information is used to monitor the status and trends of resident and migratory bird populations. Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices.

  • The Jacob brothers began studying raptors in the early 1970’s. Madison Audubon Society is helping fund their red-shoulder research that includes attaching transmitters to study migration, home ranges, and learn about the ecology of these forest raptors. John’s red-shouldered study area is in northeast Wisconsin and Gene’s study area is in central Wisconsin near Stevens Point. Note that Gene bands saw-whet owls in October at Linwood Spring Research Station. The station is open for visitors by reservation.

  • DNR conducted red-shouldered surveys using calls from 2010 to 2012, however there were no survey routes in Columbia County.  Most of the surveys were along floodplain forest river systems like the Lower Wisconsin, Black River, Wolf, and Chippewa Rivers. The first year volunteers found 110 red-shoulders on 23 routes.

  • On the first Breeding Bird Atlas in Columbia County only one pair of red-shouldered hawks was found and listed as “probably breeding.” Back then, we did not know how to locate red-shoulders.

  • This year we decided to conduct special red-shouldered surveys for the Breeding Bird Atlas II, and Brand Smith took the lead with assistance from Mark, Sue, Graham, Bob Bennicoff, Dory Owen, JD Arnston, Bill Smith, Jane Furchgott, Nydia Klien, and Richard Staffen. Everyone has good memories of the survey days. One day team members were out and Brand and others located the first nest that we banded at. After that, some team members changed teams.  Dory was with Brand and ask what the plan was. Brand stated “we should be on the lookout for nests.” Within one minute Dory exclaimed, “There is a nest!” This was the second red-shouldered nest we banded at. Jane, Bill, and Rich surveyed the Baraboo River floodplain forest where the Baraboo enters the Wisconsin River. Their highlight was finding 10 red-shoulders and three nests.  Brand also confirmed nesting when he observed a red-shoulder carrying a frog to a nest. The Jacob brothers mentioned that frogs are a major prey item. Another day, Brand and Bob really enjoyed canoeing a mile on a road near the Wisconsin River with water four-foot deep in some areas.

  • Thanks to the hard work of our atlas team we confirmed eight nests in six atlas blocks over 14 river miles and wonder how many nests were missed? Atlas volunteers have only confirmed four nests in 92 miles of Lower Wisconsin River.  

THANK YOU to Gene, John, and Graham and team members for making this a memorable day, to everyone who helped locate red-shoulders, and to the landowners for allowing us to band the young.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-managers and Arlene Koziol, Madison Audubon volunteer and conservation photographer

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol

Red-shouldered Hawk

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Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

The red-shouldered hawk occasionally winters in Wisconsin, and can be found throughout the state in mostly forested habitat, though most birds migrate south for the winter. At Everglades National Park earlier this month, I was able to see red-shouldered hawks in a different habitat than they use in Wisconsin, as these Florida birds soared in their characteristic Buteo style over the open sawgrass glades.

The diet of the red-shouldered hawk speaks to its adaptability. Currently, wintering Wisconsin birds will hunt small mammals, mourning doves, house sparrows, and starlings, in addition to carrion. Winter birds have also been noted at feeders. Habitat for overwintering birds changes a bit from breeding habitat, as the hawks will occupy more fragmented landscapes like woodland edges, parks, and even suburban or urban residential areas.

By mid-February, the hawks will start migrating north to establish territories. The habitat most associated with breeding red-shouldered hawks is mature lowland forest, though contiguous areas of upland forest, like the Kettle Moraine, will also provide breeding habitat. Most important to the hawks are water features, and ephemeral ponds of the Kettle Moraine provide good substitute for the typical riparian habitat.

Photo by USFWS Midwest

Photo by USFWS Midwest

With the return to breeding grounds in mid-February, the hawks typically coincide with the emergence of chipmunks from hibernation. This marks an important food source for the birds year-round, but especially at this time of year.  It is thought that chipmunk population cycles might play a role in the breeding success of red-shouldered hawks.

Once the snow thaws, the adaptable diet of red-shouldered hawks really stands out. One study in Iowa found that during a dry year, 92% of prey items delivered to nests were small mammals. During a wet year, 85% of prey items were amphibians and arthropods. Nesting in these dynamic and productive lowland forests, red-shouldered hawks are able to maneuver between different prey items to suit their needs. They'll even supplement their diet with crayfish and fish. Consuming amphibians as an important part of their diet, these lowland forests and ephemeral forested ponds—noted for amphibian abundance—provide ample hunting opportunities for these birds.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Red-shouldered hawks show a high site fidelity, and will oftentimes return to the same nest 3 to 4 years in a row. They typically form long-lasting pair bonds. Nests are typically built in massive trees, often red oaks in Wisconsin, built more than halfway up the tree and lined with conifer sprigs upon spring arrival. In areas like southern Wisconsin where evergreen leaves are hard to find, the resourceful hawk might decorate with birch bark or mosses or lichens.

Red-shouldered hawk and nest. Painting by Peggy Macnamara

Red-shouldered hawk and nest. Painting by Peggy Macnamara

Viewing the red-shouldered hawk's distribution in Wisconsin on eBird, one sees some major veins of observations: the Wolf River, Chippewa River, Wisconsin River, Mississippi River, and Kettle Moraine. These large river and forest systems have intact and contiguous floodplain forests to support these birds. Cutting of forests, even small-scale selective cutting, can have detrimental effects on red-shouldered hawk nesting habitat since red-tailed hawks and great horned owls will displace red-shouldered hawks as habitat becomes more fragmented.

Here at Faville Grove, the red-shouldered hawk habitat is rather lacking, as the open landscape and lack of contiguous forest cover discourages these birds from nesting. However, it wouldn't be out of the question to see a red-shouldered hawk here during the winter. Additionally, the opposite side of the Crawfish River historically supported rich deciduous forest, with the Crawfish serving as a firebreak between the prairie on the western side and forest on the east, and it's not hard to imagine the terrific habitat such a forest would have provided.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward