For the Birds: Hawks in a New England winter

Photo by Chris Bosak – Young Cooper’s hawk in New England, January 2023.

It is not uncommon for birders at designated hawk watch sites to see more than 1,000 hawks in a single day. The fall hawk migration is most certainly a sight to see, particularly if the conditions are right.

With the sheer number of hawks and other birds of prey that migrate south through New England in the fall, it is tough to imagine that any of them remain in our region once the migration is over. But, of course, we do see a fair amount of hawks throughout the winter months in New England. 

Red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks and our accipiters, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, are the most common hawks we see in New England during the winter. Other birds of prey that we continue to see in our coldest months are the peregrine falcon, vultures and, of course, bald eagles, which congregate in large numbers where water remains unfrozen.

So why do most hawks fly south for the winter and some remain with us? It is the same reasons that other birds migrate to warmer climates and others stay here. Some birds have adapted to the colder weather and survive just fine while others need the warmer temperatures and the additional food sources that come with it.

For hawks, like any bird, it is a risk-reward scenario. Food may be more scarce and harder to come by in the winter in New England, but for some birds that outweighs the risks that come with a dangerous and long migration flight. For other birds, the long migration flight offers more reward than the risk of staying north and risking freezing or starving to death.

That is why Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are more frequently seen at our feeders in the fall and winter: easy prey. I was working from my home office the other day, when a large bird flew past my window and landed on a fence post in my direct line of sight. It was a young Cooper’s hawk and its hasty and clumsy approach sent all of the songbirds scattering. The young bird remained perched on the post for a few minutes before flying off to try its luck somewhere else in the neighborhood.

Winter is a good time to study hawks in New England as they are typically out in the open and exposed. The leaves are long gone and the branches on which the birds perch are bare. It’s also a good time to see the red-tailed hawk’s namesake red tail. The rusty-red feathers must be seen from behind on a perched bird. 

It is always interesting to visit places where bald eagles congregate during the winter. Large, flowing rivers like the Connecticut River or the Housatonic River in New England are good places to see dozens of eagles in one area. There are centers, sites and cruises throughout New England that specialize in winter eagle watching. They are worth checking out if you are a big fan of these magnificent birds of prey.

New Englanders who spend their winters in Florida certainly get to see more birds in the winter than the residents who remain north. There are, however, plenty of birds to see when New England turns gray. It just takes a little more effort to find them.

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