The only reason I tolerate long drives is because I can look at beautiful vistas and try to spot wildlife.
My particular favorite is looking for hawks in the barren trees at the side of the highway during holiday driving.
Whether I’m driving or riding shotgun, spotting hawks in the roadside trees is fairly easy; I just scan for lumpy branches. Most of the time the lumps turn out to be squirrel nests or clumps of leaves caught in a crag, but maybe 1 out of 10 lumps is a hawk!
The easiest, largest lump to find is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). They perch, still as statues, in the trees above the median, scanning the grassy area for a juicy little rodent that they can swoop down on and snatch up with their talons.
Red-tailed hawks, sitting nearly two feet tall and with a wing span over four feet, are the largest hawks in this area, beating out the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) by a few inches and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) by over a foot.
Red-tails, like most hawks, are not the large birds you see soaring in the sky most often; those are usually vultures. Look for how the bird holds its wings – if they’re in a slight uptilt, forming a wide V, think vulture. A lighter bird with wings held flat means you may be seeing a hawk.
Red-tails will take advantage of a thermal (rising column of warm air) to carry them up to great heights where they can survey a whole field for prey. They’ll also use a mountain updraft to hunt via “kiting,” which I described in my Hanging Rock post. Also, it must be noted that the springtime soaring and free-fall coitus of a mated pair is fairly spectacular.
In everyday life, though, hawks are watchers and swoopers as they go about the business of catching the little mammals that make up the large part of their diet, including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels.
Whether flying or perching, the red tail is this hawk’s most reliable identifying feature. A rusty red that many birders describe as “rufous” colors their entire tail, though it can also look peach or orange if sunlight is pouring through it.
Though you’ll pass them fast at highway speeds, you’ll be surprised how much detail you can see in a perched hawk. I even spot the little hawks (Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned) from the highway sometimes.
You’ll have to take the first few miles to let your eyes adjust to differentiating lumps while also not driving off the road, but after that a long drive can be hawk heaven! Even the kiddos might pry their eyes from their tablets to look for a hawk or two; have the right side of the car compete against the left side for who can find the most hawks. My best count yet was headed west on Route 66 in northern Virginia after Christmas a few years ago – I saw a hawk every mile for at least 17 miles!