The birds at my feeder, on this cool September morning, scatter like proverbial buckshot. Goldfinches, house finches, and sparrows bounce off the front window as they evade the incoming heat-seeking missile of a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
With less-than-accurate hunting skills, this Sharp-shinned Hawk can not pick out a single target. The bird is very maneuverable, but not so agile as to chase songbirds going in opposite directions.
And fortunately for these small passerines at my feeder this particular hawk is an immature female. The immature's front is a white canvas with brown, tear dropped stripes; a contrast to the adult plumage which consists of reddish-brown horizontal barring on the chest and a dark cap and back of the neck. As is the case with most raptorial birds, females are larger than males. But whatever the gender, it takes immature Sharp-shins awhile to perfect their hunting techniques.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk or "Sharpie" is named for the thin raised ridge along the leg's tarsus bone (not exactly the shin bone but close enough). Its scientific name Accipiter striatus derives from Greek aci "swift" and pteron "wing, " in reference to its flying ability, and from the Latin striatus "striped, " a reference to the striped underparts of the immature Sharpie.
Throughout most of North America, breeding from southern Alaska to central California, Arizona, New Mexico and northern Texas.
Forests and thickets.
Sharpies, like their "true hawk" accipiter relatives -- the Cooper's Hawk and Northern Goshawk -- are mainly stealth hunters. The birds perch and wait for prey, or fly a low course and use the element of surprise to flush their quarry. With long tails and short, broad wings, a Sharpie can turn quickly and rapidly accelerate after prey. Therefore, one can find accipiters in dense woodlands, montane forests, and the riparian zones along canyon bottoms and mountain streams, where their long tails act as a rudder steering the bird through dense brush.
But in the Fall and Winter, these accipiters are more conspicuous as they pass through the Moab area on their southern migrations (some may go to Central America). Members of the Moab Bird Club and I have sat on the edge of Bull Canyon in the La Sal Mountains and watched these hawks spiral upwards from the canyon below our observation point, then pas by us on their migrational pilgrimage. Though we have little data on the number of birds that pass by this point, on a given day in September and October (depending upon the winds, of course) one can view several species and age classes of accipiters.
In the Moab Valley, where bird feeders and other good habitat for wintering passerines exists, a Sharp-shinned Hawk can make an honest living for itself in the Fall and Winter. The Nature Conservancy's Matheson Preserve is an excellent location to watch for Sharpies zooming after prey or caring lazy circles in the autumnal air. Often the only sign of this raptor's presence is a small pile of bird feathers on the ground or a wild scattering of small birds.
-- Text & Photos by Damian Fagan
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