For many people, recovery after knee replacement can be quite tedious and boring. But this year, during June, July and early August, I spent a good part of my rehab mornings taking photos of a red-shouldered hawk family nesting beyond my back deck.  

Earlier this spring, I watched as a pair of red-shouldered hawks flew through my forested neighborhood on Banner Mountain on a regular basis, calling to each other with their distinctive cries. At the end of April, the cries became more intense. I spotted one hawk dart through the trees while the other one spiraled higher and higher in the sky until it was just a dot. Then it swooped down at a rapid rate only to start spiraling up again.  

Thinking of Icarus, I got a bit concerned as this flight pattern continued for over a half hour. “All About Birds”, Cornell’s website, came to my aid and dubbed this “Sky Dancing.” It is a mating ritual with the male making incredible spirals high into the sky with fast descents to woo his mate. Knowing there was an old, unused nest site barely visible from my deck, I was hopeful that the pair would nest there.

In May and early June, although their cries were occasionally heard, it was fairly quiet. I assumed they had gone elsewhere to nest. But I kept watching the old nest site with binoculars.  Sometimes it looked like a darker form was on the nest. Was it a hawk or just a stick or only a shadow? 

Nest site (circled in red) was about 40 yards from deck in the top of a black oak
Nest site (circled in red) was about 40 yards from deck in the top of a black oak

June 24: 

Surprise!  I spotted a hawk flying to the nest and it nestled in! How wonderful!  Baby hawks in the neighborhood possibly!!?? Not having much hope that my 400mm camera lens would be strong enough, I hobbled to the deck and set up the tripod anyway. Sure enough with the right sun angle, I could see little white fluffy heads – barely visible, yes! How cool! Thus started my early morning Hawk Watch and photo sojourn while waiting for my knee to heel.

Even though the lighting in the tree canopy was horrendous and the tree foliage heavily obscuring everything, I started taking photos. With the help of Photoshop (to lighten, darken, sharpen, and enlarge the images) the sequence of their lives started to unfold.

The two little white heads with dark eyes frequently greeted me in the morning. Mornings were the best time to take photos since the lighting was more even and the parents were most successful finding food.  Morning after morning, the adults consistently brought in their kill between 5:30 and 8:00 am.

June 25-26: 

The female was the primary food provider although both the male and female hunted.   The male would alert the female, meet her a short distance from the nest, give her the prey and then she would feed it to the chicks.  Although hard to determine just what the prey species were, some looked like dark colored moles and some were definitely lizards.  Mom could be seen tearing up the prey and feeding it piecemeal to the young. (Note – male and female red-shouldered hawks look similar.  It is only their behavior that gave a clue as to who was who)

July 2-4:

In early July, the chicks were still quite downy but the darker juvenile feathers started emerging.  As the nestlings grew, it became harder for the adult to settle into the nest.  They used several different approaches and exits depending on where the chicks were at the time.

July 4-7:

The chicks started becoming much more active – hopping around the nest, flapping their wings and actively searching for their mom when she was out hunting. 

July 9-15: 

However, as Murphy’s Law would have it, I left for a trip to the coast, and when I returned, the nest was empty! What – so soon!? I was heartbroken that I didn’t get to see them leave!

July 17:

But the next day, I spotted one above the nest in the branches, and later spotted the other one precariously perched on a short stubby branch in a nearby Ponderosa Pine. He/she looked quite uncomfortable and somewhat fearful – constantly looking down and making little steps trying to keep his balance.  

In talking to wonderful raptor specialists previously with Wildlife Rehabilitation and Release, they said that these youngsters were now called “branchers” as they jumped and partially flew from branch to branch near the nest –  and that the parents would still feed them! This branching period is important as they gain more dexterity, strengthen their wings, and become more comfortable moving about in the treetops.

July 18:

By this time they were also quite vocal. Mom would find them and feed them where they were perched. Or, mom would take prey back to the nest. The fastest youngster grabbed the entire prey – no sharing. I watched as one grabbed a lizard and swallowed it whole – tail and hind foot still visible as it swallowed.

July 28: 

The branchers continued to make short flights, constantly calling to the parents “feed me feed me feed me feed me feed me!” They became well known in the neighborhood and frequently perched on low branches or near bird feeders. We all shared information as to where the youngsters were or any unusual behaviors. Unfortunately, they often perched in such a way that I was shooting into the sun making for poor photos.

Aug 3:

And as July morphed into August, I was outside doing chores when one started calling directly above my head. It seemed to be asking for something. Since a neighbor had seen one in her sprinklers, I wondered if this one was thirsty as well. So I turned on the sprinklers and it immediately dropped to the ground and waded into the spray. It fooled around in the water for about 20 min.  During that time, it also sifted intently through the dirt and leaf litter layer looking for things to eat – trying a few items but discarding them. Then, being soaking wet and unsuccessful at finding food, it flew to a low branch to dry out. My sprinklers have now been renamed a “hawk-quifer”.

YouTube video

Aug 4-21:

The youngsters continued to call and make their presence known, with parents sometimes bringing food. Although I left for a trip in early August, neighbors report that the hawks are still flying through the ‘hood and continuing their noisy cries.

What an amazing experience this has been for the last 4 months!  Kudos to the parents for all their hard work. It was a wonderful opportunity that enriched our lives, watching these vulnerable white fluffy chicks grow and mature into young hawks; observing their flight skills develop and their plumage change color. As these youngsters continue to learn to hunt, their parents will bring less and less food. This can be a difficult time. Many young hawks become weak, dehydrated and die. We are all hopeful that “our” hawks will survive! It has been a privilege to share their life journey so far. Good luck young hawks! We wish you the best – on a wing and a prayer. 

And as far as my knee recovery went – taking time to focus on the hawks and taking photos while seated, gave my knee the time it needed to heal. And it reduced the boredom factor. Perhaps all knee replacement patients need a hawk family to watch!

Red-Shouldered Hawk Facts

For more information and photos:

These beautiful hawks have a rusty orange breast, darker rusty shoulders, mottled brown wings and back and a brown/black/white horizontal striped tail. 

They are found along the west coast in California and southern Oregon as well as in the midwest, east and southern forests. They will migrate into Canada and into Mexico and are one of the more common hawks.

They weigh about 1 – 1.5 pounds with a wingspan of about 3.5 feet,  a bit smaller than a red-tailed hawk.

Red-shoulders are deciduous forest dwellers – flying amidst the trees or just over the treetops while a red-tailed hawk will normally soar high above the forest. One ID hack – If you see a hawk sitting on a telephone pole it is likely a red-tailed hawk but if it is sitting on the wires, it is probably a red-shouldered hawk.

These hawks mate for life and will re-use the same nest site if it is available.

They feed on small mammals, reptiles and amphibians – even fish if available.  They hunt from a high perch or flying low over the ground or buzzing bird feeders.

Red-shouldered hawks lay 2-5 eggs in a nest in a mixed conifer forest, usually making the nest in a hardwood tree.

The eggs hatch after about a month and then they fledge in about 6-7 weeks.  About 25-30 days after hatching the chicks begin to “branch” out venturing onto nearby branches.

Parents first feed the chicks by regurgitating food; later by ripping up the prey and finally giving it to them whole.

After about 40-45 days, the juveniles take their first short flight. In subsequent weeks, they practice their flight skills and become more aerially adept. This is the time when they also watch and learn as their parents hunt.

At about a year old, they acquire full adult plumage. When they turn 2, they will set up their own territory where they will become more solitary except for breeding. Populations of red-shouldered hawks are generally stable.

Ann Westling lives in the Banner Mountain area when she’s not traveling the world to capture birds and landscapes with her camera.