2014-10-02 / Nature

Raptors on the Move

By Jack Kelly


A male Harrier Hawk flies above a field at Sachuest Point, watching and listening for prey in the tall grasses. Note the owl-like discs on the raptor’s face. (Photos by Jack Kelly) A male Harrier Hawk flies above a field at Sachuest Point, watching and listening for prey in the tall grasses. Note the owl-like discs on the raptor’s face. (Photos by Jack Kelly) As the fall migration cycle continues across Aquidneck Island, each day brings new surprises from the natural world. An abundance of avian sightings has revealed songbirds, shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors utilizing the various habitats of our region. The southbound birds, taking advantage of strong northerly winds, are resting and refueling before continuing on their way.

On a recent morning, a combined group of more than 100 Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Great Blue Herons were observed feeding on small fish in the Gooseneck Cove wetlands. Using the low tide waters against their prey, the wading birds worked in unison to drive schools of small fish into an isolated marshy area, where escape for the fish was almost impossible.


Great Egrets forage for small fish in the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes. Great Egrets forage for small fish in the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes. One of the highlights of the migration is the large number of raptors that pass the southern coast of Rhode Island. Hawks prefer not to fly over the open ocean and hug the coast as they make southern journeys from nesting areas in Canada and Alaska. This also allows the birds of prey to find sustenance on a regular schedule. Onshore observers along the coast may record hundreds of raptors passing on an hourly basis.

One of the most common and widespread raptor species traversing the island’s airspace is the Redtailed Hawk. This breed is the most populous and variable of North American raptors and one of the easiest to identify. While there are at least 15-18 nesting pairs of Redtailed Hawks on Aquidneck Island, thousands more nest across Canadian and Alaskan forests.

This impressive bird of prey has a wingspan of 50-54 inches and a body length of up to 24 inches, with the female of the species approximately one-third larger than the male. The reddish tail and husky full-winged shape of the adults are easily recognizable. The bird hunts mostly rodents, such as mice, rats, voles and squirrels from perches, or, on occasion, incorporates breathtaking dives and swoops to catch a meal.


A female Red-tailed Hawk rests in a pine tree at Third Beach and scans the area for prey. A female Red-tailed Hawk rests in a pine tree at Third Beach and scans the area for prey. Juveniles lack the dark marked belly and underwing plumage of the adults, instead boasting a spotted belly band and paler underwings. Juveniles have narrower wings, a longer tail and lack the rusty red tail of the older birds. The call of the Red-tailed is a piercing, descending “kee-eerrrrrrr.”

Wintering members of this species may be found across the region, but most head further south when snow cover becomes too deep for the birds to hunt.


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. The Northern Harrier Hawk, or Marsh Hawk as it was once known, is a specialist in hunting and a rare type of raptor because it is the only North American hawk that hunts by sight and by sound. It has owl-like facial discs that direct sound to its ear openings and allow the hawk to hear movement in the tall grasses of meadows, farm fields, and wetlands. It will course low over the ground, often just above grasses and reeds, rocking side to side on upswept wings, then dropping straight down on rodents.

The average Harrier has a wingspan of 42 inches and a body length of 20-22 inches. Both sexes have long, narrow wings, featherless legs, a long tail, and a white rump stripe. Males have a pale gray head and gray plumage above, with white underwings and a speckled white underbody, earning the nickname “Gray Ghost.” Females and juveniles have distinctly different plumage colors ranging from warm, rust-orange bodies, to shades of tans and browns. Juveniles possess dark eyes, while adult females have light, yellowish eyes.

With a wide range spanning from eastern Canada to Alaska, harriers are known to nest on Block Island and other islands off the New England coast. They are winter residents of Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Norman Bird Sanctuary and other marshy areas throughout Newport County. The calls of this species are unique, as the male emits a rapid series of high-pitched “keeh” calls and the females and juveniles give a whining “seeeuw.”

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