Nebraska is home to a diverse population of hawks, with ten different species residing, breeding, and migrating across the state. Each species has its own unique characteristics and preferred habitats, offering enthusiasts and birdwatchers ample opportunities for observation. The Northern Harrier, for example, is commonly found in wet meadows, while the Sharp-shinned Hawk can often be spotted in urban neighborhoods during spring and fall migrations. Woodlands and riparian zones are home to the Cooper’s Hawk, while the iconic Red-tailed Hawk is a familiar resident, often seen soaring beside highways. The rare Northern Goshawk prefers mature forests, and the Red-shouldered Hawk can be found year-round in the Missouri River Valley. The Broad-winged Hawk expands its range in river valleys as a common fall migrant, while the Swainson’s Hawk prefers open country for its spring migration. The Rough-legged Hawk is a common visitor during spring and fall migrations and can occasionally be found wintering in open areas. Lastly, the relatively uncommon Ferruginous Hawk is primarily found in the western part of the state. With such diversity and abundance, exploring the world of hawks in Nebraska promises an exciting and enriching experience for nature enthusiasts and bird lovers alike.
The Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) is one of the 10 species of hawks found in Nebraska. It is a medium-sized raptor with a distinctive appearance and behavior. Adult males have gray upperparts, pale undersides, and a white rump. Adult females, on the other hand, have brown upperparts and streaked undersides. A unique characteristic of the Northern Harrier is its owl-like facial disk, which enhances its hearing abilities.
The Northern Harrier can be found in a variety of habitats, but it is primarily associated with wet meadows, marshes, and grasslands. It is often seen flying low over these areas while searching for prey. This hawk prefers open spaces with tall grasses, where it can easily spot small mammals, birds, and reptiles. The availability of suitable nesting sites, such as marsh vegetation or shrubs, is also a determining factor in its habitat selection.
Migration and Breeding
The Northern Harrier is not only a resident of Nebraska but also a migrant. It is a common sight during the migration periods, particularly in the spring and fall. Many Northern Harriers breed in Nebraska, taking advantage of the abundant wetland habitats. Breeding pairs will construct nests on the ground or in low vegetation, usually near water sources. The female will lay a clutch of 4-6 eggs that she will incubate for about a month. After hatching, both parents will participate in feeding and caring for the young until they fledge and become independent.
Another fascinating hawk species found in Nebraska is the Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus). This small hawk has a compact, rounded body and short, rounded wings. Its head appears large in proportion to its body, and its eyes are yellow. Adult Sharp-shinned Hawks have blue-gray upperparts and pale underparts with fine brown streaks.
Unlike the Northern Harrier, the Sharp-shinned Hawk does not have a specific habitat preference. It can be found in a variety of environments, from forests and woodlands to suburban areas and parks. It is known to adapt to human-altered landscapes and is often spotted in residential neighborhoods where suitable prey, such as songbirds, can be found.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a regular migrant in Nebraska, with sightings commonly reported during the spring and fall seasons. Like many other hawk species, it takes advantage of the favorable weather conditions and food availability during these periods to travel to its breeding or wintering grounds. Observers might catch glimpses of this hawk as it soars in the updrafts or perches on tree branches, scanning its surroundings for potential prey.
The Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is a well-known hawk species that breeds in Nebraska. It is similar in appearance to the Sharp-shinned Hawk but larger in size. Adult Cooper’s Hawks have bluish-gray upperparts and orange-red barring on their underparts. They have distinctive rounded tails with thick dark bands.
Cooper’s Hawks are consistent breeders in Nebraska, primarily occupying woodlands and riparian zones. They prefer areas with dense vegetation, such as deciduous or mixed forests, where they can easily maneuver during their pursuit of prey. Tall trees for nesting and foraging areas abundant in small to medium-sized birds, which are their main prey, are determining factors in their habitat selection.
During the breeding season, Cooper’s Hawks form pairs and build nests on tree branches, typically near the trunk. The female lays a clutch of 3-5 eggs, which are incubated for approximately a month. Both parents share in the responsibilities of incubation and raising the young. After hatching, the nestlings are dependent on their parents for several weeks before they fledge and begin to explore their surroundings.
The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is arguably one of the most recognizable hawk species in North America, including Nebraska. This large raptor has brownish upperparts and a white or pale underbody with a rufous-red tail, from which it gets its name. Adult Red-tailed Hawks also have a distinctive dark belly band.
Red-tailed Hawks are common residents in Nebraska. They can be found in a wide range of habitats, including grasslands, agricultural fields, forests, and even urban areas. They are often seen perched on telephone poles or soaring high above the ground, effortlessly riding thermal updrafts to conserve energy.
Residency in Nebraska
Unlike some hawk species, Red-tailed Hawks do not migrate long distances. Many individuals reside in Nebraska throughout the year, taking advantage of the diverse prey availability and suitable habitat. They are adaptable birds and can tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions, which contributes to their year-round presence in the state.
The Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is a powerful and elusive hawk species that occasionally passes through Nebraska during migration or as a visitor. It is one of the largest members of the Accipiter genus. Adult Northern Goshawks have dark gray or blackish upperparts and heavily barred breast feathers. They also have distinctive red eyes.
Northern Goshawks prefer mature mountain forests with dense tree cover. They are generally associated with coniferous or mixed forests, although they are known to inhabit deciduous forests as well. They are highly territorial birds and require large tracts of undisturbed habitat for successful breeding and foraging.
Migration and Visit
Although not a common resident in Nebraska, the Northern Goshawk does occasionally migrate through or visit the state. During migration periods, observers might spot this hawk soaring overhead or perched on treetops. It is a fascinating sighting for bird enthusiasts, given its elusive nature and preference for remote, mountainous regions.
The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is a relatively rare hawk species in Nebraska. It is medium-sized and has a similar appearance to the Red-tailed Hawk. Adults have brown upperparts and a distinct reddish patch on their shoulders. They also have a barred tail and pale underparts with reddish barring.
Red-shouldered Hawks can be found in a variety of wooded habitats, particularly those near water sources. They prefer mature forests, woodlands, and riparian areas. Within Nebraska, the Missouri River Valley is a known hotspot for sightings of this hawk species. They rely on the availability of tall trees for nesting and hunt for small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians in the surrounding areas.
Unlike many other hawk species, the Red-shouldered Hawk does not migrate long distances. It can be found year-round in the suitable habitats of Nebraska. However, due to its relatively low numbers and specific habitat requirements, sightings of this hawk may be less frequent compared to other more common species.
The Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) is another interesting hawk species that migrates through Nebraska. It is a compact bird with short, broad wings and a long tail. Adult Broad-winged Hawks have dark brown upperparts and pale underparts with fine gray barring. They also have a distinctive white throat patch.
Broad-winged Hawks prefer a variety of forested habitats, including deciduous and mixed forests. They require areas with ample tree cover for nesting and hunting opportunities. However, during migration, they may expand their range and utilize river valleys and other open spaces for convenient migration routes.
The Broad-winged Hawk is a common hawk species during the fall migration in Nebraska. Thousands of individuals can be observed as they form large flocks known as kettles, which circle in thermal updrafts before continuing their journey. This hawk species takes advantage of favorable weather conditions to travel long distances, often migrating to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.
The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is a hawk species that is famous for its impressive migration. It is a medium-sized raptor with long, pointed wings and a pale underbody. Adult Swainson’s Hawks have brown upperparts and buff-colored underparts with fine brown streaks on the breast.
Swainson’s Hawks primarily inhabit open country, such as grasslands, agricultural fields, and prairies. They are often seen perched on fence posts or soaring high in the sky, scanning the ground for prey. They require suitable nesting sites, similar to other hawk species, such as tall trees or shrubs in which they can construct their nests.
The Swainson’s Hawk is a common sight during the spring migration in Nebraska. Thousands of these hawks pass through the state as they make their way from their wintering grounds in South America to their breeding grounds in North America. Observers may witness the vast numbers of Swainson’s Hawks as they travel together, creating an awe-inspiring aerial spectacle.
The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) is an Arctic breeding species that occasionally visits Nebraska during migration periods. It is a medium-sized hawk with a stocky build and broad wings. Adult Rough-legged Hawks have dark brown upperparts and light-colored underparts, often with dark belly patches. In particular, they have feathered legs extending down to their toes, which is a distinguishing feature.
Rough-legged Hawks typically breed in the Arctic tundra and utilize open areas for foraging during their wintering period. They can be found in a range of habitats during migration, including grasslands, wetlands, and agricultural fields. While visiting Nebraska, they seek open areas where they can hunt small mammals, such as voles and lemmings, which make up a significant portion of their diet.
Migration and Wintering
The Rough-legged Hawk is common during the spring and fall migrations as it travels to and from its Arctic breeding grounds. Nebraska is an important stopover for these hawks as they rest and refuel during their long journey. Some individuals may also choose to spend the winter in the state, particularly in open areas where food resources are abundant.
The Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) is a relatively uncommon hawk species in Nebraska. It is the largest hawk in North America and has a distinctive pale coloration. Adult Ferruginous Hawks have light-colored upperparts and pale underparts with rust-colored markings on their legs and belly. They also have a large beak and bright yellow eyes.
Ferruginous Hawks prefer open grasslands and prairies, particularly those with low shrubs or scattered trees. Their habitat requirements are closely tied to the availability of suitable prey, including small mammals and ground-nesting birds. While Nebraska does not have a large population of Ferruginous Hawks, they can be found in the western portion of the state where the landscape meets their needs.
Distribution in Nebraska
Ferruginous Hawks are primarily found in the western part of Nebraska, where the terrain offers the open grasslands and prairies they require. They are less common in other regions of the state, making sightings of this impressive hawk species a special treat for bird enthusiasts. Conservation efforts are in place to protect and preserve their habitat, ensuring their continued presence in Nebraska.
In conclusion, Nebraska is home to a diverse array of hawk species, each with its own unique characteristics, habitats, and behaviors. From the common residents to the occasional visitors, these magnificent birds grace the skies of Nebraska during migration, breeding, and year-round residency. Whether soaring through wet meadows, perched in urban neighborhoods, or navigating dense woodlands, hawks captivate observers with their grace, power, and adaptability. As stewards of the environment, it is our responsibility to appreciate and protect these remarkable birds and their habitats for generations to come.