New Jersey’s Fascinating Hawks: A Guide to the 8 Species

Discover the breathtaking world of hawks in New Jersey with this guide to the eight fascinating species that call the Garden State home. From the migratory broad-winged hawks with their distinctive brown heads and black and white banded tails, to the year-round resident Cooper’s hawks known for their bluish-gray backs and red eyes, each species has its own unique characteristics. While the northern goshawks prefer nesting in old-growth forests and the northern harriers can be commonly seen over marshes and fields, the majestic red-tailed hawks are a familiar sight soaring through the skies or perched on roadside poles. Don’t miss the rough-legged hawks visiting the coast during the colder months, known for their incredible hovering hunting technique. Even the smallest hawk in the United States, the sharp-shinned hawk, can be found in New Jersey year-round with their blue-gray backs and squared-off tails. Keen birdwatchers flock to New Jersey, particularly Cape May, during migration seasons for a chance to witness the awe-inspiring spectacle of hawk watching. Other notable hawk watching locations in New Jersey include Washington Valley Park and Scott’s Mountain. So grab your binoculars and prepare to be amazed by the diverse and enchanting world of New Jersey’s hawks.

Broad-winged Hawk

Appearance

The Broad-winged Hawk is a medium-sized raptor with a wingspan of approximately 35-40 inches. They have a brown head and back, with barred underparts. One distinctive feature of the Broad-winged Hawk is the black and white bands on their tail, which can be seen when they are in flight.

Migration Pattern

Broad-winged hawks are migratory birds and only visit New Jersey during the spring and summer breeding season. In the fall, they undertake an impressive long-distance migration to Central and South America, where they spend the winter. These hawks often migrate in large flocks called kettles, soaring on thermal updrafts and creating a mesmerizing sight in the sky.

Habitat

During the breeding season, Broad-winged Hawks can be found nesting in deciduous and mixed forests in New Jersey. They prefer areas with a dense canopy and open understory, where they build their nests on tree branches. These hawks need mature forests for successful breeding and are often associated with large tracts of unfragmented forest.

Behavior

Broad-winged Hawks are known for their distinctive display flights during courtship. The male will perform an aerial display, climbing high into the sky, and then diving steeply downwards while making a high-pitched whistle. This display is believed to advertise their presence and attract a mate. Broad-winged hawks are also skilled hunters, primarily feeding on small mammals, reptiles, and birds.

Cooper’s Hawk

Appearance

Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized raptors with a wingspan of around 30-36 inches. They have a bluish-gray back and a heavily barred and streaked underparts. One defining feature of the Cooper’s Hawk is its bright red eye. These hawks have a compact and agile body, making them well-suited for flying through dense vegetation.

Residency

Cooper’s Hawks are year-round residents in New Jersey. They can be found throughout the state all year, as they do not undertake long-distance migrations like some other hawk species. They are known to adapt well to human-altered landscapes, including suburban areas.

Feeding Habits

Cooper’s Hawks are notorious for their predation on other birds, particularly small birds. They are agile flyers, capable of weaving through trees and shrubs, which allows them to surprise their prey. Cooper’s Hawks often hunt by ambushing their targets, using dense cover as camouflage before launching a surprise attack. They are sometimes observed visiting backyard bird feeders, targeting the unsuspecting birds that frequent those areas.

Interaction with Backyard Birds

Due to their hunting habits, Cooper’s Hawks are often seen as both a menace and a marvel by birdwatchers. While they can become a threat to backyard birds, they are also an important part of the ecosystem. Their presence helps to regulate the populations of smaller bird species, ensuring a balanced and healthy ecosystem.

Northern Goshawk

Appearance

The Northern Goshawk is a large and powerful raptor, with a wingspan of approximately 40-46 inches. They have a gray back and wings, with a heavily barred chest and underparts. A distinctive feature of the Northern Goshawk is the thick white stripe that extends over each eye, giving them an intense and piercing gaze.

Seasonal Presence

Northern Goshawks can be found in New Jersey during the winter months. They typically migrate to the state in search of suitable nesting sites. During the breeding season, they prefer to nest in mature and undisturbed forests, particularly old-growth forests that provide ample cover and prey.

Preferred Habitat

In New Jersey, Northern Goshawks are commonly found in forested areas, especially those with a mixture of coniferous and deciduous trees. They require large tracts of unfragmented forests with dense canopy cover for successful nesting. These hawks are particularly associated with older forests, as they rely on the presence of large trees for their nests.

Distinctive Features

Aside from the white stripes above their eyes, Northern Goshawks have a robust and muscular build, well-suited for capturing and subduing larger prey. They are agile hunters, known for their fast and powerful flight. Northern Goshawks are skilled at maneuvering through dense forests, using their sharp talons to capture prey mid-flight.

Northern Harrier

Appearance

The Northern Harrier, also known as the Marsh Hawk, is a medium-sized raptor with a wingspan of around 40-46 inches. They have a slender body, long tail, and a distinctive owl-like facial appearance. Northern Harriers also have a white patch above their tail, which is visible when they are in flight.

Year-round Presence

Northern Harriers can be found in New Jersey all year round. They do not migrate long distances like some other hawk species. Instead, they often undergo seasonal movements within their range, seeking out areas with suitable prey and habitats.

Preferred Locations

Northern Harriers are commonly observed over marshes, fields, and grassy areas. They are adapted to hunting low to the ground, often flying just above the vegetation in search of their prey. These birds prefer open habitats with ample cover, as it allows them to use their exceptional hearing to locate small mammals and birds.

Distinctive Characteristics

One notable behavior of Northern Harriers is their unique hunting technique known as “sky dancing.” This involves the male performing a beautiful aerial display, gliding and swooping through the air while calling. This display is thought to attract females and establish territorial boundaries. Northern Harriers are also known for their owl-like facial disk, which helps to funnel sound to their ears, aiding in their hunting abilities.

Red-tailed Hawk

Appearance

The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most common and easily recognizable hawks in North America. They are large raptors, with a wingspan that can reach up to 48 inches. Red-tailed Hawks have a brown back and wings, with a pale underbelly. One distinctive feature is their brick-red tail, which gives them their name.

Residency

Red-tailed Hawks are year-round residents in New Jersey. They can be found throughout the state, inhabiting a wide range of habitats, including woodlands, open fields, and even urban areas. They are highly adaptable birds and can thrive in a variety of environments.

Behavior

Red-tailed Hawks are diurnal birds, meaning they are primarily active during the day. They can often be seen soaring on thermal updrafts, using these columns of warm air to gain altitude and conserve energy. Red-tailed Hawks are also known for their characteristic loud screeching call, which is often associated with their presence.

Hunting Habits

Red-tailed Hawks are skilled hunters, preying on a variety of animals, including small mammals, reptiles, and birds. They typically hunt by soaring high in the sky, using their keen eyesight to spot potential prey on the ground. Once they have identified a target, they will dive down with great speed and accuracy to capture their prey using their sharp talons.

Rough-legged Hawk

Appearance

The Rough-legged Hawk is a large raptor, with a wingspan of around 50-56 inches. They have a relatively stocky build and a distinctive white tail with a dark terminal band. Rough-legged Hawks have mottled dark brown and white feathers on their legs, which give them their name.

Seasonal Visits

Rough-legged Hawks visit New Jersey during the fall and winter months. They are primarily found in coastal areas, particularly in marshes and open fields where they can find suitable hunting grounds. These hawks breed in the Arctic tundra region of North America and migrate south for the winter.

Coastal Locations

When in New Jersey, Rough-legged Hawks can often be observed along the coast, utilizing the diverse habitats available. They are well-adapted to the coastal environment, as it provides them with ample hunting opportunities, including marsh and shorebird prey.

Hunting Behavior

Rough-legged Hawks are known for their unique hunting behavior, which includes hovering in place while searching for prey. This hovering technique allows them to carefully survey the area, often focusing their attention on small mammals such as voles and mice. Once they have spotted their prey, they will swoop down with precision and snatch it with their sharp talons.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Appearance

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk in the United States, with a wingspan of around 20-26 inches. They have a blue-gray back with a reddish-orange barring on their chest. Sharp-shinned Hawks have a squared-off tail, which is a helpful field mark in distinguishing them from other hawk species.

Year-round Presence

Sharp-shinned Hawks can be found in New Jersey throughout the year. They do not undertake long-distance migrations and are known to inhabit various types of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and suburban areas.

Distinctive Features

Aside from their small size, one distinguishing feature of the Sharp-shinned Hawk is their agile flight. They are incredibly maneuverable birds, capable of navigating through dense vegetation in pursuit of their prey. Sharp-shinned Hawks also have sharp, hooked beaks and sharp talons, which they use for capturing their prey.

Hunting Techniques

Sharp-shinned Hawks are efficient hunters of small birds and mammals. They employ a stealthy hunting technique, often surprising their prey by launching sudden attacks from cover. Their small size allows them to fly through dense foliage with minimal resistance, enabling them to catch their prey off guard with swift and agile movements.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Appearance

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized raptor with a wingspan of around 37-43 inches. They have a predominantly brown back and wings, along with a heavily red-colored breast that extends down to their belly. These hawks also have dark bands on their tail.

Residency

Red-shouldered Hawks are year-round residents in New Jersey. They can be found in a variety of forested habitats, including wetlands, wooded areas, and riparian zones. These hawks tend to stay within their assigned territory throughout the year.

Preferred Habitat

Red-shouldered Hawks prefer to inhabit forested areas near bodies of water, such as rivers, swamps, and wetlands. They rely on the presence of dense cover and nearby water sources to successfully hunt their preferred prey, which consists of small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Feeding Habits

Red-shouldered Hawks are sit-and-wait predators, often perching high up in the trees and waiting for the opportune moment to strike. They have excellent eyesight, allowing them to detect movements on the ground or in the water. Once they have spotted their prey, they will swoop down with great accuracy and capture it using their sharp talons.

Hawk Watching in New Jersey

Popular Locations

New Jersey is a popular destination for hawk watching, particularly during migration seasons. One of the most renowned locations in the state for observing hawks is Cape May. The geography of Cape May, with its jutting peninsula and proximity to major bird migration routes, makes it an ideal spot for hawk migration.

Migration Seasons

Hawk migrations occur primarily in the spring and fall, as hawks make their way to and from their breeding grounds. During these seasons, large numbers of hawks can be seen passing through New Jersey, providing an excellent opportunity for enthusiasts to witness the spectacle of their migration.

Cape May

Cape May is a go-to destination for birdwatchers, as it boasts a high diversity of hawk species. Throughout the migration seasons, Cape May hosts numerous birding festivals and events, attracting bird lovers from all over the country. The Cape May Point State Park and Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area are popular spots for hawk watching, offering both coastal and inland habitats.

Washington Valley Park

Located in Somerset County, Washington Valley Park offers excellent opportunities for hawk watching. The park’s location near the Watchung Mountains and the Raritan River valley provides a diverse range of habitats, attracting a variety of hawk species. The Hawkwatch Platform at Washington Valley Park is a designated area specifically for observing hawks during their migration.

Scott’s Mountain

Scott’s Mountain is another noteworthy location for hawk watching in New Jersey. Situated in Warren County, this spot offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, making it an ideal spot for observing hawks in flight. Scott’s Mountain provides an opportunity to witness both fall and spring migrations, with a variety of hawk species passing through the area.

Conclusion

New Jersey is home to a diverse array of hawk species, each with its own unique characteristics and behaviors. From the migratory Broad-winged Hawk to the year-round residents like the Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, the state offers ample opportunities for bird enthusiasts and hawk watchers. With its various habitats, including forests, wetlands, and coastal areas, New Jersey provides a rich and rewarding experience for anyone interested in observing these magnificent birds of prey. Whether it’s enjoying the spectacle of migration or observing the hunting antics of resident hawks, New Jersey is a prime location for hawk watching. So grab a pair of binoculars and start exploring the incredible world of hawks in the Garden State.

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