When you cast your eyes to the skies of Pennsylvania, you’re likely to spot a variety of fascinating creatures. Among the most captivating are the majestic hawks, rulers of the air with their impressive wingspans and keen eyesight. In this blog post will provide you with insightful information and help you appreciate the rich avian biodiversity of Pennsylvania. So, let’s spread our wings and dive into the world of hawks!
Types of Hawks In Pennsylvania
1. Red-tailed Hawk
The Red-tailed Hawk, scientifically known as Buteo jamaicensis, is one of the most common and recognizable hawks in North America, and Pennsylvania is no exception. This bird of prey is named for its distinctive reddish-brown tail, which is often visible when the bird is in flight.
Red-tailed Hawks are known for their impressive size, with a wingspan that can reach up to 56 inches.These hawks are versatile and adaptable, making their homes in a variety of habitats, including forests, fields, and even urban areas.
They are known for their soaring flight, often seen circling high in the sky on thermal currents. Their diet primarily consists of small mammals, but they are also known to eat birds and reptiles.
2. Red-shouldered Hawk
Next on our list is the Red-shouldered Hawk, or Buteo lineatus. This medium-sized hawk is named for the reddish-brown patches on its wings, visible when the bird is perched or in flight.
Red-shouldered Hawks are slightly smaller than their red-tailed cousins, but what they lack in size, they make up for in their striking appearance and distinct call.
Red-shouldered Hawks prefer wooded habitats near water bodies, where they hunt for a variety of prey, including small mammals, amphibians, and even other birds. They are known for their loud, distinctive call, often heard before the bird is seen.
3. Cooper’s Hawk
Finally, we have the Cooper’s Hawk, scientifically known as Accipiter cooperii. This bird of prey is named after the naturalist William Cooper, who first described the species. Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized hawks, known for their agility and speed.
They have a distinctive appearance, with a slate-grey back, a barred underbody, and a rounded tail with thick bands.Cooper’s Hawks are woodland birds, often found in forests and suburban areas.
They are skilled hunters, known for their ability to navigate through dense vegetation in pursuit of their prey, which primarily consists of other birds.
4. Sharp-shinned Hawk
The Sharp-shinned Hawk, known scientifically as Accipiter striatus, is the smallest hawk you’ll find in Pennsylvania. Don’t let its size fool you, though. This petite predator is a force to be reckoned with.
Its name comes from the thin, sharp-looking lower leg, or “shin,” a unique characteristic among its kind.Sharp-shinned Hawks are agile flyers, darting through dense forests with ease to catch their prey, which mainly consists of small birds.
They have a distinctive flight pattern, often described as a series of quick flaps followed by a glide. Their plumage is a mix of slate grey on the back and white with fine, reddish bars on the front.
5. Broad-winged Hawk
The Broad-winged Hawk, or Buteo platypterus, is a medium-sized hawk known for its spectacular migratory patterns. Every spring and fall, these hawks gather in large numbers, creating a phenomenon known as a “kettle” – a sight that leaves birdwatchers in awe.
Broad-winged Hawks are named for their wide wings, which allow them to soar high in the sky with minimal effort. They prefer forested habitats, where they hunt for a variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, and reptiles.
Their distinctive call, often described as a high-pitched whistle, adds a unique melody to the sounds of Pennsylvania’s forests. These hawks are a symbol of the changing seasons in Pennsylvania, their migration marking the arrival of spring and the onset of fall.
6. Rough-legged Buzzard
The Rough-legged Buzzard, also known as the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), is a visitor to Pennsylvania year-round. Named for its feather-covered legs, which provide insulation in cold weather,
this bird of prey is well-adapted to life in the frigid Arctic tundra. Rough-legged Buzzards are large hawks, known for their broad wings and rounded tails. They have a unique hovering flight pattern, which they use to scan the ground for prey.
Their diet primarily consists of small mammals, such as voles and lemmings. The arrival of the Rough-legged Buzzard in Pennsylvania is a winter event eagerly anticipated by birdwatchers.
7. Northern Goshawk
The Northern Goshawk, or Accipiter gentilis, is a bird of prey that commands respect. This large hawk is known for its fierce nature and exceptional hunting skills. Its name comes from the Old English term “goose hawk,” reflecting its prowess in hunting large birds.
Northern Goshawks are characterized by their slate-grey back, light grey underbody with fine barring, and a distinctive white eyebrow. They prefer dense forests, where they use their agility and speed to catch a variety of prey, including birds and small mammals.
These hawks are somewhat elusive, often heard before they are seen. Their call, a rapid series of sharp notes, adds a touch of mystery to the forests of Pennsylvania.
8. Northern Harrier
The Northern Harrier, or Circus hudsonius, is a unique bird of prey that stands out from other hawks in Pennsylvania. This medium-sized hawk is known for its distinctive flight pattern, often seen gliding low over open fields and marshes in search of prey.
Northern Harriers are easily recognizable by their long, slender wings, white rump patch, and facial disk similar to that of an owl. This facial feature helps them locate prey by sound as well as sight.
Their diet primarily consists of small mammals and birds. The presence of Northern Harriers in Pennsylvania adds a unique dimension to the state’s avian biodiversity.
9. Harris’s Hawk
The Harris’s Hawk, or Parabuteo unicinctus, is a unique bird of prey that stands out for its social behavior. Unlike most raptors, Harris’s Hawks are known to hunt in groups, a strategy that allows them to take down larger prey and cover more ground.
These hawks are characterized by their dark brown plumage, chestnut-red shoulders, and white-tipped tail. They are not commonly seen in Pennsylvania, as their natural range is primarily in the southwestern United States.
However, they are a favorite among falconers and birdwatchers for their cooperative hunting and striking appearance. The Harris’s Hawk is a testament to the diverse behaviors and adaptations found in the world of birds.
The Osprey, or Pandion haliaetus, is a bird of prey that is truly a master of the skies and seas. Known as the “fish hawk,” the Osprey is renowned for its fishing skills, often seen diving feet-first into water bodies to catch fish.
Ospreys are easily recognizable by their white underbody, brown back, and distinctive black eye stripe. They are found near bodies of water, where they build large nests on top of trees, poles,
and other tall structures. Their fishing prowess provides a fascinating spectacle for birdwatchers and serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of life on land and water.
Harriers are a group of hawks known for their distinctive flight pattern, often seen gliding low over open fields and marshes in search of prey. In Pennsylvania, the most common species is the Northern Harrier, or Circus hudsonius.
Harriers are characterized by their long, slender wings, white rump patch, and facial disk similar to that of an owl. This facial feature helps them locate prey by sound as well as sight.
Their diet primarily consists of small mammals and birds. Their distinctive hunting style provides a fascinating spectacle for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.
12. Gray Hawk
The Gray Hawk, or Buteo plagiatus, is a medium-sized bird of prey known for its graceful flight and striking appearance. These hawks are characterized by their gray body, black-tipped wings, and banded tail.
Gray Hawks are not commonly seen in Pennsylvania, as their natural range is primarily in the southwestern United States and Central and South America.
However, they are a favorite among birdwatchers for their elegant flight and beautiful plumage. The Gray Hawk is a symbol of the diversity and adaptability of birds of prey.
Popular Hotspots To Spot Hawks In Pennsylvania
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton is a premier destination for hawk watching in Pennsylvania. This 2,600-acre sanctuary offers stunning views and an array of trails. During migration season, you can spot a variety of hawks, including Broad-winged Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks.
Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch
Located in Carlisle, Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch is a fantastic spot to observe raptors. The site offers a 180-degree view of the Kittatinny Ridge, a major migratory route for hawks. Here, you can see species like the Northern Harrier and Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Second Mountain Hawk Watch
Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County is a well-known spot for observing migrating hawks. The watch site is located on a ridge that provides an excellent vantage point. Here, you can see species like the Red-shouldered Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.
Rose Tree Park Hawk Watch
Rose Tree Park Hawk Watch in Media offers a unique urban setting for hawk watching. The park’s open spaces attract a variety of hawks, including the American Kestrel and Northern Goshawk. The site also hosts annual Hawk Watch events, making it a vibrant community hub for birdwatchers.
Tussey Mountain Hawk Watch
Located in Centre County, Tussey Mountain Hawk Watch is a prime location for observing Golden Eagles and a variety of hawks. The site is known for its late-winter and early-spring migrations. The mountain’s updrafts provide excellent soaring conditions for raptors.
Fort Washington State Park
Fort Washington State Park, located just outside of Philadelphia, is a popular spot for hawk watching. The park’s Militia Hill Hawk Watch is known for its fall migrations, where you can see species like the Broad-winged Hawk and Osprey.
Little Gap Hawk Watch
Little Gap Hawk Watch in Northampton County is a fantastic spot to observe migrating raptors. Located on the Kittatinny Ridge, the site offers panoramic views and opportunities to see a variety of hawks, including the Northern Harrier and Red-tailed Hawk.
Best Time To Spot Hawks In Pennsylvania
The best time to spot hawks in Pennsylvania largely depends on the species and their migratory patterns. However, a general rule of thumb is that the prime hawk-watching season occurs during the migration periods in spring and fall.
In spring, from March to May, hawks begin their journey north to their breeding grounds. This is an excellent time to spot a variety of species, including the Broad-winged Hawk and the Northern Harrier.
In the fall, from September to November, hawks migrate south for the winter. This is when you can witness spectacular gatherings of hawks, especially at well-known migration hotspots like Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch.
Regardless of the season, early morning hours are often the best time of day for hawk watching, as this is when many species are most active.
What is the most common hawk in PA?
The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in Pennsylvania. Known for its distinctive reddish-brown tail, this bird of prey is often seen soaring high in the sky or perched on tree branches and telephone poles.
What do hawks eat in PA?
Hawks in Pennsylvania have a varied diet, primarily consisting of small mammals like mice, squirrels, and rabbits. They also eat birds, reptiles, and insects. The specific diet can vary depending on the species of hawk.
What is the smallest hawk in PA?
The smallest hawk in Pennsylvania is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Despite its small size, this bird is a skilled hunter, known for its agility and speed. It primarily preys on small birds, darting through dense forests with ease to catch its meal.
What is the largest bird in PA?
The largest bird in Pennsylvania is the Bald Eagle. With a wingspan that can reach up to 8 feet, this bird of prey is truly a sight to behold.
Are hawks protected in PA?
Yes, hawks are protected in Pennsylvania. They are covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal law that makes it illegal to hunt, capture, kill, or sell birds listed as migratory bird species.