The 6 Hawks of South Carolina (And How To Spot Them)

The 6 Hawks of South Carolina

South Carolina’s diverse ecosystems make it a haven for a variety of wildlife, including a broad array of bird species. Among these birds, one group that stands out is the hawks. Hawks are known for their keen eyesight, sharp talons, and hunting prowess, making them fascinating subjects for bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

There are 6 hawks in South Carolina, each with its unique characteristics and behavior. We’ll take a look at their habitats, physical characteristics, and how to spot them.

6 Hawks Found In South Carolina

There are 6 species of hawks that can be found in South Carolina. They include the Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and the American Kestrel.

Note: While there are technically 6 hawks on this list, we’ve included a 7th bird which used to be classified as a hawk but no longer is – the Osprey.

1. Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo platypterus
  • Wingspan: 29 – 39 in
  • Body Size: 13 – 17 in
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Broad-winged Hawk, a medium-sized raptor, graces the skies of both North and South America. During the warm summer months, this bird can be spotted across eastern North America, stretching its wings as far west as British Columbia and Texas. As winter approaches, it embarks on a remarkable migration journey, traveling southwards to regions as distant as southern Brazil. Interestingly, some of its subspecies have made the Caribbean islands their year-round home. These hawks are known to travel in massive groups known as “kettles” during migration, creating a spectacular sight for bird watchers.

In terms of habitat, the Broad-winged Hawk primarily dwells in forests and woodlands. They are especially fond of deciduous forests and mixed woodlands, making these areas prime spots for sighting these magnificent birds.

So, how can you identify this magnificent bird?

Look out for its distinctive short and broad wings that taper to a point. Its dark brown body contrasts beautifully with its white belly and chest, which are marked with horizontal bars. The tail, another distinguishing feature, often showcases white lines along its middle, base, and tip. Younger hawks sport a slightly different color palette, with more white and vertical bars.

Listen closely, and you might hear their high-pitched call, resembling a whistle, “kee-ee”. This call is especially prominent during territorial displays or when communicating with their mates and offspring.

Their diet is as diverse as their habitat, ranging from insects, amphibians, and reptiles to small mammals and even other birds. Their hunting strategy is a marvel to observe. Often, they’ll perch on low branches, camouflaged by the foliage, waiting patiently for the perfect moment to strike their unsuspecting prey.

If you’re fortunate, you might even witness the aerial acrobatics of males during the breeding season, as they perform cartwheels, dives, and other maneuvers to woo their potential mates.

In conclusion, the Broad-winged Hawk is not just another bird. It’s a symbol of nature’s wonder, showcasing the beauty, agility, and resilience of the avian world.

2. Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
  • Wingspan: 3 ft 7 in – 4 ft 8 in
  • Body Size: 18 – 26 in
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in North America and is a frequent sight in South Carolina.

The Red-tailed Hawk is a majestic bird of prey that graces the skies of North America. This raptor is renowned for its widespread presence, from the chilly terrains of Alaska and northern Canada to the tropical warmth of Panama and the West Indies. Indeed, it is the most common hawk in North America and is a frequent sight in South Carolina.

The Red-tailed Hawk is versatile when it comes to its habitat. It can adapt to various biomes within its range, from the edges of dense forests to sandy deserts. Their adaptability extends to deserts, grasslands, forests, agricultural fields, and even urban areas. They are typically found in varied habitats that combine open woodlands, woodland edges, and open terrains.

Spotting a Red-tailed Hawk is a treat for bird enthusiasts. Their distinctive call, a raspy scream, is often used in movies to represent any raptor. Visually, their reddish-brown tail is a clear giveaway. When in flight, their broad wings and wide tail are easily noticeable.

These hawks are not just skilled hunters but also opportunistic feeders. Their diet is diverse, primarily preying on small mammals like rodents. However, they don’t shy away from birds, reptiles, and even invertebrates. Their hunting style varies; while they often hunt from a perch, they can adapt their techniques based on the prey and habitat.

In the realm of human interaction, the Red-tailed Hawk holds a special place in falconry. Due to their abundance and trainability, they are the most commonly captured hawks for this ancient sport in the United States.

3. Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier
  • Scientific Name: Circus hudsonius
  • Wingspan: 38 in – 48 in
  • Body Size: 16 in – 20 in
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Northern Harrier, often referred to as the marsh hawk or ring-tailed hawk, is a captivating bird of prey that predominantly breeds in the northern regions of Canada and the northernmost parts of the USA. It can be spotted in South Carolina, mainly during the winter.

This raptor is known for its migration habits, with breeding birds from Canada and the northern Great Plains of the U.S. traveling south during winter to warmer regions like the American South, Mexico, and Central America. However, in areas like the midwestern, mountain west, and north Atlantic states of the U.S., they can be spotted throughout the year.

The Northern Harrier thrives in a variety of habitats, including prairies, open areas, and marshes. They are particularly fond of areas that combine open woodlands, woodland edges, and open terrains.

When trying to spot this bird, look for its distinctive flight pattern, where it flies low over fields and moors, closely following the contours of the land.

Their hunting technique is unique; they circle an area multiple times, using their keen sense of hearing, amplified by their owl-like facial disc, to detect prey. Their calls are also distinctive, with the female producing a whistled ‘piih-eh’, especially when receiving food, and the male emitting a ‘chek-chek-chek’ sound.

The Northern Harrier has historically been viewed favorably by farmers. They are often referred to as “good hawks” because they primarily feed on mice that can damage crops and don’t pose a threat to poultry. Their presence in the skies and their unique hunting techniques make them fascinating birds to observe and study.

4. Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp Shinned Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus
  • Wingspan: 17 in – 27 in
  • Body Size: 9 in – 15 in
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Sharp-shinned Hawk also known as the Northern sharp-shinned hawk or simply “sharpie”, is a small raptor that is notably recognized as the tiniest hawk in the United States and Canada.

To identify this hawk, look for its swift flight through dense vegetation as it hunts. Its primary diet consists of small birds, especially songbirds like sparrows, wood warblers, and finches. They are adept at navigating through thickets, often surprising their prey. Their distinct call, a series of high-pitched notes, can also be a giveaway.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is found in a variety of woodland and forest types, both conifer-dominated and broad-leaved, especially in areas with oaks. They are widespread in North America, Central America, South America, and the Greater Antilles. Depending on the region, they can be found from sea level to high altitudes, over 10,000 feet. In North America, they are known to frequent temperate boreal forests but migrate to warmer regions during winter.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a fascinating bird of prey with a wide distribution and varied habitat. Whether you’re a birdwatcher or just an enthusiast, keeping an eye (and ear) out for this raptor can be a rewarding experience.

5. Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Wingspan: 24-35 inches
  • Body Size: 14-20 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Cooper’s Hawk, a year-round resident of South Carolina, is a skilled hunter known for its high-speed chases through the tree canopy.

These birds are characterized by their slate-gray back, reddish-barred chest, and long, banded tail. The sharp contrast between the heavy streaking on their underparts and their dark cap, which gives them a somewhat stern expression, is a distinctive feature.

Their call is a sharp, sudden “kak-kak-kak,” usually heard during flight or when agitated.

Habitats where Cooper’s Hawks are commonly found include deciduous forests and mixed woodlands. They have also adapted well to suburban settings where bird feeders attract their prey.

To spot a Cooper’s Hawk, look for a bird with quick, agile flight patterns, often darting through dense canopy cover in pursuit of smaller birds. They are also known to perch inconspicuously, making a sudden dash to capture unsuspecting prey.

When observing these hawks, note their rounded wings and long tails which they use skillfully in maneuvering through trees and obstacles within forests.

The Cooper’s Hawk is a bird of stealth and speed, its presence in a habitat is indicative of a healthy bird population. Its adaptability to various environments has allowed it to thrive across a wide range, making it a common yet remarkable sight for those keen enough to spot this agile predator.

Whether in a swift chase or a silent perch, the Cooper’s Hawk embodies the fierce and wild spirit of North American woodlands.

6. Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus
  • Wingspan: 35 in – 50 in
  • Body Size: 15 in – 24 in
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized raptor that graces the skies with a wingspan ranging from 35 to 50 in.

These birds are known for their distinctive reddish chests and brownish heads, with adults weighing between 550 g (1.21 lb) for males and 700 g (1.5 lb) for females. Their lifespan in the wild can be as long as 20 years, although many live significantly shorter lives due to various natural and human-related threats.

Spotting a Red-shouldered Hawk can be a delightful challenge for bird enthusiasts. These hawks are often found perched in bottomland hardwoods, flooded deciduous swamps, and mixed deciduous conifer forests. They prefer areas with an open sub-canopy, which facilitates their hunting. Their long, yellow legs and long tails with narrow white bars are key identifiers. The call of the Red-shouldered Hawk is a distinctive “kee-aah”, usually repeated several times, which can be heard during their courting or when they defend their territories.

To find these hawks, one should look for forested areas near water sources, as they are forest raptors that thrive in such environments. They are adaptable and can sometimes be found in suburban areas where buildings are interspersed with woodlands. In flight, they exhibit a flapping flight style, which is quite different from the soaring of other hawk species.

7. Osprey

  • Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
  • Wingspan: Up to 71 in
  • Body Size: 24 in
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Osprey is a unique bird of prey with a cosmopolitan range.

It is not a true hawk; its taxonomic family, Pandionidae, and genus, Pandion, are distinct, setting it apart from other raptors. This distinction is due to its specialized physical characteristics and hunting behavior, particularly its reversible outer toe and unique talon structure, which are adaptations for its fish-eating diet.

To spot an Osprey, look for a large raptor with a distinctive white head marked with a dark mask across the eyes, reaching to the sides of the neck. Its call is a series of sharp whistles, which can be a clue to its presence. Ospreys are often seen hovering over the water before diving feet first to catch fish, a behavior that is quite characteristic of the species.

Ospreys can be found in a variety of habitats, but always close to bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, or coastal areas, as these are essential for their fishing activities. They are widespread, found on all continents except Antarctica, and are migratory, with some populations traveling great distances during winter.

When creating an environment to observe Ospreys, consider their need for open water with abundant fish and tall structures for nesting. They often reuse the same nest year after year, which can be on natural or artificial structures.

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