Adult red-shouldered hawk, Florida race - note pale gray face. Don Hendershot photo

Adult red-shouldered hawk, Florida race – note pale gray face. Don Hendershot photo

I was having my morning coffee on the small floating dock in the narrow, clear Weeki Wachee River about three miles upstream of the Gulf of Mexico and watching for manatees. The girls and I had discovered that early morning was a good time to catch these unique creatures headed in or out of the river. The loud, incessant calling of a red-shouldered hawk from the woods across the river suddenly shattered the morning quiet.

The area across the river – a state of Florida wildlife management area – looked like ideal red-shouldered habitat and I had heard a call or two from them as we paddled the day before. But there was an urgency to this calling and it was repetitive. I was going over, in my mind, the likely scenarios that could induce such a ruckus when I saw a couple of crows in the treetops. Ah, I thought, mama red-shouldered was concerned about these nest-robbers in the neighborhood.

The crows lounged around for a couple of minutes then vacated the area. But the calling didn’t stop. Suddenly there was a responding loud “keee-yeerrr” from behind me. The two birds appeared to be communicating and out of nowhere a hawk, screaming, soared across the river and lit in a large sweet-bay at river’s edge. The hawks “talked” back and forth and the recently arrived bird left the sweet-bay, flew downriver about three hundred yards and into the woods. I hadn’t expected all this theatre with my morning coffee but it was intriguing.

The screaming is still going on when a mature bald eagle explodes from the woods downriver with a red-shouldered in hot pursuit. Now, there is little doubt about the gravitas of this situation. The red-shouldered hawk is intent on chasing a threatening interloper from its territory. That said, if someone had just come upon this scene at this point it would have looked a bit comical to see a huge adult bald eagle beating a hasty retreat while being dive-bombed by a raptor about half its size.

As I was watching this play out, everything began to fall into place. Yesterday we were on the dock chatting with our neighbors. I mentioned that I had seen bald eagles. ‘Oh,” was the response, “we just saw one come by with a bird in its talons.”

This piqued my curiosity but I didn’t think a whole lot about it. American coots are pretty much a staple as far as bald eagles are concerned, but there were no coots around. Well, eagles are quite opportunistic when it comes to prey – an unsuspecting shorebird or even a dead bird scavenged somewhere could easily become a meal. But the red-shouldereds were telling a different story.

Both parents were out hunting yesterday morning to feed fledglings. An eagle happened by, saw an unguarded nest and availed itself to the opportunity. This morning the red-shouldereds, alerted to the danger, did not leave the nest unguarded. Mama stayed to keep an eye on things while dad went out for breakfast. The eagle, remembering where its yesterday’s breakfast came from returned for a replay. Mama was there and started calling out for help – which is where I entered the story.