March 2, 2007
immature Common Black Hawk
immature Common Black Hawk
For much of the country and most of its birders, one of the first harbingers of warm weather is the return of the warblers, our small, beautiful songbirds.  Here in central Arizona, though, March is already springtime, and the herald of the season is a bird at the opposite end of the species spectrum, the common black-hawk, a hawk belonging to the family of raptors call buteos.

Buteos are characterized by broad wings and short tails and are usually seen soaring overhead, screaming with defiance.  Common black-hawks are unique.  They don't soar very much, they splash around in creek beds, and they call with a series of squeaky, staccato whistles--a very different kind of buteo.  They aren't common either, at least north of the border, where they are found only in Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and the Davis Mountains of Texas.

Perhaps as many as 200 pairs of common black-hawks migrate to Arizona, the northern apogee of their breeding range, each spring.  By the end of this month territorial birds may be observed in spectacular courtship display which involves high speed dives into parachute mode at treetop level, yellow legs dangling below the body.  The scientific name for the species is Buteogallus anthracinus,. and if you remember your Latin you'll recognize that anthracinus means "coal black."  This is a beautiful, dark raptor with a wide white tail band, yellow facial skin, and extraordinarily broad wings.  When seen overhead, it soars on flat wings rather than with the dihedral (upswept wings) of our turkey vultures.

Common black-hawks in Arizona are strictly limited to permanent or semi-permanent streams.  Nests are bundles of sticks placed in a high crotch of the tallest streamside cottonwoods or sycamores.  The male brings nesting materials, the female models or remodels.  Nests are often reused for many years, but fresh greenery is present each spring which helps mark active nests both for later passing migrants and for birders.  Black-hawks are particularly sensitive to nest disturbance.  If you should find a nest, stay in your car or observe from a distance.

Habitat and hunting methods of our raptors conform to prey preference.  Since this species subsists primarily on aquatic animals, unlike most buteos it still-hunts from low perches beneath the tree canopy.  Leopard frogs are a favored item, but all raptors are opportunists and common black-hawks will take small mammals and fish, birds, lizards, and snakes.  I once watched a black-hawk walking along a creek, in the water, sloshing from rock to rock, coming up with minnows just as a heron or egret might do--a very different kind of buteo!

Look for this special hawk along Camp Creek northeast of Carefree, along Sycamore Creek near Sunflower, and especially in the Verde Valley, particularly around the Page Springs fish hatchery.  Juveniles, seen in late summer, look nothing like their parents.  They are a rich brown above, cream with vertical black streaks below, cream-colored face broken by a chocolate stripe behind the eye. 

Songbirds won't be migrating through central Arizona until late April and early May when the snow has melted from their breeding grounds farther north and their insect prey is again available.  March is springtime here, and March is black-hawk time.  Watch the skies over Phoenix for this unique and strikingly beautiful raptor as it migrates north.