Whether you live here, or you are visiting the Marco Island area, it is very common for just about everyone to be watching the water, hoping to get a glance of a dolphin, manatee, school of fish or even a stingray or two. Chances are, if you’re not watching the water, you’ve got an eye toward the sky, waiting for an Osprey to swoop down and grab a fish or maybe a brown pelican diving headfirst to catch a meal.
Definitely, these are the primary entertainment sources found in the region, but there is much more going on in the sky if you look close enough. Indeed, Ospreys are members of the Raptor family and very common to see. Looking more closely and you might discover a few more flying predators that call this area home. Let’s meet a few!
In addition to Bald Eagles, Barred Owls and Great-Horned Owls, some of the other fastest and most graceful Raptors can be found. The Peregrine Falcon migrates through our territory as it heads to Central America in early Fall, but a few have been known to stay here until the northern migration takes place in the Spring. Having them as a part-time resident makes the search more fun!
The Peregrine does not breed here but makes it’s nesting home way further north. Coming to this area gives them some respite from the cold winter weather. They feed primarily on other birds, stalking them from as high as 10,00 feet. Once they get a bead on their prey, they will dive at speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour! A little twitch of their tail fine-tunes their flight path to assure a direct strike at the back and neck. They are the fastest animal on the planet, sometimes reaching dive speeds of 200 miles per hour. And they are here right now!
One of the most common hawks found in the region is the Red-Shouldered Hawk with a distinguishing red/rust color at the top of the wing and a beautiful rust–colored breast. Their cry is unique and unmistakable. In fact, if you ever watch a movie and an eagle is shown flying, the sound in that show is very appealing. That is probably a Red-Shouldered Hawk sound dubbed in because it sounds so much better than an eagle screech! Ah, the magic of showbiz!
Almost as common is the Red-Tailed Hawk. As the name implies, the unique tail color provides its name and it also has a magnificent breastplate that is striped.
They are darker in color—overall—compared to the Red–Shouldered Hawk. They take advantage of open terrain to catch mice, squirrels, rabbits and rabbits, among other prey. They are monogamous, with the female laying 1 to 5 eggs each year and both mom and dad will incubate the eggs for 4 to 5 weeks. The young leave the nest at 10 to 11 weeks old.
I have seen several Sharp–Shinned Hawks when visiting the Jayne’s Scenic Drive area and also in the pine trees just off Marco Island. These are the smallest hawks in North America. Like the above-mentioned hawks, it feeds on rodents, snakes and small mammals. While many other raptors sport tufts of hair on their legs, this hawk is pretty bare from the knee joint down. Look for them in wooded areas.
One of the most-rare hawks, only found in Florida, is the small tropical one called the Short-Tailed Hawk. There are only about 400 left in the wild and I’ve only seen one once, just a week ago. When hunting, it appears to be motionless in flight. Its prey is similar to that of the Peregrine Falcon, that being other birds.
The Short-Tailed will dive steeply once the subject is located and locked in, and it will grab another bird from a shrub or treetop. They nest mainly in Central Florida but make their way to the coastline—obviously. The female will incubate the eggs for just over 30 days, and while she’s nesting, the male brings food to her.
So, as always, keep an eye on the sky, but look a little more in detail to birds other than pelicans and Ospreys. You too could find a hidden gem soaring majestically among the clouds!
Bob is a Naturalist onboard the survey vessel Dolphin Explorer that conducts tours from Rose Marina. He is the author of two books, available locally, and an award-winning columnist for Coastal Breeze News. Bob loves his wife very much!