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All 14 Hawks and Eagles in Delaware

hawks and eagles in delaware
Bald Eagle in Delaware: Photo by David Brown

Introduction

Delaware’s diverse landscapes make it an ideal habitat for various species of hawks and eagles. These birds of prey can be found soaring over the state’s fields, forests, and wetlands, providing keen-eyed observation and control of local rodent and bird populations. From the majestic Bald Eagle with its striking appearance to the versatile Red-tailed Hawk, Delaware is home to a range of raptors that play a vital role in maintaining the balance of its ecosystems. Whether you’re an experienced birder or a casual observer, there’s much to discover and appreciate about these fascinating predators in the First State.

Hawks and Eagles in Delaware

Jump to a species!

Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus)

Features: Swallow-tailed Kites are sizable raptors known for their slender build and graceful flight. They feature long, narrow wings, slim bodies, and a distinctively long, deeply forked tail. Their small bill is sharply hooked. These birds showcase a striking contrast of bright white on their head and underparts against glossy black wings, back, and tail. When viewed from below, their wing linings appear white while their flight feathers are black.

Behavior: Swallow-tailed Kites are aerial specialists, spending the majority of their time gliding through the air with minimal wing flapping. They often circle low above trees as they search for small animals among the branches. Occasionally, they ascend to great heights, nearly disappearing from view. During migration, they can gather in large flocks.

Habitat: You can spot Swallow-tailed Kites gliding over swamps, marshes, and large rivers in the southeastern U.S., especially in Florida. As summer concludes, all the Swallow-tailed Kites in the U.S. depart and migrate south to South America. Delaware is an unusual location to find these birds.

Range: These birds are much more frequent further south, but are quite rare in Delaware with just a few dozen scattered records across the state.

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Features: Golden Eagles are among the largest birds found in North America. Their wings are broad, similar to a Red-tailed Hawk’s, but longer. From a distance, their head appears relatively small, and their long tail extends further behind than the head does in front. Adult Golden Eagles have dark brown feathers with a golden tint on the back of the head and neck. Young eagles display distinct white patches at the base of their tail and on their wings during the first few years of life.

Behavior: Golden Eagles are often seen alone or in pairs, soaring or gliding with their wings lifted into a gentle “V” shape and wingtip feathers spread out like fingers. They hunt for prey on or close to the ground, spotting it from the sky, by flying low, or while perched.

Habitat: Golden Eagles prefer areas that are partially or fully open, especially around mountains, hills, and cliffs. They inhabit a range of environments from arctic to desert, including tundra, shrublands, grasslands, coniferous forests, farmland, and regions near rivers and streams. Predominantly found in the western U.S., they are uncommon in the eastern states such as Delaware.

Range: Golden Eagles are highly unusual birds in Delaware. The majority of the (few) scattered statewide records have come in the last few months of the year, particularly November.

Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis)

Features: Mississippi Kites are sleek, small raptors with long, pointed wings. They have a relatively long, square-tipped tail and a small, sharply hooked bill. These birds display a striking blend of gray and black that transitions to pale gray-white on their head and the secondary feathers of their wings. Their wingtips and tail are black. Juveniles feature streaky plumage with brown chests and underwings, as well as banded tails.

Behavior: Mississippi Kites are exceptional flyers, often staying airborne and gliding on the wind or flying with buoyant, rhythmic wingbeats. They are agile enough to catch insects, including dragonflies, while in flight. During migration, they may gather in large flocks.

Habitat: Mississippi Kites inhabit bottomland hardwood forests generally in the Southeast and tree-lined areas across the southern prairies, including windbreaks, shelterbelts, parks, and urban environments.

Range: Mississippi Kites are highly irregular as far north as Delaware, with scattered summer records across the small state.

Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius)

Features: Northern Harriers are slender, medium-sized raptors with long, fairly broad wings and a long, rounded tail. They feature a flat, owl-like face and a small, sharply hooked bill. These birds often fly with wings held in a V-shape, or dihedral, above the horizontal. Males have gray upperparts and whitish underparts with black wingtips, a dark trailing edge, and a black-banded tail. Females and juveniles are brown with black bands on their tails. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, while juveniles have buffy undersides with fewer streaks. All Northern Harriers display a distinct white rump patch visible during flight.

Behavior: Northern Harriers hunt by flying low over the ground, weaving back and forth across fields and marshes as they scan and listen for small animals. They feed on the ground and perch on low posts or trees. During breeding season, males court females with impressive aerial barrel rolls.

Habitat: Northern Harriers breed in expansive, open areas such as Arctic tundra, prairie grasslands, fields, and marshes. They build their nests hidden on the ground among grasses or wetland plants. During migration and winter, harriers typically head south from regions with heavy snow, settling in open habitats similar to their breeding grounds.

Range: Northern Harriers are quite common in Delaware, all over the state. During the summer, they are still regular but less abundant as many individuals would have moved further north for breeding.

Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)

Features: Sharp-shinned Hawks, or Sharpies, are compact hawks with long tails and short, rounded wings. They have small heads that might not extend past the “wrists” of the wings during flight. Their tails are typically square-tipped and may have a slight notch at the end. Females are significantly larger than males. Adults display a slate blue-gray color on their upperparts and narrow horizontal red-orange stripes on the breast. Juveniles are mostly brown with coarse vertical streaks on white underparts. Both adults and young hawks have broad, dark bands across their lengthy tails. Compare to Cooper’s Hawk below.

Behavior: Sharp-shinned Hawks are nimble hunters that swiftly maneuver through dense forests to ambush their prey, often songbirds. They do not dive from high altitudes onto their prey but may strike from low perches. When traversing open spaces, they exhibit a characteristic flight pattern of flapping followed by gliding.

Habitat: Sharp-shinned Hawks breed in dense forests. During migration, watch for them in open areas or high above, as they migrate along ridgelines. In the non-breeding season, they hunt small birds and mammals along forest edges and occasionally at backyard bird feeders, prompting high-pitched alarm calls from the gathered songbirds.

Range: These birds are pretty common all over Delaware, particularly in the fall. During the summer, they are generally absent from the state.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

Features: Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized birds of prey with the typical accipiter build: broad, rounded wings and a very long tail. Their head often looks large, their shoulders are broad, and their tail is rounded. Adults display a steely blue-gray color on their upperparts, with warm reddish bars on their underparts and prominent dark bands on their tails. Juveniles have brown upperparts and clearly defined brown streaks on their upper breast, giving them a somewhat hooded appearance compared to the more diffuse streaking seen in young Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Behavior: Cooper’s Hawks typically fly with a flap-flap-glide pattern, characteristic of accipiters. Even when traversing large open spaces, they seldom sustain continuous flapping. Another hunting tactic is to fly quickly and low to the ground, then rise over an obstacle to catch prey off guard on the other side.

Habitat: Wooded areas ranging from dense forests to residential neighborhoods and backyards.

Range: Cooper’s Hawks are more regular year-round that Sharp-shinned Hawk’s in Delaware.

American Goshawk (Accipiter atricapillus)

Features: American Goshawks are large birds of prey and the most substantial of the accipiter family. They have broad, rounded wings and long tails. The relatively long secondary flight feathers create a curved or bulging trailing edge, giving the wingtips a pointed appearance in flight. Females are larger than males. Adult goshawks have dark slate gray upperparts and pale gray barred underparts. They feature a dark head with a prominent white stripe above the eye and orange to red eyes. Immatures are brown and streaked, with narrow dark tail bands. They also have a faint pale eyebrow stripe and yellow eyes.

Behavior: Goshawks are stealthy hunters that observe prey from elevated perches before launching fast, nimble attacks, navigating even through thick forests and tangled undergrowth. They fly using a pattern of slow wingbeats mixed with brief glides.

Habitat: Goshawks inhabit wild forests and are typically found in large, uninterrupted tracts. Throughout much of their range, they prefer coniferous forests, but they can also be found in deciduous hardwood forests, such as in the northeastern U.S. where they are rare.

Range: This species is very, very rare for Delaware. There are just a few dozen records, many of them from along the coast.

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Features: The Bald Eagle is much larger than most other birds of prey, such as the Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawk. It features a hefty body, a large head, and a long, hooked bill. In flight, a Bald Eagle keeps its broad wings straight and flat. Adult Bald Eagles have white heads and tails with dark brown bodies and wings, along with bright yellow legs and bills. Immature eagles have primarily dark heads and tails; their brown wings and bodies are speckled with varying amounts of white. Young eagles develop adult plumage over roughly five years.

Behavior: Bald Eagles are often seen soaring high, flying low over treetops with slow wingbeats, or perched in trees or on the ground. They scavenge many of their meals by harassing other birds or feeding on carrion and garbage. While their primary diet consists of fish, they also hunt mammals, gulls, and waterfowl.

Habitat: You can spot Bald Eagles near lakes, reservoirs, rivers, marshes, and coastlines. For a chance to see large groups of Bald Eagles in Delaware, visit wildlife refuges or large bodies of water during winter.

Range: Possibly the most common Accipiter in Delaware, and undoubtedly the most iconic, Bald Eagles are regular throughout the state all through the year.

Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Features: Red-shouldered Hawks are medium-sized raptors with broad, rounded wings and medium-length tails that they spread out when soaring. In flight, they often glide or soar with wingtips slightly forward, giving them a characteristic “reaching” appearance. Adults are striking with dark and white checkered wings and warm reddish bars on the breast. Their tails are black with thin white bands. Juveniles have brown upperparts and white underparts streaked with brown. All ages display narrow, pale crescents near the wingtips during flight.

Behavior: Red-shouldered Hawks glide above forests or sit on tree branches or utility wires. Their rising, whistled “kee-rah” is a characteristic sound in wooded areas. They hunt small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles either from perches or while in flight.

Habitat: Red-shouldered Hawks can be found in deciduous woodlands, often close to rivers and swamps. They construct stick nests in the main crotch of a large tree. During migration, these hawks frequently travel high overhead along ridgelines or the coast.

Range: These hawks are fairly regular throughout the state all through the year.

Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)

Features: Broad-winged Hawks are small, robust birds of prey with stocky bodies and large heads. Their broad wings taper to a point in flight, while their tail is short and square. Adult hawks have reddish-brown heads, barred underparts, and wide black and white bands on the tail. The pale undersides of their wings are edged in dark brown. Juveniles are lighter brown with coarse streaking on the underparts, particularly on the breast sides; their tail features narrow bands.

Behavior: Broad-winged Hawks hunt small prey from perches beneath the forest canopy. Occasionally, they soar above the canopy or traverse open spaces such as road cuts. Their call is a sharp whistle at a consistent pitch.

Habitat: Broad-winged Hawks inhabit forests and spend most of their time below the canopy. During migration, they glide along coastlines and mountain ridges, frequently forming large flocks.

Range: Broad-winged Hawks are uncommon in Delaware for most of the year. During migration months, particularly April and September/October, these birds are much more frequent passing through the state.

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)

Features: Swainson’s Hawks belong to the buteo family, meaning they are large hawks with relatively broad wings and short tails. However, Swainson’s Hawks are less bulky than many other buteos, with a leaner build and longer wings, often held in a slight V shape while soaring. While their appearance can vary, most Swainson’s Hawks have light bellies, a dark or reddish-brown chest, and brown or gray upperparts. Their underwings stand out with white wing linings that contrast sharply against blackish flight feathers. Males typically have gray heads, while females often have brown heads. There are also darker morphs, ranging from reddish to almost entirely black, with less contrast on the underwings.

Behavior: Swainson’s Hawks are sociable birds of prey, commonly found in groups when not in the breeding season. You might spot them soaring in large flocks of migrating birds or scattered across the ground, perched on fence posts, and resting on utility poles while foraging for grasshoppers.

Habitat: These hawks spend their summers in the expansive open spaces of the American West. They are the common nesting buteos of grasslands but also inhabit sage flats and agricultural areas mixed with natural habitat. They typically place their nests in trees, often in the only visible tree for miles around.

Range: Highly uncommon in Delaware, these hawks have been seen a handful of times along the coast, particularly at hawk-watch set-ups.

Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)

Features: This hawk has a relatively slender build, with narrow wings and a longer tail compared to the Red-tailed Hawk. It has a grayish-black body, and its flight feathers feature black-and-white barring on the underside, creating a look similar to the two-toned underwings of the Turkey Vulture. The tail is blackish with white bands.

Behavior: This hawk searches for food by gliding slowly and low over treetops, holding its wings in a slight V-shape similar to Turkey Vultures. It swoops down onto prey from low altitudes. Mating pairs showcase acrobatic aerial displays high in the sky.

Habitat: These hawks are found in cottonwood riparian areas, upland deserts, foothills, and mountain pine forests, particularly in locations with varied terrain like cliffs, mesas, or canyons. They are least frequently seen in low desert areas and high mountain regions.

Range: There is a single record of this bird in Delaware, from the the Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch station in September 2014.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Features: Red-tailed Hawks are large birds of prey with classic buteo characteristics, including very broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail. From a distance, large females might resemble eagles. Most Red-tailed Hawks have rich brown upperparts and pale underparts with a streaked belly and a dark bar on the underside of the wings between the shoulder and wrist. The tail is typically pale below and cinnamon-red above, but young birds have brown, banded tails. Dark-morph birds are uniformly chocolate-brown with a warm red tail. Rufous-morph birds have reddish-brown chests and dark bellies.

Behavior: You are most likely to spot Red-tailed Hawks soaring in large circles high above a field. When they flap, their wingbeats are strong and deliberate. In strong winds, they might face into the wind and hover in place without flapping, keeping their eyes trained on the ground. They strike in a slow, steady dive with legs extended, which is quite different from the rapid descent of a falcon.

Habitat: The Red-tailed Hawk is found in open landscapes. You can spot it near fields, perched on telephone poles, fence posts, or trees that stand alone or along the edges of fields.

Range: With the Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawks are by far the most common Accipiters in Delaware.

Rough-legged Hawk/Buzzard (Buteo lagopus)

Features: Rough-legged Hawks are relatively large raptors with broad wings that are longer and narrower compared to other Buteo species. Their tails are also longer than those of many other buteos. The broad wingtips are often angled back slightly from the wrist, giving the wings a subtle M shape. They have a relatively small bill. These hawks are strikingly marked with dark brown feathers, and their tails are dark at the tip and pale at the base. They can be found in light and dark morphs.

Behavior: When hunting, Rough-legged Hawks often hover into the wind, watching the ground for small mammal prey. They frequently sit on fence posts and utility poles and sometimes on the thin branches at the top of trees. They soar with their wings raised in a gentle V-shape, also known as a dihedral.

Habitat: These hawks breed in the Arctic region. During winter, they migrate to open areas like fields, prairies, deserts, and airports (I guess some birds also need ample space to take off) across the U.S. and southern Canada.

Range: Rough-legged Hawks are quite uncommon visitors to Delaware, generally only seen passing through in the winter months.

Delaware Birding Resources

Birding Organizations:

Field Guides:

Other Resources:

Conclusion

Delaware’s hawks and eagles offer a captivating glimpse into the state’s rich biodiversity and natural beauty. Observing these birds in their natural habitats, from hunting above open fields to perching along waterways, provides a sense of wonder and appreciation for their crucial role in the local ecosystem. As you explore the state’s diverse landscapes, keep an eye out for these raptors and take a moment to appreciate their impressive aerial skills and unique behaviors. Protecting their habitats ensures these magnificent birds of prey will continue to thrive in Delaware for generations to come.