After an afternoon picture-taking trip north of Saugerties near the Hudson River we drove homeward along scenic back roads until we hit Route 9W. We didn’t expect this routine return trip to turn revelatory.
Just after the light and the low bridge at “Dead Man’s Curve,” as we crossed the town line into West Camp, ahead of us was a big bird standing in the exact middle of the road, right on the double yellow line. It was a red-tailed hawk.
We slowed down, saw no one was behind us, and stopped. The hawk stayed put. We saw then that the raptor was standing over a carcass, one too mangled to recognize, and a prize too precious to give up readily. In seconds the hawk took measure of the situation. It looked north, it looked south, it got a strong talon-hold on its prey, then lifted off from the blacktop with dinner secured.
The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is our most familiar raptor, largely due to its scavenging inclination. Unlike other hawks, which mostly go for the fresh kill, red-tails don’t mind their steak a little stale. Scarfing up road kills beats predation, if you don’t mind the smell and the grit, and also seems to suit the red-tail’s free and easy style.
Along the Thruway we often count hawks, and the numbers can add up. When the leaves are off the trees we seldom see fewer than three between Saugerties and Kingston, usually in trees, but sometimes on fence posts or on the sloping road banks around the Kingston interchange.
No doubt anyone who travels the interstates could chalk up hundreds of red-tailed hawk sightings anywhere in North America. Only vast forested areas and the high arctic are shunned by red-tails. The species is resident even on some Caribbean islands. In case you were wondering, the specific name “jamaicensis,” is geographically accurate. The species was first described from the island of Jamaica, and the subspecies found there is Buteo jamaicensis jamaicensis. Our subspecies here in New York is B. j. borealis, and it ranges from southeast Canada and Maine south to northern Florida and west to Texas. Our friend with the red tail gets around.
You local drivers like us, take note. That stretch of 9W between Catskill and Saugerties apparently has a local reputation as a hunting ground for red tails. We’ve seen them along the road there before, picking at a carcass or sitting in a tree. A friend of mine was not surprised at our recent red-tail adventure, and related another one much more bizarre. A woman he knew was sitting in her car at the stop light for the overpass of 9W north of Dead Man’s Curve at the north end of the hamlet of Cementon when something cat-sized fell and bounced off her front windshield. She got out to look, and it was a cat! It was already dead, probably (my friend assumed and I concur) dropped by a red-tail that had ambitiously picked it up off the road and then lost its grip on it.