Slow down and look closer – our 20 miles of trail in Lawrence and Hopewell Townships host an abundance of birdlife, and we want you to be able to keep them all straight. Welcome to Feathered Friends of the LHT, an ongoing series of “field guides” to Mercer County birds.

New Jersey is the year-round home to several species of raptor. Also known as birds of prey, it’s not tough to spot these elegant birds as they soar above, scouring the ground below for their next meal. But every so often, you’ll spot one of these beauties while they’re at rest. Keep your eyes out on the trail for these hawks and falcons and other birds of prey.

LHT Hawk by Uccelli Photography

A red-tailed hawk in flight, all photos courtesy of Uccelli Photography, also known as JohnSaveria Photography

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are the most widespread of the large hawks in North America —and their stocky builds, commanding soaring, and eponymous reddish-brown tails make them quite familiar to even novice birders. They are a year-round resident and are easy to spot thanks in part to their adaptability — you might catch them in grasslands, around farms, in woodlands, along roadsides, and in mountainous terrain. And their adaptability relates to their diet, too — depending on where they live and the season, they may eat birds as large as pheasants, a range of mammals, bats, reptiles, insects, and all sorts of other creatures. Red-tailed Hawks are big: They can be over 22 inches in length with a wingspan of 52 inches or more. Other than their large size and those red-brown tails, their appearance can range with feathers in tawny or deep brown, solid or speckled cream breasts, various spots, markings, and bands, and even grey and black colorations. Song-wise, listen for a hoarse, screaming “keeeeer.” Females lay one to five eggs but both parents incubate; as for feeding, males hunt while females shred the food and feed the young. Read more at Audubon.

Red-tailed hawks, and their wildly varying plumage, can symbolize a sort of fingerprint or coat of armor — something unique and distinctive. In addition, Red-tails are adaptable, easy to spot, and frequently live in harmony or in service to humans — thus, they can represent gregariousness, approachability, and loyalty.

American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) are the smallest and most widespread of the North American falcons. The birds are a common sight soaring over open farmland or grassland or perching on wires and telephone poles. Small in size, American Kestrels are rarely larger than 12 inches in length with a maximum 24-inch wingspan. They nest in dead tree cavities — or in nesting boxes that have become a common site in parks and preserves; and they feed on insects, smaller birds, and bats. Males are tawny brown with grey wings and heads, with black markings along their backs and black and white faces. Females are more softly colored, with paler grey speckles all over. Their call has been described as shrill. American Kestrel females lay two to seven eggs. Both parents incubate but once the babies hatch the female stands guard while the male hunts. Later, the female hunts as well. Once fledglings leave the nest, they often form groups with other young birds from area nests. Read more at Audubon.

Kestrels symbolize devotion and monogamy, as they often mate for life and even return again and again to the same nesting sites. They also represent patience, wit, and sensibility.

LHT Kestrel by Uccelli Photography

Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) are widespread but a bit less common a sight than American kestrels. The birds are a medium sized hawk — with a length that can surpass 15 inches and a wingspan that can reach over 35 inches. Most common in a woodland environment, you can spot Cooper’s Hawks in mature forests, on the edges of wood, and even in suburban areas that are rich in mature trees. These birds hunt by stealth — generally stalking prey (birds and small mammals, occasionally insects and reptiles) under the cover of trees and shrubbery before rapidly pouncing. Look for bluish grey wings, a black cap, and tawny-on-white speckles at the breast, plus a small beak with yellow at the top, and a distinctive red eye. Females, who are significantly larger than their male counterparts, will lay one to seven eggs — she incubates while her mate hunts. Read more at Audubon.

Hawks represent a messenger of the spirit world and a connection to spirituality. They also represent clarity, leadership, and focus.

LHT Coopers Hawk by Uccelli Photography

Merlins (Falco columbarius) are another small falcon — only a bit larger than the American kestrel, with a wingspan that can reach almost 27 inches. But, unlike the kestrel, our Merlins are winter-only residents who like our open grasslands and wetlands and coastal deciduous forests. They spend summers breeding in and around Great Plains and in Canada; and they feed on small birds, rodents, large insects, bats, and reptiles. Sleek, fast-flying, and commonly found speedily diving for prey, males are identifiable by their rich brown wings and tails, and cream and brown speckled chests. Females are softer in color, with brown and white speckles on the breast and light-outlining on their brown wing feathers. Both males and females have distinctive yellow markings around their eyes and beaks. Calls are loud — a high-pitched cackle. Females lay two to six eggs and incubate while the male does most of the hunting for the family. Read more at Audubon.

Merlins are a species of falcons, and falcons — fast-flying, calculating, powerful birds — symbolize steadfastness, intensity, and agility.

LHT Merlin by Uccelli Photography