On a warm and sunny winter day as I walked through a local park, it seemed things couldn't get any better, and then, suddenly, they did: A handsome red-tailed hawk flapped low over my head and landed in a tall oak, followed soon after by a second red-tail.

The two hawks perched together for many minutes in the oak, looking for all the world like a mated pair, leading me to hope that they'd soon start building a nest nearby. This wasn't a faint hope because red-tails have nested in my neighborhood for the past several years, once right in someone's front yard tree.

Why would I want these hawks living nearby? Consider that they eat squirrels and rabbits, in addition to a diet heavy on small rodents. Red-tailed hawks also are astoundingly beautiful, and they're not at all difficult to see. They're the quintessential highways hawks, perching on top of freeway lighting to watch for rodents in the ditches. And they hunt over open fields, in slow, wheeling flights, sometimes even helicoptering in place as they watch for prey below. This is the most numerous and widespread hawk on our continent, found from Washington state to Florida and everywhere in between (except North Dakota).

Many are migratory, but more than a few remain in our state over the winter, joined by red-tails from northern Canada coming down to spend the cold season.

Except for its astonishing beauty, this is not a showy hawk, no 200-mph drops onto pigeons (like peregrine falcons), no slashing attacks on songbirds at your feeders (like Cooper's hawks). These big workmanlike hawks know that watching and waiting is a successful hunting strategy.

Red-tails are easy to identify, except when they aren't: All adults show the distinctive red tail, so if you observe a big hawk with a red tail, it's a red-tailed hawk. But the opposite is not necessarily true. Juvenile red-tailed hawks show no red; instead their tails are made up of a series of horizontal stripes. Juvenile birds will molt into a red tail in their second year, if they live that long: Young raptors must learn very quickly to feed themselves, a difficult thing, and fewer than half of red-tails make it to their first birthday.

A close look at a red-tailed hawk reveals additional features that single it out from other species. Look at the pale chest and belly, and then the series of speckles across the belly, a mark called the "belly band." Just to confuse things, some red-tails have a very light or even nonexistent belly band. And there are even very dark versions of this species, and very pale ones, as well. Luckily for identification purposes, these are seldom seen in our area.

Back to the pair of hawks I observed in my local park: Red-tails tend to stay together until one of them dies, often returning to the same area to nest. They build large (up to 3 feet across) nests high in trees to raise their brood of two to three youngsters. If they abandon a nest in subsequent years, it becomes fair game for other creatures, especially great horned owls, a species that doesn't build its own nests. There is no quid pro quo in nature: The major predator of red-tailed hawklets in the nest is the great horned owl.

Starting in February, I kept an eye out for a large stick nest high in a tall deciduous tree, fingers crossed that a pair of red-tails would choose my neighborhood as their nesting and hunting ground.

No luck this year; the red-tailed hawk pair didn't build a nest in the nearby park this spring. Fingers crossed for next year.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

Famous 'tails

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has had a web camera for 12 years, recording a pair of red-tailed hawks as they raise a family on campus. The female is known as Big Red, and her earlier mate was Ezra. Sadly, Ezra died in 2017, but in 2018 Big Red and a male later named Arthur paired up. You can watch them at: allaboutbirds.org/cams/red-tailed-hawks.

Red-tailed hawks

Size: 19-26 inches from beak to tail. Females larger than males.

Weight: 2 to 4 lbs.

Color: Dark-brown back streaked with white, light front, red tail.

Shape: Stocky body, broad wings and tail.

Nest season: February to June.

Call: Hear it at allaboutbirds.com, then click on red-tailed hawk sounds.