Dark buteos of Braddock Bay…

10 07 2013
Dark Rough-legged Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Reasearch

Dark Rough-legged Hawk – Braddock Bay Raptor Reasearch

Dark Buteos. Whats not to love about them – unless you are trying to identify one a few hundred yards away from you at a hawkwatch. With that in mind, a combination of factors lead to the ‘mystery bird’ below heading out to the local Western New York textserve initially identified as a Swainson’s Hawk on May 16th 2013 – oops! In my defense there were a couple of mitigating circumstances at least: a Swainson’s Hawk had been called in from out west of the watch a little before, I only had brief views of the bird before turning over the scope for others to have a look at the thing, and the bird basically spent the whole time soaring low out a half mile or more away to our left with a very distinct dihedral and never ‘actively’ flying – which might have helped with some keys to the birds identity (these pictures were taken much later when the bird was almost right overhead). Still as much as I like pie, a good serving of humble isn’t my favorite..

Dark Red-tailed Hawk - Dominic Sherony

Dark Red-tailed Hawk – Dominic Sherony

That said the hawkwatching rule has always been that if you correct yourself before anyone else does then it’s not really a mistake, and as soon as the bird disappeared back over the tree line I was questioning my initial conclusion, as there was just something not quite right about the plumage. As the bird reappeared over the horizon a few minutes later I realized the flight feathers and tail both at distance seemed to be almost completely pale – which doesn’t totally tally with Swainson’s Hawk. That said, I do remember noting as we watched the discussed bird that dark Swainson’s Hawks can often appear to show pale flight feathers and tail in certain lighting circumstances: a feature the flight shots of the only banded (and photographed?) Swainson’s Hawk from Braddock Bay seems to exhibit. The photo below is a shot of a bird that was first banded then photographed as it passed over the hawkwatch on May 4th 2009.

Dark Swainson's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Dark Swainson’s Hawk – Braddock Bay Raptor Research

With the dark Swainson’s, the typical ‘black in the back’ doesn’t stand out the same way, but there was still something that even with my relatively inexperienced eyes I noted  on our mystery bird that didn’t seem quite right for Swainson’s. I think the conversation went something like this – from: ‘is it bothering anyone how pale the flight feathers are on that bird?’ to ‘is it bothering anyone that this ‘Swainson’s’ is kiting like a Red-tailed Hawk!!!!!’. Thankfully the bird had put in two appearances on the day to ensure that we finally got the identification right. The two Swainson’s earlier in the season had afforded somewhat better views (especially the one on May the 1st which gave killer views low over the platform).

Dark Swainson's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Dark Swainson’s Hawk – Braddock Bay Raptor Research

The above shot is of the same dark Swainson’s Hawk from Braddock Bay in hand whilst it was in the process of being banded (on International Migratory Bird Day aptly enough). As with many of the more prosaic raptors at the watch our ‘mystery bird’ was eventually successfully identified as much by flight style as much as plumage or structure. Eventually the bird put in a few more appearances over the day allowing some much better shots to be obtained by Dominic Sherony. These shots were then passed on to a few people for confirmation and a couple of noted experts on raptor ID were good enough to even get the identification down as far as subspecies, with this bird being pegged as a first spring rufous morph Calarus. Apparently the fairly light banding in the flight feathers and the unbarred outer primaries apparently help rule out a Harlan’s.

Dark Red-tailed Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Dark Red-tailed Hawk – Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Of course there are no dark ‘Eastern’ Red-tailed Hawks, but being out on the western fringes of New York its not unknown for some “Western’ birds to put in an appearance at the watch. That said, in my time at Braddock I have had seen exactly one dark Red-tailed Hawk, which compares unfavorably to the two Mississippi Kites and three Swainson’s Hawks. I know that a few people had a dark Red-tail once when I was getting some lunch during the first big day of my first season, but even then you get some idea of the relative rarity. To give you some other perspective, out of the 9,549 Red-tailed Hawks that were tallied over my three seasons at Braddock only two were definitively identified as dark birds.

Though dark Red-tailed Hawks are certainly rare at Braddock they have (like the Swainson’s) been banded by BBRR and on more than one occasion. The above snap of the rufous bird was taken on April 22nd 2008 and the images of both the back and front of the same bird below were taken at BBRR on May 1st 2003. One would assume that these birds are of the Calarus subspecies but I’d certainly be intrigued to hear any dissenting views on the following two pictures – though I would assume Harlan’s could almost be ruled out on date?  EDIT: The two pictures below have been identified as Harlan’s Hawk. Note the breast streaking and tail pattern.  Thanks to Jerry Liguori for feedback on that.

Dark Red-tailed Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk – Braddock Bay Raptor Research

The shot below has to be one of my favorite pictures ever of a banded bird  from Braddock Bay, as not not only is it a cool looking bird in and of itself but it is also in a pretty incredible pose. Anyway I’m not totally sure what the idea of this post was apart from to maybe highlight how tough in flight identifications can be even for relatively seasoned observers, to caution taking care to identify unusual birds from a couple of field marks and to have the opportunity to stick up some super cool looking raptors that have graced the skies (and banding stations) of Braddock Bay over the years.

Dark Red-tailed Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk – Braddock Bay Raptor Research

I’ve always had a reluctance to try and identify subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks from the watch simply because it seems so fraught with potential to make errors unless you can obtain definitive shots. Seeing as I got the mystery bird wrong initially it seems safer to just stick to trying to get the species and where possible the age right. Finally, here is my favorite of all the dark Red-tailed Hawk shots and really just because it is of my boss and head of BBRR, Daena Ford. Here she is in a slightly younger incarnation nicely modelling a dark Red-tailed Hawk which had showed up during one of her hawk banding tour demonstrations I believe – Awesome timing.

Dark Red-tailed Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Dark Red-tailed Hawk – Braddock Bay Raptor Research

Thanks to Dominic Sherony and to Braddock Bay Raptor Research for the loan of the pictures for the blog post, much appreciated.



One response

13 03 2014
Hawkwatching basics 2: Comportment | Under Clear Skies

[…] that if you correct your bad call before anyone else does it doesn’t even count as a bad one (here’s an example of a bad call I made at Braddock – it only made it as far as the lists…!). In all seriousness it’s not like people are expecting you to separate gulls, or sparrows by […]

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