Photo Quiz #7 Answer
By Jim Burns
A) Good photo, easy bird
For most of us starting out, struggling with bird identification, there was a nemesis family or genus--sparrows, "confusing fall warblers", or perhaps the gulls. Several years elapsed between the time I learned "Not all Red-taileds have red tails" and "All adult Red-taileds have a dark patagial bar." No other raptor will show this dark mark on a light underwing. The latter information byte finally made me comfortable and confident trying to sort out soaring raptors.
Our photo bird does have a dark patagium, the "shoulder" area on the leading edge of the underside of the wing. In the translation to black and white we can't see whether or not the tail is red, but even in living color the red is often washed out in a ventral (bottom) view such as this, whereas a dorsal (top) view will give the requisite flash of brick red. This Red-tailed Hawk was photographed April, 1995 at the Sonoita Creek Preserve in Patagonia.
At the heart of Red-tail identification lies the problem of there being several different flavors of Red-tail, especially in the west. Our photo bird is a light-phase calurus, or Western form, the most common and the most straightforward to identify. Note the classic buteo shape--long, broad wings and short, wide tail. Other prominent plumage markings--dark belly band, dark "comma" at the wrist, dark subterminal tail band, and dark trailing edge on the wing--are all characteristics of Red-tails, BUT . . . not all Red-tails will show them, and all might be seen or easily imagined on other raptors, especially given only cursory looks. The dark patagial bar should be the first checkpoint for this species and is usually the only one needed.
B) Good photo, difficult bird
Soaring over the Nogales sewage ponds October, 1997 with all dark Turkey Vultures and mostly light Red-tails, this beautiful dark and light raptor, backlit by the bright sun, gave off "a thousand points of light" and immediately caught my eye. The tail length, obviously proportionately greater than that of the Red-tail in the first photo, suggests accipiter or harrier, but the broad, rectangular wings are much too long for the former and the latter would never be this dark underneath.
Here are two important information links for this bird: most immature raptors' tails are, indeed, longer than adults of the same species; immature buteos' wings are narrower than those of adults. The streaking and speckling also indicate a young bird, and the extent and intensity of the dark areas are indicative of a dark phase immature, but which one? Most western buteos have dark and light phases, or morphs.
The several dark tail bands of equal width eliminate all but two of them--dark phase Western Red-tailed and Harlan's Red-tailed. These two are virtually inseparable, but the strong backlighting here exposes the one viable field mark--barring on the outer primary tips, showing our quiz bird to be an immature Harlan's, a unique and memorable sighting.
C) Bad photo, easy bird
Remember the story about the novice pelagic birder standing in the bow watching the same jaeger make three ever-widening circles over the boat as the trip leader, from his midship starboard position, called out three different jaeger flavors? In the winter of '92 a distinctive black buteo appeared in the southeast Valley and was identified as a dark phase Rough-legged Hawk. I shot half a roll, labeled it and filed it away. In the winter of '93 a distinctive black buteo appeared in the southeast Valley and was identified as a Harlan's Red-tail. I shot half a roll, labeled it and . . . WHOA!
In comparing slides of the two birds, I saw the same field marks. In making several trips to get optimal photos of both birds, I realized I had shot the birds in the same snag. But the fun was just beginning! If this was, indeed, the same bird, which identification was correct? I never did get that optimal photo either year. Your choices were eye-straining distant speck, full frame/out of focus, or this one almost in the frame/sharp focus quiz photo.
This photo, incomplete though it is, clearly shows us three diagnostic ventral marks: white flight feathers w/dark barring and dark trailing edge; black breast w/white mottling; and dirty white tail w/thin, dark subterminal band. Dark morph Rough-legged and Harlan's Hawk would share the first characteristic, but not the second and third. The Rough-legged would show no mottling on the breast, the male Rough-legged's tail would show multiple dark bands, and the female's tail, though white from below, has a much wider dark band which is terminal.
I have re-labeled my '92 slides of this bird "adult Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk." If there's anyone out there who remembers this interesting incident or the "trick" bird involved and has enlightening arguments or comments, please give me a call.