When You Least Expect It…

I wasn’t sure where to bird this past Saturday.  Sunday was definitely out with 4-6″ of snow planned.  And Saturday was going to be cold, so cold that the Indiana Audubon called off a field trip to Goose Pond.  But Landon Nuemann had found a Red-throated Loon in Logansport so who knew what could be found in open water.  So with that I headed out in search of open water and anything that might be hanging around the water.

After several stops I finally made it to the reliable Franklin Lowes/Walmart pond.  There was a nice assortment of waterfowl including Canada Geese, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Redhead, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, Gadwall, and American Coots. But I got there a lot later in the day then I planned.

Because I had spent the first 2-1/2 hours on one hawk.

Not any hawk, but a DARK BROWN HAWK. And I don’t mean brown in the usual Red-tailed brown.

RTHA 022815
Here is a Red-tailed Hawk that was in the same area Saturday Morning. As you can see the brown is lighter and mixed with white. Johnson County – 02/28/15

I mean brown like in a Harris’s Hawk, which was the first thing that popped in my head.  I hopefully know status and distribution well enough to rule out a Harris’s Hawk but you never know where anything will turn up.

Harris's Hawk A
A Harris’s Hawk in the morning light. This hawk is a little to chocolate brown colored for the bird I saw Saturday. Cameron County, TX June 2014

I initially saw The Hawk from about 350 meters. My initial thought was a dark-phase Rough-legged Hawk since it was sitting on the top branch of a tree.  As I have stated before your initial thought is usually the correct thought.  Like the time in 1999 when I came within one question of being on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”.  It was the last round of phone questions before going on the show and I second guessed myself.  Should have stayed with the original answer.  But that is a story for another day.  But I should have stayed with my first thought on The Hawk.

So I tried to get closer but The Hawk didn’t like that and moved. So I moved again and The Hawk flew off. I still didn’t have a photo in the early morning light. But when it flew off I finally got a look at its underside – a dark body and dark underwing coverts. I had recently seen a photo of a Harlan’s Hawk on Indiana Advanced Birding Facebook page posted by Allan Claybon. And The Hawk’s underside seemed to be a good match. But so is a dark-phase Rough-legged Hawk and this bird seemed to have a little wider wing span then a Red-tailed.

Since I wasn’t sure, I either mark down a Buteo species or keep looking. I kept looking.

Thirty minutes later I pick up the bird on the north side of County Line Road in Marion County – 400 meters away. It once again was sitting on the top limb of a tree. So whatever it turned out to be it will be a two county bird – Johnson and Marion. County Line Road is a busy road but I go over and pull way over. I get out of the car and we start the cat and mouse again. It flies back east to another tree. I can’t go east since there is median. But I’m going to get a picture. It flies low and away to the east. No picture. I am still not sure of the species since I am not familiar with dark-phase hawks. So at this point it is still a Buteo species.

I search a while longer, can’t find The Hawk, and decide to go get gas. I come back for one last look, and it is now back where I first discovered it. I drive as close I dare, get out the camera, and start shooting photos against the overcast day. The Hawk once again flies behind a group of trees. I search for another half hour without any success. I now have about 2-1/2 hours in on The Hawk and finally decide to head south to southern Johnson County as originally planned.

I only manage a few pictures of The Hawk on a distant snag. Johnson County, 02/2/15

But before I head south I make the 5 minute drive home to consult the references. Over the course of the morning I have wavered back and forth on the species.  But I have been leaning towards Harlan’s because Sibley’s shows the Harlan’s with a white tail.  And that is what I was seeing in the field. Otherwise the two suspects look similar to me in the field guide.

Getting home I don’t change my opinion.  The tail color seems right for a Harlan’s.

Sunday morning I get up and post a picture on Indiana Advanced Birding Facebook page. As I stated I don’t have a lot of experience with dark-phase hawks but think it is a Harlan’s.  Luckily two birders with much more experience than myself respond.

Don Gorney responded that it is a Rough-legged Hawk – here is his response. “Based on overall structure and the width of the dark tail band, it is a Rough-legged Hawk. Despite recent reports in the last five years, Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk is extremely rare for Indiana. I think the bird might be an adult female.

And Michael Retter also responded with these comments, “In addition to what Don mentioned, a dark Harlan’s almost always has white streaking on the breast. The bill also seems on the small side to me, which is more of a Rough-leg thing.

I would like to thank them for their comments and clarifying the identity of The Hawk.

So, when you least expect it, and you think it is going to be a slow day, go birding.  You might just pick up a County Lifer.  Or make that two.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *