To refresh your memory, here are the photos from February’s Bird Quiz. The bird was seen in Colorado during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
This ID shouldn’t be that difficult, but you have to know what to look for. First of all, it should be clear that this bird is a diurnal raptor. Diurnal means “daytime” and it’s obvious that I took the photo during the day. And raptors are birds that are predators, with big claws—talons—to grab their prey, and a strong beak to gobble it down. Picture Little Red Riding-hood describing the wolf, only it’s a bird.
I saw this bird a month ago as we were driving the back roads southeast of Colorado Springs, photographing raptors. We had a list of target birds, the ones found in mid-winter on Colorado’s eastern plains: Northern Harrier, Red-tailed, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagle, perhaps a Bald Eagle, and the smaller Accipiters (Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks) and falcons (Prairie Falcon, American Kestrel). As is usual on a birding trip, we didn’t see them all, but we saw enough to feel good about the day.
The bird in the photo above is too large (you can compare to the telephone pole) to be an Accipiter or falcon, and it’s clearly not a Bald Eagle. Everyone should be able to recognize those, at least in their adult plumage. It’s not a Golden Eagle either, as you can see here. Look at those beautiful gold feathers, and that HUGE schnoz! This is a bird you won’t want to mess with!
So we’ve narrowed our choices—it’s either a Northern Harrier, or one of the three hawks in the genus Buteo. Harriers are in their own genus, Circus. They’re fairly large hawks with relatively narrow, pointed wings and a distinctive white patch on their rump (not tail). Because they hunt largely by sound, they have a facial disk similar to that of owls. You can often ID a harrier just by its behavior, as they often fly low across a field, back and forth, looking for dinner, as this one was doing.
Buteos tend to be large, solid hawks with broad wings. The Europeans call their Buteos buzzards, but we in the Americas call them hawks. The familiar Red-tailed Hawk that you frequently see on telephone poles and street lights is a Buteo. Colorado is home to four species in this genus. I mentioned three of them above because the Swainson’s Hawk is only here in the summer; it migrates to Argentina for the winter. (Rough-legged Hawks are only here during the winter months, as they migrate further north to breed.)
The challenging thing about identifying Buteos is that they are highly variable. They may be much lighter or much darker than is the norm. I’ve seen Red-tails that were almost white, and Red-tails that were dark brown. If we have an atypical bird, we’ll need more specific field marks than just the colors.
We can’t see much of this bird, but we do get a glimpse of the head. There’s definitely no facial disk, so it’s not a harrier. Otherwise, it’s hard to say If the head is light or dark.
The underside of the wing is another place to look, which is helpful as we often see raptors soaring overhead. Red-tails have a “dash-and-comma” that shows up even in the different color morphs. There’s a black bar on the leading edge of the wing, and a dark comma on their wrists, as you can see in this photo at left. These are city birds, so I remember this wing color pattern by imagining them flying through smog—the front of the wing gets dirty, so it’s darker!
Rough-legged hawks (left) typically have dark square wrist patches, although they vary quite a bit from bird to bird. Ferruginous Hawks are uniformly light-colored from below. And Swainson’s Hawks have a white leading edge and dark trailing edge—but we already know it can’t be one of those.
There are a few other helpful signs to look for. Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks have feathered legs, the others don’t (do you think they shave?). Swainson’s Hawks (right) have a light spot over their beaks—their headlight. They’re also more petite than the others.
You might wonder how Ferruginous Hawks got their name, since they’re so light-colored. It’s their legs—they have brick-red thighs that they tuck up as they fly. Sometimes their tail is a light brick-red too, lighter than that on a Red-tailed Hawk, but it’s the thighs you should remember.
So—what’s this month’s bird? Look one more time. It has a light red tail, a medium-light head, and oh my, look at those drumsticks!
Yup, it’s a Ferruginous Hawk.