Saturday, January 15, 2011

Raptor identification answer

The other day I posted the below image with the question of - what is this raptor?

Your first clue came in where I said it was photographed, the coastal grasslands of Stratford Point. Habitat is often a large clue in determining the species of many birds, and though sometimes you can see an individual outside of their typical haunts, this isn't the case here. Another clue is the size of the bird sitting on an American Kestrel box. Does it look like it could be squeezing through that hole? I do not think so. It is obviously quite a bit larger than a kestrel. So now, we have a large raptor that prefers grasslands or at least open areas.

That large size dismisses all falcons. It is the winter in Connecticut, so something like a Broad-winged Hawk can be disregarded for now, too. The accipiter family also looks too small and narrow, and they do not display quite the degree of white on the head and especially the face. How about a Northern Harrier? It is in the right habitat at the right time of year, but their wings and bodies are much more slender. This is a bulky bird.

It is the daytime, so our owl options are limited. Clearly, this is not a Snowy Owl based on color alone. The face and head are too small and lack the facial discs and distinctive eyes of a Short-eared Owl, apart from the fact the wings would be even longer. We seem to be getting down to it, as this raptor must be a member of the buteo family. Red-shouldered Hawks prefer woods and wetlands, and the upperparts would have much more white in them. It would be a bit small for this bird, though it's getting closer. The two best candidates appear to be Red-tailed Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk. The common former species utilizes a variety of habitats year-round in Connecticut. An adult Red-tailed Hawk would show the red tail, even if it were tough to see, in this photo. It is possible it could be a juvenile, though the extensive white on the face and the fact it is sitting in the middle of the coastal grasslands right on the mouth of the Housatonic would have to lead one to believe they are watching a Rough-legged Hawk in prime hunting grounds.

In fact, this light morph Rough-legged Hawk was at Stratford Point on December 28 and 29. The still distant but full-sized photo is below.

The Rough-legged Hawk hovers while hunting, making it strikingly reminiscent of the White-tailed Kite. If you were watching it, there would be no doubt as to the identification of the species from this behavior and the distinctive undersides. We often get this rare raptor at Stratford Point in the winter. While this bird moved on, come visit us to see if we pick up another soon.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

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