Gorgeous dark morph Harlan’s Hawk in Missouri

2010 November 28
by David J. Ringer

GREENE CO., MO. — My birding buddies Charley and Lisa and I have a history of finding exciting birds over the Thanksgiving holiday. In southwest Missouri, the great central hardwoods meet the tallgrass prairies, bringing together all manner of northern, western, southern, and eastern birds. Today, a Common Merganser, Great-tailed Grackles, and a calling Common Loon were great, but the star was a magnificent dark morph Harlan’s Hawk (or Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis harlani).

Harlan's Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis perched on pole

This bird shows an all-dark head and breast with dark eyes (pegging it as an adult) and a pale yellowish cere. But we really need to see more diagnostic features to identify it with confidence….

Harlan's Hawk in flight showing underwings

OK, first of all, this bird is absolutely spectacular, so let’s just take a moment and appreciate that. Then focusing on some details, including the contrast between the strikingly pale flight feathers and dark underwing coverts, the unfeathered tarsi (lower legs), the previously mentioned body coloration, and a black-and-white tail, we can identify this bird as a dark morph Harlan’s Hawk and not a dark “western” Red-tailed Hawk or any other raptor (see Comparison of Harlan’s with Western and Eastern Red-tailed Hawks and Dark Red-tailed Hawks — both PDFs).

Harlan's Hawk in flight showing banded upper side of tail

And here’s a better look at the bird’s upper tail, which is barred white and blackish. This is apparently a rather unusual tail pattern in adult Harlan’s Hawks, though the range of variation in their tail patterns and colors is extreme and fascinating (PDF).

Harlan's Hawk flying showing upperwing, underwing, and tail

Harlan’s Hawk, which breeds in Alaska and western Canada, is currently considered a subspecies (harlani) of the widespread Red-tailed Hawk, but it has been considered a full species in the past, and raptor expert Bill Clark thinks it should be again. So far, though, very little is understood about these birds’ relationships to other red-tail populations. No comprehensive genetic work has been done, and it’s not known whether birds that appear to be intermediate between typical Harlan’s Hawks and other red-tail forms are intergrades or whether they represent variation we don’t yet understand (or, more likely, both). See more on this topic at this BirdForum post. In any case, this is one spectacular bird.

Related posts:

  1. Immature Krider’s Hawk (or intergrade?) in Louisiana
  2. Loons, owls, and hawks in Missouri
  3. Cooper’s Hawk on the attack
  4. Breeding raptors in Missouri
  5. Northern (Great Grey) Shrike in southwest Missouri
8 Responses
  1. Lisa Berger permalink
    November 28, 2010

    Always good times when our paths cross.

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      November 28, 2010


  2. November 28, 2010


  3. November 28, 2010

    Hmmm, If this is where I think it is (Greene county just south of US 65 near Palmetto?), I wonder if it’s the same Harlan’s my dad and I had three years ago…


    Either way, what a nice bird!

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      November 28, 2010

      Yes, Charley was saying he thought this bird had been present for several years. From your photo, it does seem plausible.

  4. November 30, 2010

    Beautiful image of the Hawk against the background of blue sky.

  5. Jonah Saltas permalink
    January 10, 2011

    I guess there is a new DNA paper out that says Harlan’s is identical to other red-tails genetically, so I guess it is not a species?


  6. March 1, 2013

    Why is this not called a melenatic Red-tailed Hawk?

Comments are closed.