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).
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….
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).
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, 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.
- Immature Krider’s Hawk (or intergrade?) in Louisiana
- Loons, owls, and hawks in Missouri
- Cooper’s Hawk on the attack
- Breeding raptors in Missouri
- Northern (Great Grey) Shrike in southwest Missouri