Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical Harlan's: Second US East Coast Record?

Harlan's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research
So about a year I stuck up a blog (here) with photographs of some dark buteos either seen (but mainly banded) at Braddock Bay in Western New York State, which is incidentally the base camp for the 2015 HMANA Raptor ID Workshop (details here). The attached photographs were taken at BBRR's main banding station on May 1st 2003 and through the magic of the internet the pictures from this blog ended up with Jerry Liguori. After carefully studying the pictures he confirmed that the bird pictured here is in fact an image of an incredibly regionally rare Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk. To give you an idea of how rare, there is one accepted US Harlan's record east of central Kentucky in eBird and this is the first with photographic documentation. There is at least one accepted record for Ontario but none for New York State

Harlan's Hawk breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada, but spends winters as far east as the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It's plumage was distinct enough for it to have initially been considered a separate species by Audubon, when he sent the type specimen to the British Museum in 1831. In 1891 it was relegated to a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, though it was elevated to species level again for thirty years in 1944. Though currently lumped with Red-tailed Hawk there are at least a couple of raptor experts who lobby for it to be reinstated as a species. 
Dark/Rufous Red-tailed Hawk and friend - Catherine Hamilton
The 1995 Virginia record is probably pretty reliable given that it was seen from Kiptopeke Hawkwatch by Brian Sullivan one of the authors of this excellent ABA article that discusses successfully identifying the subspecies (here). Dark Red-tailed Hawks of any kind do not breed in the east and sightings of dark birds are rare in and of themselves. Frank Nicoletti actually helped the group tally a stunning adult dark/rufous morph at the 2014 Raptor ID Workshop among the other 10,928 passing raptors, but as you can see from the picture above, assigning some of these to subspecies can be pretty tough given that sightings at hawkwatches can often be frustratingly distant and/or views tantalizingly brief.

The roundabout way this record came to be uncovered probably highlights two of the most important recent developments in birding and hawkwatching: the import of the digital camera and the value of the internet. As my friend Pete said, quoting the old Joni Mitchell lyric: "Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone" Thanks to Jerry Liguori for bringing this record to light and to Daena Ford at BBRR for loaning me the photographs for the original article.

Harlan's Hawk - Braddock Bay Raptor Research
EDIT: Since writing this piece I have uncovered at least one more accepted Eastern record from North Carolina coincidentally also from 2003 (more here).


  1. There are two records accepted by the Ontario birds committe also

  2. Thanks! I saw there were two reports on eBird, one from Toronto and one from the Hudson Bay.

  3. I saw two harlans together while jogging in my neighborhood a couple days after a snowstorm in jan/feb of 2014. I live in CT. I saw them twice once about a half mile from my house and a second time after I finished my jog they were in my backyard on a high tree branch sitting together. It was awesome.