There are two types of birds that tend to drive me crazy when trying to classify them. Eventually I can get through to the waterfowl, but the family of Accipitridae and Falconidae have way to many similarly colored birds. Adding even greater difficult to identification is color changes that can occur from juvenile to adult. As a result, when it comes to classifying some of the hawks and falcons I open the reference books with a slight sense of dread. That was exactly the case when it came to finally posting this blog. While traveling out to Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park to check up on the wolves, I spotted this bird hunting in the prairie fields.
Of course, spotting it was one thing, trying to actually get a decent shot of it was a struggle. The Beast was on high speed continuous mode allowing for burst of shots once the bird came into frame. It would glide for a short while towards me over a stretch of the field, but would then perform an amazing aerial maneuver to double back on itself. Once his range was extended, it would start gliding back towards me again. This was repeated until it eventually made it out of the range for the Beast. Unfortunately, there were only a few decent shots out of the whole shoot worth showing anyone. The one above is clearly the best, but here a few more that provide a decent view of the coloring to help in identification.
Hit the jump to read my attempt at classifying it
Now to the hard part. The bird is brown, has some definite white with limited striping on the outer wings. The tail feathers are predominately brown with a a very limited amount of white with one.. maybe two stripes at best on it. Body is solid brown at the wing base and the flight profile is pretty straight out (not arced back). Although hard to really tell, it looks like the top of the wings are fairly solid in coloring (see picture below). Ready… set… go! If you are like me, you probably got it narrowed down to about 10 different adult hawks and a few falcons… add in the juvis and you have a mess. Every time I looked at the pictures in the reference manuals there was at least one characteristic which differed slightly on each of the ones I strongly considered – some had more striping, some had white where their wings hit the body and a lot of them had a more speckled coloring on their backs. I am going to cut to the chase on this one and put out my best guess. I’m going to with a Northern Harrier barring any objections from my many readers.
Now, you might be saying to yourself.. “How can this be a Northern Harrier – it isn’t even gray colored”. That is a very astute observation. I should clarify my position. I believe this to be a juvenile which does have a brown coloring and likely a female as well (the adult males are actually gray, but the juvis and females are brown). Here is a less than stellar shot added just to give another perspective on the coloring and a different angle of the wing shapes.
Most of the hawks have more striping in their tales and definitely more speckled in the forward portions of the underwings and clearly not of the red-tailed line. The Merlin was definitely considered for a long time. They tend to be more bluish and from the wing profiles in the reference books it tends to bend the wings back in flight. Prairie Falcons lack the white stripe on the back. Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks are whiter and the Swainson’s are white on the forward part of the underwings.
As a closing tidbit, the reference manual indicated “Northern Harriers are usually seen coursing low over fields or marshes; it captures small birds and mammals with a sudden pounce.” Now that would have been a cool shot. Oh, and they have facial discs that help focus the sound of rodents under the grasses – cheaters hehehe
Feel free to check out the larger pictures on Smugmug if want to try your hand at identifying it (link here)