A day out with the Circus

Juvenile female Northern Harrier, Branford, CT November 2015 (Julian Hough). Note unstreaked underparts and solid boa, often more typical of females than males.

Juvenile female Northern Harrier, Branford, CT November 2015 (Julian Hough). Compared to European Hen Harrier, note unstreaked underparts (particularly vent) and more solid-looking “boa” – features often more typical of females than males in Northern Harrier. (Click for larger image)

It’s late October and the past few days have seen a good blow of NW winds, bringing with them a good bounty of raptors moving through Connecticut. As usual, I have been stuck at work, living vicariously through those counters camped out at Lighthouse Point, New Haven – the state’s premier watchpoint.

Northern Harriers (Circus c. hudsonius) are staple birds at the hawkwatch, charismatic and dashing – a favorite of mine. The NA race hudsonius has become something of a regular vagrant to the UK, with birds becoming annual in the past few years – a surprising turn of events since the first record on the Isles of Scilly in 1982 produced no other records, until a bird that Alex Lees saw on North Ronaldsay in 2008, prompted scrutiny of “Marsh Hawk” characters. After some back and forth and me nagging him incessantly, I believe he was able to have the bird finally accepted. Several others have followed since, including multiples in England and Ireland, some including adult males.

Confusion with “rufous” juvenile Hen Harriers is still a problem from a European context, but with good photos, many seem to fit the classic “Terry’s Chocolate Orange” appearance of juvenile Northern Harrier. Some birds will remain difficult and unidentifiable in a vagrant context –  especially birds like this in Germany!

While split as a separate species by the Europeans, the Americans have yet to adopt this split, although it was proposed in 2015. A paper published by my old friend, Dr. Graham Etherington,  proposes that science supports the recognition of C. cyaneus (Hen Harrier) and C. hudsonius (Northern Harrier) as distinct species.

Hen Harrier is currently unrecorded in the US – except for a wing found on Attu in 1999. However, a bird caught at Cape May would seem to tick all the right boxes as Hen Harrier. I have uploaded the paper here for those interested.

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