Archive for the ‘Raptors’ Category

10/4/2019 Lighthouse Point Park and Ecology Park, New Haven County, CT

October 6, 2019

Juvenile male Northern Harrier sneaking in low off the beach at Lighthouse.

A slow-clearing cold-front with strong 18-38 mph NW winds meant that Friday was setting up for a good hawk flight. The rainy overnight conditions didn’t bode well for a big diurnal movement of passerines, so I opted to go in to work early and take a half-day. I arrived at Lighthouse at 10:15 am ready to do some birdspottering.  Nick Bonomo was at Ecology Park, 10 miles or so to the east and said birds were moving in good numbers. I texted him and said, “It’s a perfect day for a Swainson’s”. This buteo was a nemesis bird for both of us. Not even annual in the state, they are hard to catch up with!

The strong winds kept birds in the low airspace and great views were had of all the local suspects, and it was obvious it was a big Osprey and kestrel flight.

Today was a river of kestrels

Nick left at midday to fulfill social obligations and I decided to change it up a bit and head over to Ecology Park to see what was happening there. First I needed to stop and pick up lunch.

Cooper’s Hawks, gave some close fly-bys

A falcon “two-fer” – male American kestrel being harried by an adult male “Bluejack” Taiga Merlin

With scope packed, and coat thrown in the back seat, I was climbing into my car when I looked out over the distant trees and saw a buteo. Instinctively raising my bins, I saw the bird, a large buteo and thought, “Damn, that looks like a Swainson’s!” The bird was distant and I couldn’t make much out since it was silhouetted and side-on, so any gestalt-laden clues were off the table. I still had my camera in my hand so I rattled off a few frames for insurance purposes. It looked dark below, but the distance, and shadow made any plumage marks hard to discern. At that moment the bird kited up and hung in the wind like a Red-tailed. What?! Really?  It then flipped over and again, I registered a Swainson’s-like tail, before it rose up hung in the wind, with wings pulled in and no features visible. It ducked behind the trees, leaving me wondering which impression was right, but in those brief seconds the hovering had suggested the bird, weirdly was perhaps a Red-tail. It happened in a matter of about 30 seconds and the bird had been lost behind the trees.

I left the park to get a sandwich from the local deli. As I was leaving, I get a call from a local birder, “We just had a Swainson’s Hawk come right through the park!” Mothershirting !!@@@##$$$$. I rushed outside and being north of the park, I gazed skyward in vain. I drove to the overpass on i-95, and watched birds track up the shoreline – Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Boad-wing…but no Swainson’s. Nothing.  At that point, I figured the coincidence of a bird being seen 20 minutes after I had seen what I thought was one was too much. I checked and zoomed-in on the images, and sure enough my instincts had been right. Although distant, two shots sure indeed showed the bird to be a juvenile, intermediate-type Swainson’s Hawk. Reeesuullt!

Optimized digital shots of the distant bird…check out the ebird checklist from shots 20 minutes later!

Ebird checklist with images:

This bird was almost identical to a bird myself, Richard Crossley and Dave Sibley had seen back in 1988 that dropped out of the sky at the Cape May meadows one September. It unfortunately dropped right into Chris Schultz’s banding station and we got to see it up close and personal.

Juv dark/intermediate morph Swainson’s Hawk, Cape May, sometime in September 1988

20 minutes later, I arrived at the top of the defunct landfill at Ecology Park. Birds were everywhere…at 3:00pm, at a time when the flight is usually slowing, birds were still going!!

360 degree view from Ecology Park

Bald Eagles came thick and fast with up to 7 in view at one time!

Red-shoulders were more prevalent here than at Lighthouse

A count of birds from 3:30-5:00pm yielded over 230 birds:

An excellent, bird-filled day!

A day out with the Circus

October 27, 2016
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.

Northern Goshawks-problems and pitfalls

October 25, 2014

We are getting into that time of year where well-manned hawk watches begin to see the occasional Northern Goshawk. Here in Connecticut, they are a late migrant, generally occurring in late October into November – all reports are typically of juveniles and not adults (I’ve never seen an adult away from the breeding grounds in CT).

Our well-known, in-state watchpoints (Lighthouse Pt. and Quaker Ridge) are manned everyday, all day, at this time of year and there are few reports of Northern Goshawk. The math is simple. Goshawks are uncommon.

Goshawks are  big buteo-like birds, impressive to see both during the breeding season and on migration. They are also frequently misidentified. The time-honored identification pitfall being big Cooper’s Hawks –  it is these birds that you are likely to see  at Hawkwatches in September; in your backyard, attacking birds at your feeders; or just hanging out at Hammonasett in winter. Could you see a Northern Goshawk in September, in your backyard, or at Hammonasett in winter. Sure, it’s possible…but really, it’s just a big Cooper’s Hawk. CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE.


Juvenile Northern Goshawks (left) and Cooper’s Hawks (right) (Julian Hough). Large juvenile female COHA can be very similar to NOGO, but note the broader body, tail and wings of NOGO. Underpart markings are variable in both, but typically heavier, darker and more extensive in NOGO.

We’ve all made that mistake, been spooked initially by that huge female Coop’s, but when you finally see a Goshawk, it’s often a case of “You know it when you see it”.


Status of “Northern” Red-tailed Hawk in Connecticut

October 11, 2014

An adult  Red-tailed I photographed at Lighthouse Point, Ct on the 14th November 2011 was particularly well-marked that I mused about it having some Western influence. I admit I am not familiar enough with that race to know, but it was distinct enough from typical Eastern (borealis) Red-tails to be noticeable. I recently came across the photo while updating my file library and with some basic research it fits as a typical example of a “Northern” Red-tail, the so-called abeiticola. While not a recognized sub-species, these birds inhanit the boreal forests from Alberta east to Nova Scotia.

From left to right: juvenile Eastern (borealis), adult Northern (abeiticola) and adult Eastern (borealis) Red-tailed Hawks, Lighthouse Point, CT Oct/Nov.

From left to right: juvenile Eastern (borealis), adult Northern (abeiticola) and adult Eastern (borealis) Red-tailed Hawks, Lighthouse Point, CT Oct/Nov 2011. (Julian Hough)

Birds show overlap in many plumage traits, juveniles in particular being harder to pigeonhole as abeiticola than adults. Compared to borealis, they are generally darker-throated, have more densely marked belly bands due to more globular streaks and are often more buffy-toned on the underparts, particularly the upper breast.

These features are all noticeable on the CT bird, together with more lightly-marked secondaries and darker tips to the outer primaries, giving a more Broad-winged-like wingtip pattern (though I don’t believe this is a separating feature, it does stand out).

As  increased buteo migration through Lighthouse Point ramps up in October and November, hawkwatchers should look out for these birds so we can try and assess their occurrence compared with more typical Eastern birds.

Thanks to Jerry Liguori for discussion and comments.

Land of Ice and Snow

February 9, 2014

A quick morning’s birding around Stratford and Milford over the weekend, yielded two-three Snowy Owls and a few Rough-legged Hawks. Great looks at the Snowies, including one being harassed by a Northern Harrier and adopting it’s defensive posture with wings splayed wide open.

_MG_6015Several close Rough-legged’s allowed good looks, including a smashing dark-morph bird that I chased down in the car by Sikorsky Airport. From a European perspective, Rough-legged Buzzards, as they are known across the pond, don’t occur in this dark morph. Stunning birds! _MG_5901A few years back, while birding on Plum Island, Mass, I came across this really tame dark morph Rough-legged which showed brilliantly hunting rodents right in front of us!

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The German harrier – some comments

January 21, 2014
HY male Northern Harrier, Milford, CT, USA (Julian Hough)

HY male Northern Harrier, Milford, CT, USA (Julian Hough)

So, after looking at the images, here’s my thoughts on this particular bird:
  • eye-crescents look too white and bulbous, especially toward the rear of the eye .
  • the nape is perhaps not as dark, or solid as I might like, even though it appears somewhat hooded at a distance
  • the streaking across the breast and along the flanks seems more in line with a young male, since females, generally from what I can gather, tend to be the less streaked. The streaking along the flanks seems well-marked, so that doesn’t mesh well with the age as a young female.
  • the color of the underparts looks fine for hudsonius.

Primary Barring

Females can show less bars and a wider middle secondary bar compared to males. Primary bars (excluding the dark tip) of 15 banded female Northerns in Cape May had the following:
  •  P9-7 varied on both male and female. Males averaged 6 bars (lowest 5, highest 7) while females averaged 5.6 bars (lowest 5, highest 8).

The German bird shows 4 bars on these feathers and thus fits better with Hen Harrier

Vent Pattern

One feature I need to look at is do juv Hen harriers often (always??) show dark-centered under tail coverts while hudsonius tend to have uniformly rufous vents (hair-like shaft streaks in young males, but not really visible in the field). This bird appears, from the images, to show a hudsonius-like vent, but again I am not sure based on my knowledge, if Hen Harriers frequently show this. Northern’s, as far as I have seen, never show dark, redpoll-like markings on the undertail coverts which makes the German bird better for hudsonius – or a hybrid? -than perhaps a Hen.
I often find I change my mind when re-examining images of these kinds of birds (!) and also wonder about a hybrid  possibility and whether that can be ruled out, especially if the under tail coverts in juv. (HY) Pallid and Montagu’s  are unstreaked and Hen’s are streaked. I do not go to the hybrid theory quickly, but the head pattern and underpart streaking strike me as odd for that age class of a putative hudsonius and overall fit better with Hen.
It is an interesting bird, but in my opinion doesn’t fit neatly the criteria for a vagrant Northern Harrier . Further in-depth info on Northern Harriers can be found here:
Thanks Ralph for the shots!

Interesting “orange” harrier in Germany

January 21, 2014
Ralph Aumueller kindly sent me these images of an interesting harrier.
“When we found the bird on jan. 5th, our initial impression was of a pallid harrier, an impression what we had to reject immediately as we found the bird five-fingered, broad winged and so on. So it´s a Hen Harrier of some kind, but ruling out hudsonicus causes us quite a headache.
Almost all id-features neatly fit in the pattern awaited for a Northern Harrier (hudsonius), but we are much too inexperienced with that taxon. We are aware, however, that the underwing-pattern seems not to suggest a hudsonicus, with the barring on the outer primaries at the very lower (too low?) end of its range of variability. Additionally the middle secondary bar seems to be to wide. However we found in the literature that females tend to show a more cyaneus-like pattern in this respect. So we really reached the point to need  the help of an expert on that topic. May I therefore kindly ask you for  your opinion on the bird´s id? That would be fantastic!
Best wishes,
S0, in light of the recent British and Irish records of vagrant Northern Harrier (C.c hudsonius), this bird seems quite striking and scary. What do others think of this bird and what would you call this if you saw it. Be interested to hear people’s opinions on this before I post my comments I had sent to Ralph.


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A Snowy Christmas 2013

December 24, 2013

_MG_4531 copyAn unprecedented number of Snowy Owls irrupted south this winter and made for some awesome opportunities to see these majestic creatures. Unfortunately since these flights are prompted by too many birds and not enough food, some were emaciated and starving and some were found dead as result. CT did well with several birds being rather photogenic. Thankfully many photographers remained respectable, though people trying to take photos of them with their smartphones continue to piss off everyone that understands that you can’t use your smartphone for bird photography unless the bird is embedded up your nostril. Really people…enough with the phone nonsense 🙂


Ace photographer and awesome dude AJ Hand and Alex getting to grips!

I used to think I could age and sex some Snowy Owls. While I think the heavily barred birds with boldly barred napes and minimal white “bibs” are females, and the lightly marked and almost white birds with broken tailbands are males, this isn’t always the case.

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Snowy Sunset

Birds with vermiculated inner greater coverts and primary tips may be first-years (HY) but I’m not sure older birds cannot show these in successive moults, so it really is hard to age and sex birds of unknown age in the field. Individuals often get lighter with age, stay the same, or get darker so there is a whole gamut of variation and overlap. Apparently according to Russian research, first borns in the nest are often paler than successive hatchlings which are darker! Also, some HY males (aged in the hand from banding / specimens) may overlap with adult females and may only be differentiated by size. Pyle mentions tail (?) feather shape (blunt and rounded vs bluntly pointed) as a means of ageing some birds, but this seems hardly useful in the field.


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The only main way of ageing Snowy Owls to calendar year (after HY/SY) is perhaps during June-September when birds have an incomplete primary moult and it MAY be possible to differentiate between old and new primaries.

I have seen few birds in New England I would call “females. This fits the migration pattern which basically is that females, being larger and dominant, take territory further north and it is the males that are “pushed” out further south. It also makes sense, from a probability point of view, that many of these birds are likely HY birds.

So, it seems from conventional wisdom that while we may think a bird is a young bird, or most likely a female (if large and boldly barred) we are likely guessing a lot more than we think we are.

Days Gone By…April 1986

March 31, 2013

So, this past couple of months I’ve managed to dip two Gyrfalcon’s..a grey-morph bird in Hadley, Massachusetts that I spent a day looking for, and a third calendar year bird on the barrier beaches of Long Island. The Long Island bird was a little more reliable, but often views were distant. While the former bird became a tad bit easier when Marshall Iliff discovered a favored roosting site, it still only showed at dawn and dusk, arriving and leaving the roost site. Occasionally it seemed to use the back side of it’s chosen cliff, so some evenings the bird wasn’t even seen arriving at the roost.  Needless to say, I put in my time to see this cool killer from the north.

The previous bird I had seen, was over a decade earlier, a stunning dark adult that hung out on the Design Centre in Boston, showing incredibly well!
For video, see here:

It was at this time of year that I remembered my first Gyr at the ripe old age of eighteen! – a stunning white Greenland bird in Devon, on the south coast of the UK in April 1986. Although regularly recorded on the northern isles, a mainland Gyr was a holy grail…and a white one to boot was a birder’s dream come true and this particular bird was well revered. It stayed for ten days and was seen to kill and eat, Pigeons, Jackdaws, guillemots and even a BUDGERIGAR during its stay (Evans 94).

Check out this photo for a cool aerial shot of the quarries where it hung out (the ones on the right):

Here’s my 18-year old notes and drawing of that spectacular bird that was the most well-twitched individual in Britain. According to the history books it was a second-cal bird, not an adult as noted in my book. What did I know?!


3rd November – Going loco at lighthouse!

November 4, 2012

Strong NW winds made for a great late fall day at Lighthouse with big numbers of diurnal migrants and a good showing of hawks, especially buteos. Highlights included two close Northern Goshawks, small numbers of White-winged Crossbills and 8 Cave Swallows.

Red-tailed Hawk – up close and personal!

Non-raptor highlights (totals courtesy of Nick Bonomo):
Common Raven  1
Tree Swallow  47
Cave Swallow  8
Red-breasted Nuthatch  3
Eastern Bluebird  276
American Robin  6,695
American Pipit  56
Cedar Waxwing  467
Dickcissel  1
Red-winged Blackbird  20,685
Rusty Blackbird  23
Common Grackle  159,950
Purple Finch  84
House Finch  263
White-winged Crossbill  7     groups of 3,1,1,1,1
Pine Siskin  78
American Goldfinch  360


Distant Northern Goshawk – juv. Initially picked up by Nick as it snuck behind us at head height, it quickly disappeared into the woods before finally circling up and out.

A quick stop at Fort Hale park to check the pines for crossbills resulted in two White-winged’s!

Male White-winged Crossbill, Nathan Hale Park, New Haven. A record shot!