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Those paying attention to the scene in recent quizzes should have recognized the distinctive tree on which our quiz bird is perched, thus knew the location at which this quiz photo was taken, Smith Point, Chambers Co., TX. That knowledge may or may not help us in determining the quiz bird’s identity, but it certainly cannot hurt!
The brown head and upperparts; pale, streaked underparts; and yellow legs rule out nearly all non-raptor options. Those features do leave a few heron options, but our bird’s long tail does the job for them. Additionally, the combination of the above with the apparently larger size (relative to tree parts) should rule out all passerines. Once among the raptors (and I include falcons in that category, despite their non-relatedness to kites, eagles, accipiters, and buteos), yellow legs is almost de rigueur, with few ABA-area exceptions, so leg color will not help us much. However, leg thickness….
The brown-streaked white underparts do a mediocre job at whittling down the options, as so many raptors sport such, particularly as juveniles. However, we can eliminate vultures, Osprey, most of the kites, eagles, Common Black-Hawk, Crane Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Crested Caracara, Collared Forest-Falcon, Aplomado Falcon, Red-footed Falcon, and the following members of Buteo: Roadside, Short-tailed, Swainson’s, White-tailed, Zone-tailed, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged hawks. Well, perhaps the underparts pattern and color did an okay job. From here, our options include one each kite and harrier, all three accipiters, some buteos, and some falcons.
The upperparts color and the tail pattern of wide dark and tan bands rule out Mississippi Kite. The three large falcon species are ruled out because the plumages of those that are streaked are juvenal plumages, which are worn when the legs are typically a blecchy blue-gray color. The tail’s length and pattern are incorrect for Merlin and the quiz beast is certainly no American Kestrel, while the tail pattern, among many other features, rules out Eurasian Kestrel and Eurasian Hobby. As for Merlin, tail length and pattern rule out Broad-winged and Gray hawks and tail pattern rules out Red-shouldered Hawk and all versions of Red-tailed Hawk.
We are now left with three or four accipiters. “Four?” you might ask. No, I am not considering Eurasian Sparrowhawk, for which there are multiple ABA-area reports, but no accepted records. Recent work suggests that the Circus harriers – such as Northern Harrier – are actually aberrant accipiters [Lerner, H. R. L., M. C. Klaver, and D. P. Mindell. 2008. Molecular phylogenetics of the buteonine birds of prey (Accipitridae). Auk 304:304-315.], clustering within the genus Accipiter. Regardless of whether or not subsequent efforts confirm or refute that possibility, Northern Harrier and the three ABA-area accipiters are our only remaining options for this month’s quiz bird, with adult female plumage being the only possibility for Northern Harrier and juvenal plumage for the three current accipiters.
Because we know where this bird was photographed, we may be able to eliminate Northern Goshawk from consideration on likelihood alone, as Texas has only 24 accepted records, only one of which is from the Upper Texas Coast (a region of which Chambers County is a part) (Texas Bird Records Committee). However, our bird also shows no suggestion of the white highlights to the dark bands in the tail, as is typical of juvenile Northern Goshawks, nor does the quiz bird show streaked undertail coverts, a feature found on nearly all juvenile Northern Goshawks. Returning to a previous allusion, our bird’s legs are fairly thick and rule out Sharp-shinned Hawk, which have pencil-thin legs that usually look longer relative to thickness than does our bird’s legs. Additionally, only a small percentage of juvenile Sharpies sport such clean streaking below without any obvious reddish barring on the sides.
All of the above leaves us with two species, one of which is often confused for the other, but only rarely the other way ‘round. Cooper’s Hawks, with their long tails and expressive white undertail coverts that are often thrown up on the sides of the rump, are often mis-identified as Northern Harriers. However, our quiz bird is perched and we can readily see its uppertail coverts: they are not white. (You do know that Northern Harriers don’t actually have white rumps, right?) A great, but greatly under-utilized, feature eminently visible in the quiz picture is the raised hackles that are so typical of the species and unlike most other ID contenders.
I took this picture of a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk on 27 August 2013.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the December Bird Photo Quiz—Cooper's Hawk:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.