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Hawks, eagles and falcons can be challenging to identify, sometimes downright frustrating. But there are things that make this group easier to ID. At least in North America, most of the raptors we encounter can be seen fairly well and for relatively prolonged periods of time. Yes, some accipiters and a few other woodland species can go dashing through the woods, thus going unnamed. But compared to say, warblers, many hawks are downright confiding. Distance can present identification challenges. But it's still easier to identify a hawk at a mile, than a warbler. The other major advantage is that there are lots of raptor guides out there, with photos and illustrations that cover much of the variation that we are likely to see. So when we see a hawk perched up like this it should be easy, right? Maybe not.
The overall shape, structure and mostly brown coloration of this quiz bird can eliminate accipiters and falcons. Eagles can be eliminated by this bird's small head, and relatively small bill and gape.
Some of the southern specialties may come to mind, but none are quite right. Common Black-Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk are both blacker than this bird. Harris's Hawk would show a large rufous shoulder patch. Dark-morph Short-tailed Hawks can be rather similar, but Short-tailed Hawks are unlikely to be found sitting in the open, and particularly unlikely to be found on a utility pole. Indeed, this species is so unlikely to be found perched on a utility pole that we would only want to consider the species after we have exhausted all other possibilities.
We are left with a few dark-morph raptors: Red-tailed Hawk (including Harlan's), Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk. At this point, we should look a bit more closely at the bird, particularly the legs. At first glimpse it may seem as if the legs are unfeathered, but looking very closely we can see that the feathers do extend all the way down the tarsus. The feathers are also slightly paler brown. This contrast with the rest of the underparts may lead to the incorrect perception that the legs are unfeathered. Among our list of remaining birds, only Rough-legged Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk show fully feathered tarsi. Ferruginous Hawk has a much larger gape and a proportionately larger head than our bird. Other field marks are admittedly subjective. This bird's head appears quite small, with a small bill—exactly as we would expect on a Rough-legged Hawk (an impression that is shared by many Harlan's [Red-tailed] Hawks. The pale lores are another good characteristic of dark (brown) morph Rough-legged Hawk.
In the field, we would benefit by seeing this bird in flight. Such views are presented in the accompanying illustrations. Note in particularly the blackish carpal patches that are darker than the more brownish wing coverts, and the distinctly banded tail with a wide black subterminal band.
This dark (brown) morph Rough-legged Hawk was photographed in Weld County Colorado, in February 2003 by the author.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the January Bird Photo Quiz—Rough-legged Hawk:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.