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Habitat usually provides a reliable clue in bird identification: Cerulean Warblers don't hop about in open grasslands; Sprague's Pipits aren't likely to be perched on the top of a spruce; and you don't see many raptors floating or swimming in the water! But every so often something unexpected happens, as is the case in this month's photo quiz.
Despite the odd location, this bird's prominent hooked bill tells us that we are dealing with a raptor, and the lack of a facial disk rules out all the owls. That's when things become more difficult. Since habitat is often a reliable clue, it makes sense to start with the two raptors that are most frequently seen hunting over rather deep water in the ABA Area: Osprey and Bald Eagle.
Osprey was the most popular answer for this month's quiz. One can often see Ospreys floating in the water in a manner very similar to our bird, which makes Osprey a logical guess. But several things just aren't right for Osprey: the head pattern on our bird is wrong for an Osprey, which always show a broad dark eyeline, and lack dark coloration on the malar. Our bird has a narrow eyeline and a rather pronounced dark malar stripe. The entire head is marked on our bird, whereas an Osprey would be mostly white with a dark crown and broad eyeline.
A Bald Eagle would also never really look like our bird. For starters, the bill is way too small for a Bald Eagle. While Bald Eagles are quite variable depending on their age, there isn't an age class of Bald Eagle that would show this much buff on the breast, with only relatively sparse streaking on the sides of the breast. Furthermore, when subadult eagles are at their palest on the underparts, they have a lot of white on the mantle that forms a whitish triangle, which is visible from considerable distances.
As a general rule, it is best to try to place a problematic bird into the correct group. While we can't tell much about the wings, we have a fairly good view of the tail, which appears relatively short and dark, thereby allowing us to eliminate the accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, and Northern Goshawk), all of which have long tails with broad bands at all ages. Northern Harrier also has a relatively long banded tail, much longer than on our bird, and that species would also show a broader white rump.
Kites are variable, but only female or immature Snail Kites are similar to our bird. But a Snail Kite would have a distinctive long curved bill. Furthermore, Snail Kite shows a broad white base to the tail, which our bird lacks.
None of the falcons match our bird either. I would expect any falcon to appear longer tailed than our bird. Further, the narrow white "U" formed by the uppertail coverts doesn't match any falcon in North America, and the head pattern is inconsistent with any of our falcons.
Common Black-Hawk will sometimes plunge into rather deep water and rest for brief periods like this bird. One would not mistake an adult with our bird, but juveniles appear similar. Sill, juvenile black-hawks would show a more conspicuously banded tail, and there would be much more streaking across the chin, throat, and breast. The bill of a Common Black Hawk would also typically appear slightly thicker than our bird.
These eliminations leave us with the Buteos and Gray Hawk, which was once considered a Buteo. At first blush, our bird looks a lot like a Gray Hawk. That narrow white band forming a "U" on the uppertail coverts is a classic Gray Hawk field mark, and our bird has a dark eyeline and dark malar. But wait: more careful looks at the malar and dark eyeline reveal that they don't seem dark enough for a Gray Hawk. Juvenile Gray Hawks have a very contrasty face with the dark eyeline and malar truly jumping out from the otherwise pale face. On our bird these are subtler. In fact, the rear of the auriculars appears as dark or nearly as dark as the malar and eyeline, which is wrong for a Gray Hawk. The forecrown of our bird is also buffy colored, not dark as a Gray Hawk. And while the uppertail coverts are consistent with Gray Hawk, the tail is not. Gray Hawks appear to have long tails. To be certain, this appearance is accentuated by the relatively short wings of this species, but the tail on a Gray Hawk would always appear longer than our bird. And, again, our bird's tail does not appear to be banded, and if it is, it is not as conspicuous as the banding on a juvenile Gray Hawk would.
Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks also don't fit our bird. Both would appear a bit longer tailed. Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks should show narrow bands on the tail, even in rather poor light. Red-shouldered Hawks should also be more heavily streaked below, particularly on the breast, and they should not have the dark patches on the sides of the breast. Furthermore, from the little that we can see on the secondaries, our bird lacks the pale bands on the secondaries typical of Red-shouldered Hawks. While Broad-winged Hawks can be quite pale below like our bird, the sides of the breast are not as dark nor do they show such dark spots near the center of the breast. Neither Broad-winged nor Red-shouldered Hawks would show the narrow "U" on the uppertail coverts, and the primaries appear too long for either species.
The considerably variable Red-tailed Hawk doesn't quite fit our bird either. Juveniles wouldn't show as dark of a malar or eyeline and do not have the dark sides of the breast shown by this bird. I would expect the banded tail of a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk to show up even under these poor lighting conditions.
So which Buteo has the combination of a relatively short tail that appears mostly dark, a rather prominent dark eyeline and dark malar that appear about as dark as the rear of the auriculars, and a narrow pale "U" on the uppertail coverts? All of these fit a juvenile Swainson's Hawk. Also note the dark patches on the sides of the upper breast, which most juvenile Swainson's Hawks show. The pale forecrown extending into a pale supercilium is also consistent with many juvenile Swainson's Hawks. But don't juvenile Swainson's Hawks have banded tails? Yes, but the bands on a juvenile Swainson's Hawk are formed by black bands on a very dark tail; in poor light, they don't show up. Finally, look below our bird's tail at the primaries of the bird's right wing-while the posture makes it difficult to discern, the wing tips make it to the tip of the tail, also perfect for Swainson's Hawk.
This juvenile Swainson's Hawk unexpectedly dropped into the middle of a sewage pond in Elkhart, Morton County, Kansas, in early September.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the June Bird Photo Quiz—Swainson's Hawk:
The graph below shows that the highest number of answers submitted was for Osprey (42), followed by Red-tailed Hawk (18). We received a number of answers that did not conform to the ABA Checklist format. Please note that answers must consist simply of the Common or English name exactly as it appears in the ABA Checklist.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.