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Virtually all responses were of raptors this month, so we'll start our answer with that correct assumption. Unlike, perhaps, the majority of birders, experienced hawk-watchers know that shape and flight style are the features used most often to identify raptors, usually because the distances at which many are seen preclude detailed plumage analysis. So, despite our wonderfully close and good view of the quiz bird, I will start with the bird's structure.
This month's quiz bird has fairly long wings and a long tail, all of which are accentuated by the slim build. These features should rule out most of the buteos off the bat, except for, perhaps, Swainson's and Zone-tailed hawks. Most of the falcons can also be eliminated from consideration by the shape of the wingtip, an oddly pointed and rounded wingtip. All but the largest of our Falco should show more pointed wingtips. The aberrant falcon Crested Caracara has long, rounded wings, but they're more rounded and more parallel-sided than those of our quiz bird. The relative tail length is well within the ranges of at least a couple of our accipiters, but the wings are just too long for any of those. Even if the actual wing length was within the range of any of the accipiters, the ratio of wing length to tail length on our mystery bird is quite different from that of any ABA-area accipiter. Eagles can be ruled out in total from our bird's shape. The pointed-winged kites are ruled out by wing shape and the round-winged kites are ruled out, well, by wing shape (they have much wider-based wings than does our quiz bird). All this elimination and ruling out leaves us with Osprey, Northern Harrier, Swainson's and Zone-tailed hawks, and Gyrfalcon.
Now, onto plumage features. Our bird's extensive tawny aspect of the underparts, the somewhat distinct contrast between the dark inner wing and the paler outer wing, the lack of a distinct dark wingtip and/or trailing edge is a perfect fit for only one of our remaining candidates: Northern Harrier. Osprey, of course, is always mostly white-bodied and the two buteos sport quite different underwing patterns; Gyrfalcons are never tawny. The body coloration tells us that the bird is a juvenile and the fairly broad wings and darker wingtip suggests that it is a female (males have narrower wings and more silvery wingtips). Adult female Northern Harriers are whiter-bodied with more distinct brown streaking on the chest.
Many birders that don't visit hawk watches are often thrown for a loop by high-flying migrant harriers, because many of them identify the species on the presence of a single field character, the white rump; which, of course, is not visible from below. However, experienced hawk watchers can identify these birds by their shape at incredible distances (certainly >2 miles), as the combination of long wings AND long tail is not very common among raptors. I took this picture of a juvenile female Northern Harrier flying over the Cape May, NJ, hawk watch in September 2005.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the May Bird Photo Quiz—Northern Harrier:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.