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A dark raptor on a wire. With a white tail, but a dark head. Though any near-adult Bald Eagle that has this white of a tail virtually always has significant white on the head, our bird's small, dark bill definitely eliminates that species. Other raptors that most of us see that sport tails this white include Ferruginous and Rough-legged hawks. Looking at our bird's head, we don't see the huge yellow gape line extending under and slightly behind the eye that is so typical and so prominent on Ferruginous Hawks – particularly on dark-morph birds – that I think that we can look elsewhere.
So, could our bird be a Rough-legged Hawk. The tail just might be within the variation of that species' fairly broad range of tail patterns, so perhaps we should look at other bits of the bird for confirmation. As Rough-legged is one of our few buteos that has feathered tarsi, that would be a good confirmatory feature. Unfortunately, though we can see the bird's toes, there are body feathers that obstruct our view of the upper part of the foot (considered by many observers to be equivalent to our thigh, but that is not so – the extent of leg above the toes to the lowest major joint is below the bird's ankle, so it is the main part of the foot – birds stand on their toes; this mistake in impression also leads to the unfortunately-named Sharp-shinned Hawk!). And, that is the stretch of leg that is feathered on Rough-legged (and Ferruginous), but not on other ABA-area buteos. Our bird does have the white forehead found on some dark-morph Rough-leggeds, but dark morphs of that species have darker tails than do light morphs with multiple dark bands, not just the sloppy dark tip and extraneous marbling of our quiz bird's tail. No others of our regularly-dark buteos show such a white tail, nor do any other ABA-area species of raptor that are this dark (e.g., Hook-billed Kite and Common Black-Hawk).
Interestingly, in many parts of the ABA area, most birders use a piece of 'wisdom' that works surprisingly well, "Until proven otherwise, a large buteo is a Red-tailed Hawk." In fact, that little pearl works for this month's quiz bird. We've ruled out all of the other options, so this must be a Red-tailed. But, you might say, the bird has a white tail. Yup, it does. And that is a feature that is just fine for the subspecies harlani – Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk, as nicely depicted in Bill Clark's paper on Harlan's Hawk tail patterns in a recent issue of Birding (http://www.aba.org/birding/v41n1p30.pdf). Yes, Harlan's is thought by many to have a grayish tail with a black subterminal band and dark marbling, but as Mr. Clark shows quite well, this form of Red-tailed Hawk (which is possibly a good species on its own) shows an incredible amount of variation in tail pattern and a bird with a tail very much like this is shown in the eye-watering collage of Harlan's tails depicted in that article.
This adult Red-tailed Hawk (remember, ABA requests your answers as full, ABA-accepted species) has wintered around Lafayette, Boulder Co., CO, the past couple of winters and that is where I photographed it on 24 December 2007.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the April Bird Photo Quiz—Red-tailed 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.