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During low-light conditions near dusk, a dark bird flies over our heads from behind us and we only have a quick look as it's going away – what is it?
Obviously, if we'd have seen it flap, we could have ruled small birds in or out on wingbeats, but our static picture does not permit that. However, the impression of large size is provided by the bird's long wings, much longer, relatively, than on any small birds. While some large immature gull might pop into our thoughts, the bird's strongly-banded primaries rule that option out, but where to from here? Well, those strongly-banded primaries don't leave us all that many options for big birds; in fact, only raptors and owls. If our quiz bird is an owl, the narrowness of the wings rules out the wide-winged genus Strix, leaving only a few options with such long wings and dark underparts: Great Horned and the two eared owls. While we might spend some time debating these options – and it's not all that easy to rule them out on the strength of wing pattern, all of which are remarkably similar – our bird's tail is just too long and too narrow to be that of an owl.
With the Strigiformes eliminated from consideration, we must search for our solution among the raptors, but we have more information to quickly narrow our choices. The wings are too long and too narrow for any of the buteos or accipiters. The only kites with banded primaries have wide hands and eagles are right out. The pointedness of the wingtips might start us down the falcon road – many species do have banded primaries, but the particularly strong blackish markings at the wrist rule those out. Besides, only American Kestrel would have a tail long enough for that of our quiz bird and its wings are much longer than a kestrel's. Osprey sports long wings with banded primaries and dark wrists and a longish tail, how about that one? Though the lighting may be throwing us off on our estimation of the color of the underparts, I would think that an Osprey's bright white there would be more evident than in this picture. However, the combination of low light and camera exposure may be wreaking havoc with our color estimation, but we can rule out Osprey on the style of banding in those primaries: the bands are too few, too wide, and too obvious. That leaves us only one option, and the one that many of us would probably have shouted out when the bird first appeared above us, as it's quite a distinctive one.
I took this picture of a juvenile Northern Harrier at Cape May Point State Park, Cape May Co., NJ, on 10 October 2010.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the February 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.