Peculiar Plumage of the Harlan’s Hawk

by Bryce W. Robinson

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I found this interesting Harlan’s Hawk today in Hagerman, Idaho. It’s overall plumage left me thinking about Harlan’s ID. I’ve heard many people describe the “distinguishing” characteristics of the Harlan’s Hawk, but I’m always left confused as most of the Harlan’s I’ve seen don’t quite fit the mold they describe. I only know of a handful of people that can properly articulate why a bird is a Harlan’s, or not. In fact, I don’t include myself in that small list. I can recognize the subspecies, but putting that recognition into words is challenging. I believe this is due to the extreme variation in these hawks.

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The white lores and flecking against a dark background on this bird are the only part of the body plumage that tips the filter for Harlan’s. It is not the deep black that everyone describes for the subspecies, nor is it highly contrasting. To be clear, this bird is very dark, but I’ve seen many Calurus that are highly melanistic, with deep dark brown bodies, even with light markings on the breast not unlike this bird. Many of the Harlan’s in Alaska and the Yukon Territory that I saw this past summer were soft brown, not at all high contrasting in plumage. This variability causes some confusion. So what makes a Harlan’s? As with all bird Identification, the ability to recognize a bird comes with study, exposure, and the overall impression of the bird. I have always compared bird identification to facial recognition, where multiple factors contribute to a recognizable image, without any cognizant processing. I leave the breakdown of what specific factors contribute to Harlan’s identification to the true experts, like J. Liguori.

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At times, there are single clinching factors that seal the deal in bird ID. For the Harlan’s, it is the iconic tail, the one mysterious trait that causes we the birder so much awe and admiration. But, I’ve seen Harlan’s with red, banded tails. Most of the birds I saw in the north last summer had extensive red in the tail. The Harlan’s tail can often be misleading. This fact, coupled with the variation in body plumage leads to the point of considering every bird as a whole.

The bizarre tail of this bird is fascinating. The central feathers are half ghostly silver, and half solid dark. The others are irregularly banded and spotted against a background of soft reddish tones reminiscent of its specific designation. After encountering this bird, I’m left with one question: Are any two Harlan’s alike?

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