Harris’s Hawk in Colorado: Is it a Lifer or is it Unnatural?

This winter, we’ve had an unusual visitor to northeastern Colorado: a Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus). Normally a resident of southernmost Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, this chocolate-brown and chestnut-red hawk is far from home. Back in December, a friend told me about this vagrant* after the hawk had been reliably sighted roosting in trees belonging to a recycling center adjacent to a local natural area. Having only seen Harris’s hawks in captivity, I was eager to see one in the wild so I could add it to my life list.

It took me four separate trips to the natural area in order to spot the hawk. When Guy Turenne, photographer, said the same thing (“four visits before I saw him”), I jokingly named the bird “Four Visit Harry.” That is how I think of him, even though I don’t know whether the bird is male or female.

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Four Visit Harry, the Harris’s hawk living in Fort Collins, CO (photo by Guy Turenne)

My weekend trips to see Harry were both several hours long, and I met lots of friendly birders who like me did not get to see him then. I made a mid-day stop at the natural area on a weekday and had the place to myself. Again, I failed to see Harry, but was encouraged by several false alarms. The first was a dark shape in one of the trees others identified as a favorite perch for the hawk. I saw it a few minutes after arriving and thought “gotcha!” only I was wrong. As I got closer, the “bird” climbed down the branch, morphing into a squirrel. As I walked the trail, I spotted red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) overhead, but they didn’t fool me for long.

On the way back, I again got a “That’s it!” shock when a hawk with white on the tail erupted out of the grass ahead of me. Fortunately, I got a really good look at it, even though there was a tree between us most of the time, and I realized at once it was missing the other key markings — the nearly dark brown back with red-brown wing patches. So I knew I was looking at a juvenile northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) and not a Harris’s hawk within a few minutes. Still, I found it exciting rather than disappointing. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a harrier. I had to go home for lunch and thought: This is a great day for hawks. So I ran some Christmas errands, then went back to the natural area for the fourth time.

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Diagram by Kit Dunsmore

After scanning the big patch of trees in the recycling area and seeing nothing, I took the trail that ran behind the center. There, I met two young men with binoculars and a spotting scope. For the first time, my question (“Have you seen the Harris’s?”) was met with a yes. They pointed back to the trees I had just scanned and then I saw it, a dark blob with red-brown wing patches, sitting lower in the trees than I had originally looked. It flew off only a few minutes later, so I had only just caught it. The birders asked me if it was a lifer (if I would count this as my first Harris’s hawk for the list of all the bird species I’ve seen in my life). I was excited to be able to say it was. What I didn’t realize is not everyone would agree with me about that.

A bird like this Harris’s hawk is often referred to as “vagrant” or “accidental.” Usually, birds far from home get lost during migration, blown off course by a storm, or losing their way because they are inexperienced or sick. But Harris’s hawks don’t migrate. They are considered permanent residents of their range, so any individual very far outside that range is hard to explain. In fact, National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America is rather adamant that a Harris’s hawk out of its territory escaped from or was released by a falconer. Period.

After I read that, I realized my “lifer” was in jeopardy. The American Birding Association (ABA) has rules for keeping a life list, and one of those rules is that the bird you count can’t have been transported by humans to the place where you saw it. Understandably, they consider this an unnatural situation, even though the bird is flying free at the time of sighting. If Four Visit Harry is a falconer’s bird, then I can’t count him. But there’s no way for me to tell if he is or isn’t. And I confess I find myself miffed at the thought that someone who trained, maybe even raised, a hawk for falconry would release it nearly 700 miles from its natural habitat. Surely falconers are more responsible and ethical than that.

Harris’s hawks do not migrate, but they must disperse after fledging, which is the one time they might move into new territory. eBird maps show these hawks are being spotted much farther north in New Mexico and Texas then their historical range allows for, and I doubt all of these are lost falconry birds. There are even rare individuals who have been seen as far north as Montana.

I would rather think these out-of-range hawks are pioneers moving out into new territory, that Four Visit Harry is a maverick with wanderlust, rather than some falconer’s escaped bird. But I have no proof either way. Maybe he did hitch a ride here, but Harry is making a living on the prairie despite being away from home and without other hawks to help him hunt. (Harris’s hawks hunt in groups.) And my sighting of him (though it required some help from other birders) felt natural to me. Fortunately, I am not actually submitting my life list to the ABA. I am keeping it for my own pleasure. Considering our long and colorful history, I’ve decided that Four Visit Harry is a lifer.

*Vagrant is one of the terms birders use to describe birds far out of their recognized range. I prefer the term “maverick.”

7 Frustrating Truths About Birding

Back in March, I spent a week in southern Arizona birding. While I have looked for birds while hiking in the past, this was my first trip dedicated to birding. I discovered that focused birding is both wonderful and frustrating. Here’s what I learned.

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Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

1) Birding can be intense. Knowing I might see something I’d never seen before made me vigilant. I concentrated and was alert whenever I was outside. Eventually, every little movement got my attention and I found myself gazing at a spiderweb glinting in the sunlight or a leaf shivering the in the breeze. Given how many leaves there are out there, it’s not surprising how tired I was by the end of the day.

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Acorn Woodpecker: Looks like a clown, acts like a king.  (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

2) You need to take your binoculars everywhere. I missed a good look at a raptor that might have been a new bird for me because I left my binoculars in the car while I went to the bathroom.

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Painted Redstart, one of the easier birds to identify (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

3) That bird you saw so clearly? It isn’t in the field guide. This happens to me all the time. My favorite on this trip was a big black bird I saw with rusty patches under the wings. I scoured the hawk pages, certain these “distinctive” marks would be easy to spot. Nothing. Then I saw Kurt’s photo of the same bird, and discovered it was a raven. Which brings us to

4) You will see more common than exotic birds. 99 times out of a 100, that hawk you saw was a red-tailed hawk, not one of the rarer hawks in the area. Unless it was black. Then it was probably a raven.

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Red-tailed Hawks. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a thrill to see them. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

5) Birds are tricky. Even though it was only March, most of the trees had already leafed out where we were, which meant the birds had plenty of places to hide. It was surprising to me how often I could hear a bird without laying eyes on it. You’d think the singing would give its location away.

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Mexican Jay: we thought we were hearing a flock of house sparrows until we finally saw these guys, which took an amazingly long time given their size. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

6) Birds are really tricky. They have either figured out how to travel through wormholes or have cloaking devices. Whichever it is, I can’t count the number of times a bird was right there and then just as suddenly wasn’t.

7) Check every bird in the flock, just in case. Often, different birds will flock together. At a reservoir in New Mexico, I saw one Ross’s goose hiding amongst a bunch of snow geese. Another time, I was certain there were at least three species in the flock of sparrows I was watching, but they all turned out to be Lincoln’s sparrows.

While birding was more work than I expected, it was worth the effort. I picked up 37 new-to-me species and got to see some birds that are Mexican natives. The rarest bird we saw was the streak-backed oriole. We also saw birds that are common to that area but were new to us, like Mexican jays, bridled titmouse, painted redstart, and acorn woodpeckers. Common or rare, moulting or in full breeding plumage, every one of them was a beauty.

Sightings

This morning we had some exciting bird action in our backyard. First, we saw a huge bird across the stream from us.  After digging out the binoculars and the bird guide, we realized we were looking at a pair of Ferruginous Hawks, which are prairie birds and not very common.  Super cool! Unfortunately, they were too far away for our camera.

We did, however, get a picture of another unusual visitor.  This American Kestrel perched on the top of one of our pine trees for a few minutes. I had to push our camera to the max and we still only got a mediocre image, but I figure it’s not bad for photography on the fly.  (No pun intended.)

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