Black Hawk Down East

Tim HealyBird Sightings, Birding, Chase, RaritiesLeave a Comment

Birds always find ways to surprise us. No matter how much you know, no matter how well you prepare, no matter how long you’ve been tuned in to the wild world of birding, there will be times when you get caught completely off guard. I think that’s wonderful.

This Tuesday morning, I was standing in the Tucson airport after a truly incredible week-long tour of southeastern Arizona’s natural marvels. I saw wondrous things and made memories to last a lifetime. I fully expected to be writing up my recap of the trip by now, but I’ll have to take care of that later. The saga that began unfolding before me as I scrolled through my newsfeed at the terminal totally blew me away. The ABA Rare Bird Alert group was buzzing over a most interesting report from Maine. A mystery raptor, tentatively IDed as a young Common Black Hawk, had been photographed somewhere in the Pine Tree State and posted on the What’s This Bird? page by a friend of the original observer. By the time I saw images of the bird, its true identity as a Great Black Hawk had already been determined. People were losing their minds. While its Common cousin inhabits riparian habitat in several southwestern states, the Great Black Hawk’s natural range comes no nearer to ABA territory than southern Tamaulipas in Mexico.

Unsurprisingly, this sensational record was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Apart from a puzzling, long-running series of observations in the Miami area typically attributed to escaped captive birds, the only prior occurrence of the species within the United States was a sighting of a immature bird earlier this year at South Padre Island, Texas. While some birders attempted to get in touch with the photographer for more details, others set about trying to identify the plants visible in the images to confirm where they had been taken. Although What’s This Bird? has a proud history of revealing astounding vagrants, it wouldn’t be the first time that someone’s vacation photos were accidentally attributed to the wrong location. Despite the critical gaze of the collective birding community and some minor conspiracy theories, the report held up under scrutiny. All of the vegetation checked out, and eventually the exact date and location of the hawk’s discovery was revealed. We learned late on Tuesday that the images were fresh from the field on Monday morning, and local birders began searching the streets of Biddeford, Maine at first light on Wednesday. Early visits to the scene of the sighting came up negative, but when I checked in after dinner I saw that the Great Black Hawk had just been refound. The chase was on.

I immediately started reaching out to birding friends to see who was interested and free. Naturally, many people had work and other typical Thursday obligations to worry about. Fellow teacher Mike Zito, still recuperating from his own visit to Arizona, agreed to be my travel buddy and offered to drive. We awakened at 3 AM the following morning and immediately set out on the road to New England. We overcame the early departure time, more than 5 hours of driving, and a New Hampshire speeding ticket to reach Biddeford just after 8:30. As soon as we arrived at the site, we were treated to exceptional views of our quarry. The Great Black Hawk was perched conspicuously in a tree just off the road, devouring the eggs out of an American Goldfinch nest. A noisy mob of songbirds scolding the raptor included robins, waxwings, catbirds, a jay, and a mockingbird in addition to the finches. Even a hummingbird whizzed in to take a couple of passes at the invader. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a raptor get harassed with such intensity and vigor, though their ire was understandable. I watched the hawk raid at least two additional nests over the course of the morning, and the furious flock was its constant companion during its tour through the neighborhood.

Once we’d gotten eyes on our target, Mike and I parked his car at the beach and walked back to spend more time with the hawk. We were fortunate enough to enjoy more than an hour in the company of this most remarkable raptor. In addition to the monumental rarity of the bird, it was a pretty impressive creature that was just plain fun to watch. I’d only seen my first Common Black Hawk a few days prior at Patagonia Lake, and this bruiser was noticeably burlier and more powerful-looking. Those extra-broad wings and long, strong legs were a sight to behold. The hawk seemed to be constantly on the hunt, making frequent short flights between properties and pausing to pluck chicks and eggs from their hidden nests among the branches. It occasionally disappeared from view, but the clamorous protests of the angry birds following it helped us to track it down whenever it went missing. Seeing this amazing neotropical vagrant foraging across the road from the picturesque Maine coast, complete with bobbing lobster pot buoys, was a bizarre juxtaposition that may never be topped in my birding career.

We got to meet plenty of other birders at the stakeout, including familiar faces from the online ABA groups and members of local birding clubs. Stories and celebrations were shared with Nicole Koeltzow, who is in the midst of a Big Year, and Amanda Damin, who got to count Great Black Hawk as her 800th species in the ABA area. The tale of the wayward bird predictably led to a “birders flock…” piece in the local news, featuring a mention of our drive from New York and the NH state trooper encounter. The reporter left before we discovered that the beach parking was apparently permit only, resulting in Mike’s second ticket of the day. Fortunately, my companion remained in good spirits, saying that the hawk was absolutely worth the trouble. The bird eventually took a longer flight down the street, the commotion of the mob gradually growing quieter in the distance. We’d had more than our fill of great encounters with the rarity. Even so, we stuck around a bit longer to try and help recent arrivals find their prize. I would have loved to spend more time in Maine, revisiting old haunts from my Project Puffin days, but we both had schedules to keep. Just before 11 AM, we finally said our goodbyes and headed off to get a delicious seafood lunch.

En route to the restaurant, I kept an eye on the comment thread about the hawk. Some of our new friends reported that they’d managed to relocate it, and fantastic photos started pouring in. Using the newly posted close, crisp images, the unstoppable Tom Johnson was able to perform the analysis that many of us were expecting and hoping for. Even though the Maine Great Black Hawk was undergoing heavy molt, with just a few immature tail feathers remaining, it hadn’t lost all of its baby plumage yet. Comparing the markings on the underwings to photos of the bird from Texas this April, feather by feather, it appears that this most recent record is the exact same individual.

Maine photo credit: Francis Morello, Texas photo credit: Alex Lamoreaux

Perhaps it is not terribly surprising that the potential 1st and 2nd ABA records for this species are, in fact, the same specific vagrant. That being said, the time and distance between observations leave an expansive, intriguing gap of unknowns and unanswered questions. What drove the bird to disperse so far from its normal range and habitat? Has the hawk been on the move this whole time, or did it recently push northward aided by prolonged southerly winds up the East Coast? Is Maine the furthest it has traveled, or is it working its way south after wandering even further? Was it discovered shortly after arriving, or has it spent a significant amount of time in the Biddeford area undetected? There is really no way of knowing the details of this traveler’s incredible journey. What’s more, it isn’t over yet. In the early afternoon on Thursday, August 9th, the Great Black Hawk was spotted circling over the beach. It climbed higher and higher, gaining altitude, before heading out over the sea and disappearing from view. As of this writing, the bird has not been seen since. Like a drifter, it blew out of town just as quickly and unexpectedly as it blew in. We can only guess as to where it is going now. I am in awe of the hawk’s impressive pilgrimage thus far, and I wish it good fortune in its continued voyage to parts unknown. Though we may not understand why this particular bird feels so compelled to chase the distant horizon line, making it this far proves that it is a survivor. Hopefully that tenacity and adaptability help it to succeed no matter where it touches down next. It was an honor to be a first-hand witness to this spectacular odyssey.