Raptor Identification


I am not a raptor expert. Until this year, I had never caught more than a very brief glimpse of any raptors around Sitka. Even this year, I have only had good looks a couple of times, and those were both looks at a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

I first spotted this bird as we stopped at a turnout to get Rowan to sit up in her seat. It flew off from the ground in front of us with something dangling from its talons. I watched where it flew and we were able to get a good look at it where it had landed in an alder tree close to the road. The bird was definitely smaller than an eagle and larger than the Sharp-shinned Hawk. It had a squirrel in its talons and was presumably getting ready to eat it. I was certainly kicking myself for not having my camera. On the off chance that it might stick around, we drove back home to get my camera.

When we got back out, I did not see the bird. We drove out a little further and turned around. It was on the way back that I thought I saw it in an alder tree. I was relieved to see that I was correct and was able to get several pictures of it.

My best guess is that it’s a light morph of a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk. These are apparently pretty uncommon, so I am not confident in this identification. The following are the characters that I base my identification on:

  1. Size seems right (much larger than a Sharp-shinned Hawk, much smaller than a Bald Eagle)
  2. White Throat (there aren’t really any other raptors of this size that have a range that includes Southeast Alaska)
  3. Overall mostly dark upper parts and mostly pale under parts.

Raptor in Flight

2 thoughts on “Raptor Identification”

  1. Here is part of a comment I received via e-mail that confirms my suspicion that it’s a light morph juvenile Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk:

    “For several years we have conducted the hawkwatch migration site count near Eureka AK (Southcentral). I’m not certain of the relative abundance of W. RTs in your area. Up here Westerns are rare and some people question if they occur here at all. Harlan’s are quite common with several hundred counted each spring. Consistently, year after year, the ratio of light morph to dark morph Harlan’s is close to 8% rather than the previously thought 1%. I believe your first conclusion – an immature light morph Harlan’s – was correct.

    The very clean white throat, streaking, overall whitish head (supercilium and auricular), scant markings and overall clean appearance on the underparts (with the exception of patagium, belly band and comma). Typically, Harlans’ dark colors (dorsal and ventral) tend toward gray/black/coal (rather than chocolate brown of a typical RT). I can’t discern that by the photos but it may help you. The only thing that I see that suggests RT is the markings on the leg feathering – these are normally clean on a Harlan’s. What did you see on the dorsal tail? If there was any blotchiness/irregularity, whitish patches, vs the consistent even fine brown barring of a regular RT, that would also suggest Harlan or Harlan’s hybrid. Of course there is much variation between light, intermediate and dark morphs of Harlan’s and W RT as well as hybridization between the subspecies so they cannot all be conclusively ID’d – but its fun to try!”

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