UPDATE, AUGUST 15: A Great Black Hawk was spotted in early August in Fortune Rocks, Maine, and observers determined that it was the same bird as the one described below.
On Tuesday, April 24, a Great Black Hawk was spotted near the shores of South Padre Island, Texas. The sighting is the first United States (and American Birding Association Area) record of the species. Local birders found the hawk at the Valley Land Fund migratory bird stopover lots on W. Sheepshead Street. It was seen for about 20 minutes but was not spotted again, despite intensive searches.
The bird was a “very fresh-plumaged juvenile,” according to the eBird checklist from the birders who first saw the hawk, Javi Gonzalez and Alex Lamoreaux. They noted that it was “mobbed by Laughing Gulls, Great-tailed Grackles, and even an adult Peregrine!”
This large Neotropical raptor normally ranges from coastal Mexico to eastern Argentina, where it frequents coastal wetlands, forests, and open woodlands. It is similar to Common Black Hawk, which occurs in Arizona and New Mexico and occasionally in Texas and other western states.
The bird spotted on South Padre Island lacked the black band at the end of the tail that Common Black Hawk has, and its white uppertail coverts further suggest it was indeed a Great Black Hawk.
This sighting seems to have a great chance to be the first official record of Great Black Hawk in the U.S., once it’s reviewed by the Texas and ABA bird-record committees. However, that doesn’t mean the species hasn’t been spotted in the U.S. previously. In a Facebook thread about the South Padre Island bird, author, artist, and BirdWatching columnist Kenn Kaufman noted:
“The range of Great Black Hawk extends very far north in both eastern and western Mexico, and it has been on the short list of expected / possibly-overlooked species for years. There was a possible sight record in western Arizona in 1979, but I don’t know if it was ever formally considered by the state records committee.”
And in Florida, on Virginia Key, just off the coast of Miami, Great Black Hawk has been reported as far back as 1972, according to the Tropical Audubon Society, and more recently, from 2003 through 2015. Many observers have said the bird (or birds) were escaped or released from captivity and therefore not countable as wild.
In any event, the sighting is exciting, and it adds to South Padre’s reputation as a great place to find birds. The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is one of the Rio Grande Valley’s premier destination for birdwatching. Situated along the wetlands of the Laguna Madre Bay, it features exhibits on the island’s birds and other natural features, along with a five-story viewing tower, viewing blinds, and boardwalk nature trails. The trails are adjacent to the existing Laguna Madre Nature Trail, which features two boardwalks: one extending over marshland and the other to Laguna Madre Bay. The center offers guided birding tours seven days a week.
In fact, the island has recorded tropical vagrants twice before: In 2008, the first White-crested Elaenia ever in the U.S. turned up at the lots where the Great Black Hawk was found, and in 2016, the first Texas sighting of Variegated Flycatcher occurred at the birding and nature center.
More than 300 species of birds call the island home for part or most of the year, and vast expanses of saltwater flats, lagoons and marshes on the island’s eastern side provide a home for shorebirds and waterfowl. — Matt Mendenhall, Editor
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