Last week, birders in Maine came upon a remarkable sighting: a juvenile Great Black Hawk, a Neotropical raptor that normally ranges from coastal Mexico to eastern Argentina, where it frequents coastal wetlands, forests, and open woodlands.
The bird was spotted in a residential area of the seaside community Fortunes Rocks, which is located about 24 miles south of Portland and 100 miles north of Boston. On Monday, August 6, Christine O’Leary Murphy shot a photo of an unusual hawk along Maddox Pond Road. As Doug Hitchcox of Maine Audubon notes, “That photo made its way through the internet via Instagram and eventually to a Facebook group called What’s this Bird?, where it was properly identified and went as viral as a rare bird can go.”
Hitchcox re-found the bird on Wednesday evening, and it was seen again by many birders on Thursday before it flew out over the ocean just before 2 p.m. “It has not been seen again since,” birder Derek Lovitch wrote. “Birders scoured the area for the rest of the day, and again on Friday, August 10th to no avail.”
As you may recall, a juvenile Great Black Hawk had been seen earlier this year, on April 24, on South Padre Island, Texas. If it’s accepted by records committees, it will be the first official record of the species in the U.S., so therefore, the Maine sighing would be the country’s second record.
Even more remarkable, however, is this: Careful study of photos from Texas and Maine by Tom Johnson, a guide with Field Guides Birding Tours, revealed that the hawk in Maine is the same bird as the one in Texas.
The photos show the same pattern of brown flecks on the underwing coverts. Lovitch noted: “Variable in this species, this is too perfect to be a coincidence, so it is almost unquestionably the same bird!” And Johnson says, “There’s consensus that it’s the same bird. I think the photo comparisons leave no doubt.”
The straight-line distance from South Padre Island to Fortunes Rocks is about 1,900 miles. While no one knows what route the hawk took, it undoubtedly did not follow a straight line and likely covered many, many more miles.
Brian Sullivan, an eBird project leader, raptor expert, and author or co-author of several books, including the Peterson Guide to Bird Identification—In 12 Steps, tells us:
“Great Black Hawk is not known to be migratory, so the first record in Texas this past April was a shocker. The bird was an immature, and indeed, Tom Johnson has shown that it is the same bird as the one found in Maine recently by comparing good images of the patterns in the underwing coverts.
“I have no real idea where the bird might appear next, but I wouldn’t be surprised if keen birders turn it up again, especially at some fall hawk watch site along the Atlantic Coast.”
So if you’re birding pretty much anywhere along the East Coast, keep an eye out for a big brown hawk with white eyebrows and a finely barred tail. As our friend Noah Strycker wrote in BirdWatching a few years ago: “You never know what you’ll find, but one thing is for sure: You won’t see anything if you don’t go out and take a look.” — Matt Mendenhall, Editor
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