No seriously. This is not a test, do not adjust your television. This is not a drill. This is insane, but it is real.
9:13 AM. Ryan Wirtes posted a photo to the “What Bird is This Facebook Page” of a raptor photo sent by a friend. He suspected a black hawk of some flavor, but at the time, the sighting information was nothing more than “photographed this month in Maine.”
10:35 am. Tim Swain shares that post to the “ABA Rare Bird Alert” Facebook page. All hell breaks loose. While many people discuss the ID, others immediately jump to the conclusion that it is far too rare and far too out of range to be possible, so the conspiracy theories take hold. One person claimed to debunk it in multiple forums based on the plants in the scene. His plant ID was seriously flawed. I was brought into the discussion and identified the plants in the two pictures as all occurring in and around Biddeford Pool: Japanese Knotweed, Red Maple, and an invasive bush honeysuckle that I left as Lonicera sp (presumably tatarica). I know these thickets and habitats extremely well, and all looked just like a number of areas around here. While I was not vouching for the credibility of the sighting, the misidentification of the plants should not have impacted anyone’s decision to get the heck out there and search for it. And while skepticism and critical evaluation of exceptional sightings is important, I felt too many people were immediately looking to debunk it – that is not constructive, especially when using nothing more than simple misinformation spoken loud enough to be believed.
Luckily, people were out searching for it, and didn’t need my plant ID to be encouraged to do so!
Later in the day, Michael Smith was able to contact the photographer, and it turned out the bird was photographed only one day prior, on Maddox Pond Road in the Fortunes Rocks Beach section of Biddeford. The plot thickened.
Birders searched the area extensively in the morning. The exact location of the photograph was confirmed. There was no hoax, conspiracy, or simple mistake/miscommunication. But there was no bird.
6:03 pm: Doug Hitchcox relocates the bird in a backyard on nearby Lily Pond Road. Birders converge. I arrived at about 7pm, and about 15 of us continued to observe the bird, with several remaining through dark.
I managed a few phone-scoped photos.
But, given the low light, I had better luck with video, which I did extensively. I posted one here, on our store’s Facebook Page.
For the record, it was perched in a Black Locust when I saw it.
7:20 am: With dozens of people from several states converging and looking, it was refound on Lily Pond Road. And now all hell will really break loose! Jeannette went down this am and scored some great photos as the bird flew around, hunted eggs and nestlings (it was observed eating a nestling and robbing an American Goldfinch nest for eggs), and as since its first observation, being constantly mobbed by passerines (for good reason).
For those looking to find it, I’d recommend the play-by-play on the ABA Rare Bird Alert Facebook Page. I’ll leave it to there, and the Maine-birds listserve, to provide the specifics on sightings, observation details, and any concerns (like extensive and problematic permit parking restrictions in the area) that may arise.
Furthermore, Fortunes Rocks Beach is covered in Site Y11 in my Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide and Biddeford Pool (including parking tips) is extensively treated as Y12. Besides carpooling, my recommendations are to arrive early or late, or hoof it (I’ll throw a bike on the rack next time I go) a considerable distance from somewhere with open, public parking. And, like with several of the “Mega” rarities that have occurred in recent years, I am (somewhat) available for private guiding, including round-trips from the Portland Jetport!
But since I have been asked by many people about “how,” “why,” and “WTF?” I figured I would pull some info together here for convenience.
First, the identity of the bird is not in question: it is an immature Great Black Hawk (often written as Great Black-hawk), separated from the similar Common Black Hawk by a combination of plumage and structural features. I’ll quote Howell and Webb’s A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America:
“(GBH) has narrower wingbase, longer tail (esp juv) often less spread when soaring and gliding. At rest, note longer legs and short primary projection…juv and immature usually have whitish head that lacks strong dark malar stripe; note more numerous dark tail bars of the juv. With very broad distal dark band or narrow dark bars to tail tip.”
I believe those are the same features that are used to separate it from the Cuban Black Hawk (or Cuban race of the Common Black Hawk), but I need to do more research on that.
And finally, Solitary Eagle is “larger with more massive legs and bill; at rest, wingtips extend to or beyond relatively shorter tail…juv and immature have solidly dark brown thighs, juv has pale grayish tail band with no distinct dark barring, imm. tail similar but with broad paler median band. (Howell and Webb, 2014)
Great Black Hawk is a large buteo-like raptor of Northern South America, extending north along the coasts of Mexico. Many folks are citing the first accepted “ABA-area” record that occurred only this past spring in Texas. The Texas Bird Records Committee voted unanimously to add it to the official list on July 3rd:
“The TBRC has voted unanimously to add GREAT BLACK HAWK (Buteogallus urubitinga) to the state list. A juvenile was well documented with several excellent photos as it landed briefly and passed over South Padre Island on 24 April 2018. This species has been somewhat hoped for/expected to show up in Texas as it regularly ranges as close as southern Tamaulipas, Mexico but it was still a surprising and exciting find for folks that were on the island taking in spring migration that day. The addition of Great Black Hawk brings the state list to 649 in good standing. This record will now be considered by the ABA Checklist Committee as a first for the ABA. There have been a few Great Black Hawk sightings in Florida since the 1970s though there has been questions/concern about the provenance of those birds.”
Ah, but yes, those Florida birds. Here’s where things get murky. And while Great Black Hawks do not seem to be kept by falconers, they are kept in captivity. And with all records of exceptionally far-flung vagrants, captivity needs to be considered. The “cage bird” and wildlife smuggling plague in the world is rampant, and likely constitutes billions of dollars annually. While “charismatic megafauna” (or parts there of) get all of the attention, birds are being smuggled – as well as legally traded – all over the world. And I believe it is much, much worse than usually suggested, so it’s worth considering “provenance” and just because it’s not used for some purpose, I do not believe we can immediately discount captive origin. But let me be clear: there is absolutely no evidence of that here – no bands, no “cage wear,” no obviously problematic behavior – although it is rather confiding and does allow close approach which could be suspect.
Jon Greenlaw, co-author of the recently-fully revised and updated The Robertson and Woolfenden Florida Bird Species: An Annoted List (2014) wrote to me with the following analysis of the Florida occurrence of “black hawks:”
“They occur in Mexico in Yucatan north to Tamaulipas on the Atlantic side, so both possible in Texas and Florida. To my knowledge only the Great Black Hawk is known from the Atlantic coast in Florida. No Common Black-Hawks have been confirmed from Florida out of more than 20 reports, but one of the two records (photographic) (one specimen w/ no label details in Archbold BS collection) remained for several years in the Greater Miami Area (Virginia Key, Key Biscayne) and was seen by many observers and photographed well by Robin Diaz of Miami. It was initially ID’d as a Common Black-Hawk, but it was later confirmed as a Great Black-Hawk as more photos & details came in. Greenlaw et al. 2014 provides the most recent update of status in Florida. Smith FFN 23:101, 1995 reviewed the Florida reports and concluded them to represent Great Black-Hawks. The belief previously has been that the Florida reports were likely escapes in captivity (they are known to occur as captive birds in s. Florida), but the numbers of reports here over the years make it difficult to totally reject the presence of vagrant individuals (esp immatures) from their range in the Americas, esp Yucatan. Still, photographs of the Virginia Key bird (the most recent occurrence example) indicate the adult was from the sedentary population (nominate) in South America.”
And more extensively treated here for those looking for the complete story of this complex conundrum, click here.
Let me reiterate, there is absolutely no suggestion of non-wild origin, and while a hoax or miscommunication has been debunked, provenance (where it came from and how) must always be carefully considered. While listing powers-that-be may eventually decide whether or not you “can count it,” I would recommend going to look at this magnificent bird and, well, my list is my list…and I’ll probably count it!
Besides feeling like the tropics these past few weeks, the weather pattern that has brought us this oppressive (well, to us in Maine not used to it) heat and especially humidity could very conceivably result in a bird escorted this far away from its usual home range.
Although a resident species not particularly prone to wandering, some likely do, and presumably this would especially true of juveniles. Some have suggested this could even be the same bird as the South Padre Island sighting in April; photos will undoubtedly be studied carefully to see if there are any clues. Whether it’s the bird from Texas or another individual, the extensive and stubborn southerly flow created by a strong and persistent Bermuda High spinning off the southern Atlantic Coast would certainly facilitate the bird’s peregrinations. Whether originally “lost,” misguided, navigationally-challenged (simply mis-wired, or as one of the apparent impacts from our chronic use of pesticides), or just a “pioneer” prospecting for new habitats in the face of a rapidly warming climate and rampant tropical deforestation, there are a lot of ways where a large raptor that can soar with little effort and cover hundreds of miles in a day and end up in the Northeast. While weather rarely “causes” vagrancy, it certainly plays a role in where a vagrant could show up.
Heck, North America’s first record of the tropical Variegated Flycatcher occurred (in November of 1977) in the Biddeford Pool neighborhood just up the road! Which is more exceptional would be up for debate, but clearly birds from a long way off can make it to Maine’s coast (for additional example, our relatively numerous records of Fork-tailed Flycatcher). And, as circumstantial evidence that the recent weather pattern is delivering birds from the south to New England, notice that New Hampshire currently has a Wood Stork and a Neotropical Cormorant!
Birders are flying in from all over the country already, and likely hundreds if not thousands of birders will descend on the area in the coming days, and if we are all lucky, weeks. Of course, the bird could leave any minute now.
Folks will debate provenance, and others will simply enjoy the sighting and take a lot of photographs. Hopefully, birders will spend a few dollars in the area (can I recommend Bufflehead’s restaurant on Hill’s Beach, Palace Diner in Biddeford, and Saco Island Deli in Saco to start?) and let it be known that they are here to see this epic rarity.
Furthermore, there is always the chance of the “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect,” wherein birders descending on an area for a rare bird sighting find additional rare birds. What could be next? And from where? I very much look forward to what else is turned up. This could be fun.
At the very least, don’t forget there is a Little Egret just up the road in Scarborough Marsh! Remember when, 4 years ago, that’s what everyone was flying in for?
I’m not the first to say it, but it needs to be repeated. This is a quiet, residential area with extremely limited daytime public parking. The bird is often in yards, and since the best hours to visit are before 8:00am and after 5:00pm when parking is available at nearby Fortunes Rocks Beach, PLEASE be extremely respectful to local residents and private property. Do not enter any yard unless invited to do so, and do not block driveways. And yes, police have been actively patrolling the parking areas! And always, put the bird – and its neighbors – first, no matter how much you want a slightly better look or photo!
Thanks for reading!
Photo reviews by Tom Johnson and others of the April Great Black Hawk from Texas and our Maine bird shows the exact same pattern of brown flecks on the outermost underwing coverts. Variable in this species, this is too perfect to be a coincidence, so it is almost unquestionably the same bird!
Unfortunately, at 1:52pm (I believe) on Thursday, August 9, the black hawk was observed flying over Fortunes Rocks Beach and “out to sea.” It has not been seen again since. Birders scoured the area for the rest of the day, and again on Friday, August 10th to no avail…and so far without turning up anything else of note. In fact, not even the Little Egret has been seen in the last few days (I looked carefully at every Snowy in Scarborough Marsh this morning when guiding for a family from Indiana). We’ll see if any interesting reports roll in by day’s end.