Birding Blog Archives

June 25th, 2013
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Immature Common Black-Hawk in Carr Canyon

I met a couple of really good young birders last week, Matthew Grube and Kevin Gin from southern California. They were birding southeastern Arizona for a week and picking up some great birds, as they were when I met them last year.

Matthew sent me (along with Kurt Radamaker, John Yerger and Laurens Halsey) three photos of a hawk they’d found on June 18th as they were coming down the mountain from Carr Canyon in the Huachucas, and asked us what we thought of it. We all concurred that it was a first-summer (second calendar year – last year’s juvenile) COMMON BLACK-HAWK.

This is not a plumage or age of bird that is seen often in the USA, so all credit to Matthew and Kevin for picking it out. As far as I can tell, most Common Black-Hawks don’t migrate north again until their third calendar year.

Common Black-Hawk

Common Black-Hawk

Common Black-Hawk

Photos copyright © Matthew Grube 2013.

Their suspicions were aroused because this bird didn’t have obvious (or any) patagial marks. These are the dark bars on the leading edge of the wing, between the neck and the carpal joint (bend in the wing), which are good features of flying Red-tailed Hawks. Furthermore, the bird has a big, pale bill, large head, heavy chest, and broad wings with a noticeable secondary bulge, which in turn make the tail look relatively short, all consistent with Common Black-Hawk.

But the plumage didn’t quite fit anything in the books for juvenile Common Black-Hawk, and it’s not a bird you’d necessarily expect to see in southeast Arizona in June, hence their uncertainty.

So, to clear up those two points, here’s my take. I’m right on the edge of my knowledge/level of competency here, so please feel free to comment if you can add something or correct my assumptions.

This bird is showing heavy wear to many of its feathers, and is in active wing molt (new, short, dark, adult-plumage P1 feathers can be seen coming through) so it can’t be this year’s juvenile, as they would show a very fresh plumage at this time of year and wouldn’t be molting. The overall pale plumage fits with the heavy wear of a bird of this age. The more solidly dark head and breast feathers are presumably due to a partial body molt that has already happened, or a body molt that’s underway (I’m a little unclear on when Common Black-Hawks molt their body feathers). Otherwise, the plumage is fairly similar to that of a more standard, recently-fledged juvenile Common Black-Hawk that can be seen at this time of year at nesting sites in central Arizona.

As for the location, Common Black-Hawk has nested in southeastern Arizona in the past, and summer records are rare but fairly regular. I’ve seen them at Rose Canyon Lake in the Santa Catalina Mountains and over Madera Canyon in summer in recent years, and a couple of years ago there was a series of summer records from the Patagonia Lake area. And with this being an immature bird, it won’t be territorial, so it could conceivably be anywhere that it can find adequate food for itself.

One final point – it’s worth keeping Great Black-Hawk in mind, a very similar species which breeds as far north as southern Sonora and southwestern Chihuahua in Mexico and could conceivably make it to SE Arizona as a vagrant. I’m not familiar with this species at all, but the bird in the photograph appears to be more consistent with Common Black-Hawk.

Again, I’d appreciate any comments or corrections as I’m certainly no expert in North American raptor ID.

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