Category: Species (Page 1 of 11)

Dark Hawk ID Challenge

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles CA

Spooked and ready to flee, frustrating ID efforts

Dark Hawk ID Challenge

A few days ago, I spotted a dark hawk flying over the Ballona Creek. I  first saw the bird at a long distance. The coloring suggested a turkey vulture (white underwing, white undertail, otherwise dark), but it wasn’t wobbling.  I thought it could be a Zone-tailed (would be a 5MR lifer), but it was too far away to tell. Frustratingly, it went out of my view.

About 30 minutes later, I found what I assume was the same hawk perched on a low snag along the Ballona Creek bike path. The back and chest/belly were all pretty uniformly dark brown, with a little white splotching on the wing. It had yellow legs and pale eyes. The bird flushed, and I saw that its underwing and undertail was white with faint grey barring. The bird landed on the ground in the middle of a large field scattered with tall grasses. After 5 minutes, it moved 50-70 yards and landed on the ground again, this time out of view. 

I found the landing on the ground to be the most notable behavior I observed. I couldn’t recall ever seeing any Red-tailed Hawks settle on the ground in this field before. And this bird did it twice. That, with the dark coloring, had me thinking that I had found something other than a dark western Red-tailed Hawk. But I don’t have the birding chops to make an ID.

On top of that, my photos that first day were pretty bad. They were taken with a pocket zoom camera I bring along on bikes rides. The photos did show some barring on the white sections of the underwing and undertail. You could see that the upper undertail was dark. And the back and upper wings were, other than a few white speckles, uniformly dark dark brown.

I posted my photos and description to LACO Birds listserv (an invaluable resource for anyone, but especially those like me who don’t use facebook or eBird alerts. Indeed, I love local bird sighting listservs. Anytime I travel in the U.S., I look up the local birding listservs). The reactions were both unanimous (“better photos would help”) and mixed (Zone-tailed Hawk, dark morph juvenile Western Red-tailed Hawk (calarus), dark morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan’s), and dark morph Ferruginous Hawk were all mentioned). 

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles California

Seeking better photos and a more certain ID, I rode out to the spot a couple of days later. I found the dark hawk again, perched on a low snag in the same field. Once again, just after I started to take pictures, it flushed. And just as before, it flushed to the middle of the field and landed on the ground, out of view. I biked around the area, trying to re-find it. There were at least 4 obvious (though varied) Red-tailed Hawks in the field. One had a dark belly, but a rufous tail.

I re-found the target dark hawk after 20-30 minutes: in the middle of the field on the ground. It eventually flew to a low snag perch closer to the bike path. The bird was still all dark dark brown, but more white mottling on the upper wing and some white streaking on the chest were apparent. When it flushed, I was able to get better looks at the underwing. The barring on the white underwing areas was more obvious today, and the dark portion of the underwing looked more mottled with white. Again, it flew to the middle of the field and landed on the ground. None of the obvious western Red-tailed Hawks around (at one point I saw 3 perched and 3 soaring at the same time, so there were at least 6 others in the area) ever landed on the ground.

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles CA

Birders far more expert in hawk ID than me felt better about calling the bird a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk after the second round of photos. Features that these folks noted as supporting a Harlan’s Hawk ID were the uniform dark brown color, the dark upper undertail, and the pale iris. A couple of other birders have seen the bird, and got even better photos. My report of Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan’s) was confirmed in eBird, which I take to be the stamp of approval on the ID. Not everyone agrees, though.

Harlan’s Hawk has been a separate species in the past, but is now considered a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. They breed in Alaska and northwestern Canada in taiga. Many of them winter in the central U.S. plains. A Harlan’s Hawk is a good find for L.A. County.  There are a couple of reports of Harlan’s Hawk in the Antelope Valley (northern L.A. County over an hour from my house), a 2017 report from Long Beach, and a wintering Harlan’s Hawk in the very same Ballona area in 2013-2014.  They undoubtedly occur more frequently, but the variability of Red-tailed Hawks means they are likely overlooked. The best comparison of Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks with Western Red-tailed Hawks is here

Harlan's Hawk Ballona California

I saw the hawk again on Christmas Eve in the late afternoon. Nothing had changed. I found it perched on a low snag not far from the bike path. It flushed as soon as I got off my bike and peered at it through binoculars. It flew to the middle of the field and landed on the ground. Maybe it will stay all winter like the 2013-2014 bird, and I can study it a bit and maybe get the bird to do a close flyover in good lighting.

5MR Lifer: Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe Marina del Rey California

Red-necked Grebe fleeing before any other birders even know it’s there

5MR Lifer: Red-necked Grebe at Marina del Rey

It’s been a somewhat slow early winter for rarities in my 5MR. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, I believe. There don’t seem to be as many people birding the usual popular spots in my 5MR, and therefore the rarities that are undoubtedly there are not being found. But there are probably fewer people birding the spots in my 5MR because no one is reporting rarities. We’ve all seen it before – one good bird is found in a spot, a bunch of nerds with binoculars converge, and more rarities are found.

Anyhoodle, I went for a midday bike ride down the creek to Playa del Rey the other day, not expecting to find anything usual. And I didn’t, until I ventured out onto the middle jetty. About 70 yards ahead in the channel, there was another loon-ish bird. But it looked different. It seemed in-between the bigger loons/Western Grebes and the smaller Eared/Horned Grebes. The profile wasn’t right for a cormorant. I got it in my binoculars and knew right away it was a good find: a Red-necked Grebe.Red-necked Grebe Marina del Rey California


I snapped a quick photo with my pocket zoom camera, and biked ahead to get a closer look. As I was headed out the jetty, a jet skier was coming in from the ocean, right for the grebe. Before I could get to the spot, the Red-necked Grebe flushed. As it did, I saw two white flashes in the wing, one on the trailing edge and another at the front edge. It was a strange bird to see fly. It looked like a cormorant that had swallowed a cantaloupe, with a spatula stuck to its backside. 

The bird initially headed in towards the marina, and landed on the water. Just as I hopping on my bike to go back and try for a closer look, it took flight again. This time, it was headed more or less right toward me.  I snapped a few shots of the bird in flight, and watched it sail off south parallel to Playa del Rey. I didn’t see it land, and there’s no telling how far south it flew. There are large rafts of Surf Scoters and Western/Clark’s Grebes along that stretch of beach. But picking it out in the afternoon sun without a scope would have been difficult, if it was even there.

Red-necked Grebe Marina del Rey California

Behold the flying hunchbacked blob with a spatula sticking out the back

Red-necked Grebes are rare in Los Angeles County. I’d seen one before at Castaic Lake, where it is almost annual, at great distance. They are much rarer along the coast. The regular February Pasadena Audubon pelagic spotted one a mile off shore this year. But other than that, the last report in Santa Monica Bay was from 2014. They breed in Canada and Alaska, and winter along northern ocean coasts. Fun fact about Red-necked Grebes: they ingest large quantities of their own feathers. Theirs stomachs apparently have two distinct balls of feathers whose function is unknown. One thought is the feathers help protect the lower digestive tract from bones and other hard, indigestible material.

The Red-necked Grebe was actually the second addition to my 5MR life list in the past week. For whatever reason, it’s been a mini-invasion winter of Pine Siskin into the Los Angeles basin. I figured the best bet was the goldfinch feeder in the Japanese Garden at Kenneth Hahn park. And I was right. Slowly but surely, 300 species for my 5MR is coming into sight.

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