When this guy flew by and I took photos, what first came to mind was dark-phase of a Rough-legged Hawk. It’s actually a dark-phase Ferruginous Hawk. The vast majority of Ferruginous Hawks that you run across are light phase, so this guy is a perfect example of how confusing it can be sometimes to identify Buteo hawk species.
As I look through visitor stats for my main website, one of the sections that is visited the most is a “Difficult ID’s” section. That actually surprised me a bit, given that it’s a fairly small part of the website, and not a section that I’ve revised for quite some time. The section is devoted to helping birders differentiate between certain species that tend to be difficult to identify, with photos, identification tips, key plumage characteristics, and other information. I only had 10 different classes of birds that it helped to differentiate…thus my surprise to see how many visitors those pages get. For the first time in probably 7 or 8 years, I updated several of those pages, providing more detailed identification keys, new photos, and range maps to help people see where and when certain species are likely to be present. I also started to think about other species that birders may have trouble identifying.
As I was going through my photos from my day-long trip to central South Dakota to look for winter raptors, one bird had me stumped. It was a dark-plumaged bird that I originally was sure was a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk. After processing the photos, however, it became clear that it was actually a dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk, a color morph I just haven’t run across very often. Given the variability between the different “Buteo” Hawk species, and given the variability WITHIN a single species in terms of plumage differences between different color morphs, and between adult and juvenile birds, what better addition to the “Difficult ID’s” pages than a very detailed description of how to tell apart Buteo hawks? I’ve just uploaded the following new page:
How to differentiate between “Buteo” Hawk species
On these pages, I’ve restricted myself to the more common Buteo species that are found in South Dakota and the U.S. as a whole. The more rare or geographically restricted species, such as Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, or Short-tailed Hawk, were excluded, so the page could concentrate on the more common species in the U.S. Species included are Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawk.
For these 6 species I have several pieces of information to assist birders in identification challenges. That of course include photos that offer a variety of angles, color morphs, bird ages, etc., as well as identification keys and species range maps. The Buteo Hawk page is undoubtedly the most comprehensive of the “difficult ID’s” pages that I’ve put together to date…I hope that people find it helpful!
Given how much attention those pages are getting, I will likely add new categories of “difficult ID’s” in the coming weeks. If you have any suggestions, let me know! In the meantime, here are the other species groups that are offered on the difficult ID’s page: