An unexpected surprise

The preeminent hawk.  The hawk’s hawk.  The common and widespread buteo to which all other buteoine species are compared.  The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  Seeing one is never a surprise from Alaska south to Venezuela and out to Cuba and the Virgin Islands.

With up to 16 subspecies and considerable population and individual variation stretching throughout its geographic range, including both “light morph” and “dark morph” varieties across all groups, not every red-tailed hawk is recognized as such, especially by the casual observer.  Yet it’s safe to say that most large hawks seen in North America are in fact red-tailed hawks.

These predators live and breed at White Rock Lake, yearlong inhabitants who outnumber all other hawk species in the area.  I see them often, and they kettle[1] in vast numbers that appear like a tornado made with birds.  I’ve seen many variations, including leucistic[2] individuals, light and dark morphs, and adults and juveniles (between whom much plumage variation occurs).

However, the majority of the red-tailed hawks in this area fit in two subspecies, B. j. borealis and B. j. fuertesi.  So when one flew by me yesterday evening, it caught my attention as it looked nothing like our usual suspects.  In fact, my first impression called itself white-tailed hawk.  Why?  I stood facing into the setting sun when the bird soared by me, so I had blinding light in my face when the buteo landed in a nearby tree and showed white along the top third of its tail.

I laughed at myself.  White-tailed hawks do not travel this far north.  In fact, they hug the lower third of the Texas coast and become more numerous south of the Mexico border.  The last time I saw that species was in May when I visited the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

So what might this beast be?  I had to know.  And as I moved by it and into a better position to see it, I realized its rarity in this area and its singular beauty.  Rather than a white-tailed hawk, it was a white-headed hawk.  More specifically, it was a Krider’s red-tailed hawk.

A Krider's red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a treetop (2009_10_23_032794)

Often confused with white-tailed and ferruginous hawks, the third and unexpected comparison hit me when two people ran over to celebrate their first-ever sighting of a bald eagle.  I stifled a laugh only because that thought had not occurred to me.  Though truthfully, I understood their assumption: dark(-ish) body, white head, large size, bird of prey.  Making the leap to bald eagle suddenly felt easy.  Nevertheless, to my mind it never stopped being a buteo, a large hawk.

I felt joy in explaining to the couple that the bird they looked at was as rare in Dallas as a bald eagle, but it was in fact not an eagle at all.  They listened intently as I pointed out a few differences and some of the telltale signs that indicated its true identity.  Not once did they look disappointed, for what their eyes rested on lost no magic and no beauty simply because its name changed.

A Krider's red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a treetop (2009_10_23_032829)

Identifiable though it may be, the Krider’s red-tailed hawk is often listed as a “white morph” of B. j. borealis, the “typical red-tailed hawk” most people would recognize.  To explain a bit further, Cornell’s Birds of North America puts it like this:

B. j. “kriderii” does not have a breeding range distinct from those of other subspecies, meaning it cannot, by definition, be a valid subspecies; instead, its breeding range occupies the sw. portion of that of B. j. borealis, and it winters chiefly in the Great Plains.

That tickles me.  We define a subspecies as requiring “breeding range distinct” from other subspecies, hence a singular population of birds who occupy a predictable area and demonstrate predictable traits cannot be a subspecies since that population lives and breeds within the territory of another subspecies.  It amazes me sometimes how people become so hung up on anthropocentric limits that they cannot see how nature doesn’t care about our definitions.  Nature does what it does anyway, all without concern for our limitations.

A Krider's red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a treetop (2009_10_23_032824)

Were Krider’s red-tailed hawks to be “by definition” a subspecies, I doubt the birds would notice.  They do not fill the territory of either subspecies with whom they are associated, but in fact they fill their own niche in the northern range of the Rocky Mountains.  They produce offspring who look like the parents that gave life to them, migrate to a definable area for winter and back to a predictable space for summer, and have repeatable and unquestionable physical traits that differentiate them from all other hawks, let alone all other buteos.

A Krider's red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a treetop (2009_10_23_032826)

Despite semantic arguments, I and the couple who stood with me never once thought less of the bird.  Its stunning presence and unique visage offered to us a mystical evening with a creature we could not disregard.  So long as the hawk sat in the treetop, we watched, each of us mesmerized, enchanted, spellbound.  No matter what one might assume it to be, no matter how versed in or innocent of bird identification one might be, nothing about the encounter could be called mundane.

A Krider's red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a treetop (2009_10_23_032809)

Never having seen this variety here in North Texas, I let it envelope me as a warm blanket might cloak me in winter’s cold.  I let the camera dangle by my side after only a handful of shots.  No matter its taxonomic disposition, this Krider’s red-tailed hawk will never be considered anything less than matchless, a nonpareil visitor who gave me an unexpected surprise—and a profound gift.

— — — — — — — — — —

Notes:

[1] ‘Kettling’ is the term used when hawks fly together and spiral upward on thermals in a group.  A kettle of hawks often is mistaken for circling vultures.  This activity occurs most often during autumnal and vernal migrations when a group of traveling hawks prepares to leave after resting and/or eating.

[2] Leucism is akin to partial albinism, except it is a reduction in all pigmentation types and not just melanin.  It manifests from minor loss of color to significant loss of color—and even to a total loss.  Unlike albinism, however, leucism results in pure white being left behind (whereas albinism results in pale yellows or other weak hues since melanin is turned off but other pigments are left on).

8 thoughts on “An unexpected surprise”

  1. Krider’s red-tailed hawk. Jason, he’s stunning. Oh, my. And definitely a profound gift, for YOU.

    You mentioned Bald Eagle. One flew over my house on Monday. No doubt – Bald Eagle. A profound gift. But I did not have a camera. LOL!

    1. Thank you, Mary! Stunning was in the list of words that jumped into my mind as I looked at this beautiful creature. Definitely a gift.

      I’m so sorry about the eagle. Part of me laughed with you since the last time I tried to photograph a bald eagle I ended up with several pictures of the inside of my car door instead (since I couldn’t stop in the middle of road construction for a photo shoot).

      But the other side of the coin is this: Sometimes it’s better to see nature–truly see it and feel it, I mean–rather than fumbling with a camera hoping to get a photo or two. One thing I’ve learned through all my nature photography is that the lens can blind us to what’s really there, so sometimes it’s best to forget the images and lose ourselves in the real experience instead.

    1. Quite right, Mature4evr. A friend of mine once said she found it curious that predators have a singular beauty that attracts like nothing else. This raptor definitely proved that rule.

  2. “Would that I might once see the world through the eyes of someone else, see the beauties they see that I miss, see the marvels they ponder that I ignore.”

    A very moving statement. Well captured and written. Just wanted to let you know.

    1. I hope you had a chance to get out and about, Amber. And I’m with you on this hawk: for a ubiquitous species, red-tails sure have some majestic surprises lurking in their midst.

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