Hundreds of bird enthusiasts flocked to Biddeford, Maine, this week to get a glimpse of a hawk that has only been seen in the United States once before.
“There’s really no precedent for one to show up all the way up here,” said Doug Hitchcox, the staff naturalist at the Maine Audubon.
The great black hawk was first spotted on Monday by a woman who was vacationing in the area. She took a photo of the bird, not knowing much about it, and posted it on Instagram. By the middle of the week, photos of the bird had made it to the “What’s This Bird” and “ABA Rare Bird Alert” Facebook pages, much to the delight of birders across the country, who confirmed that it was indeed a rare great black hawk, said Hitchcox.
The great black hawk is native to Central and South America, with the heart of its geographic range in Brazil, so the fact that one was seen in Maine is astonishing, Hitchcox said.
Over the course of the week, birders from across the country migrated to Fortune Rocks Beach in Biddeford and the surrounding area to try to see the bird, causing traffic jams and parking spot shortages. There were birders from all over New England, as well as some from New York who got a speeding ticket as they rushed to see the hawk, and at least two from Arizona, Hitchcox said.
The only other time one of these birds was seen in the United States was in April, on South Padre Island off the coast of Texas, and “birders went nuts,” Hitchcox said.
The relatively recent sighting in Texas, combined with photos of the two birds’ underwings, are enough to make many birders, including Hitchcox, believe that the two birds are actually one and the same. The unique patterns that have manifested themselves on the bird’s feathers are identical in the photos, Hitchcox said.
The patterns “are like a fingerprint for the bird,” Hitchcox said. “That makes it even more exciting.”
Great black hawks have black body feathers, a white tail with one or two black bands, yellow legs, and a yellow cere above the beak.
The area the bird roamed before it was seen flying out to sea Thursday afternoon is near several ponds — perfect for the coastal bird.
“It’s kind of the perfect spot for it to be, besides being in the wrong hemisphere,” Hitchcox said.
The bird was probably born last summer. It has not been given a name, partly because the sex is unknown, and partly because “when there’s only one of them, it doesn’t need a name,” Hitchcox said.
The great black hawk, a raptor, hunts for its food. It feeds on reptiles, other small vertebrates, and large insects. Several people saw it flying around, raiding the nests of American robins and American goldfinches throughout the week, snatching chicks to be devoured, Hitchcox said.
The only other bird that compares to the great black hawk, in terms of the rarity of its sightings in Maine, is a variegated flycatcher, a South American bird, that was seen in 1977 a couple of miles north of where the great black hawk was seen. It was the first time such a bird was seen in the United States. Only a couple of birders have been able to see both birds, Hitchcox said.
Because the great black hawk sighting is so isolated, its presence in Maine does not appear to be part of a new trend or a change in the bird’s normal geographic range. If anything, it simply reinforces a pattern of vagrancy among birds, Hitchcox said.
“I’d call this a perfect example of natural selection,” he said. “This is a young bird that went too far and it’s probably going to be selected against.”
Whether or not the hawk will be seen in the area again remains to be seen, but its stay was a spectacle while it lasted.
“Already, it’s put on a quite a show,” Hitchcox said.Andres Picon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andpicon.