Bird identification: What is that bird?

I was minding my own business, belting out Christmas carols while driving along the chemin Lac des loups (Wolf Lake Road) on December 14. Musing about the “no snow situation,” — and longing for the white stuff to blanket fields and woods — my attention was suddenly caught by a large black bird perched on a fencepost.

Carols vapourized. My brain immediately kicked into gear: what was that? Immediately I stopped the car and backed up, as quietly as possible. Amazingly, the bird waited, perhaps as curious as I. Stopping directly opposite it, the raptor (bird of prey) and I regarded one another in silence. Mentally, I clicked through identifying field marks.

Its stocky, rounded build and blunt, short tail identified it as a buteo.

(What’s a buteo? The Field Guide to Birds East of the Rockies by Roger Tory Peterson tells us: “Large thick-set hawks with broad wings and wider rounded tails. Habitually soar high in wide circles. Much variation: sexes similar, females larger. Young birds are usually streaked below. Black morphs often occur. Food: rodents, rabbits; sometimes small birds, reptiles, grasshoppers.”)

Underside of tail: whitish, black bar at tail tip.

Chubby body. Resembled a chubby chicken. Was the bird actually that big, or were the feathers simply fluffed up? Probably both: a dense body whose feathers were fluffed up for warmth. Probably.

Black body. Dense black or perhaps dark brown on breast and back.

Yellow. Feet yellow.

Suddenly, with a burst of energy, the raptor took off. Large wingspan, I noted.

Look beneath the wings: black wrist patches! (But it couldn’t be the rough-legged hawk, I thought to myself. Rough-leggeds are a light brown with white, streaked breast. But what about those wrist patches underneath the wing, I wondered…hmmm.)

And then it was gone. Naturally, I did not have my camera with me nor did I have my binoculars. Drat!

Sunday, December 16, off to my friend’s house for brunch at 11:30. No raptor on the fencepost. But, after 2:30, while driving home, there it was. A large black chubby silhouette perched on a tree in the middle of a field.

Monday, December 17: telephone birder Tony Beck in Ottawa and Ladysmith raptor specialist Jo-Ellen Cushing. From my description, as above, could they help me? Could it be a Swainson’s?

I first reached Jo-Ellen, who noted that the Prairies are a Swainson’s home territory. “It wouldn’t be likely,” she noted. “Perhaps a red-tailed hawk,” she offered.

Red tail? Mentally I thought to myself, “I don’t think so.” But, keeping one’s mind wide open is critical when trying to ascertain what a new sighting might be. My bird book was at the ready, so I flipped to page 156 and looked. There, right in front of my nose was what’s called the “Harlan’s Red-Tailed.”

I was getting excited. Whatever it was, I knew I’d not seen one before. Could it be a Harlan’s, I asked Jo-Ellen? “Well, it could be, but their territory is more regularly the north: Alaska and north-central Canada and the States.”

Okay. So, what else could it be? “I’d give Tony a call, if I were you. I’m interested in what he’d say.”

Yes: Tony Beck is a noted Ottawa-area birder who travels the Ottawa Valley as well as the world leading nature tours featuring bird identification. He has also given bird workshops at Cushing Nature Retreat in Ladysmith.

Tony was keen to help. “Hawks are tricky to identify,” he said supportively. “All our hawks have their dark phases and to identify them you have to look for very subtle differences. Adult dark phase rough-legged hawks are quite common where you are.”

Tony knows the Pontiac intimately, for his parents have a family cottage at Leslie Lake. He grew up exploring the woods and pastureland here, photographing nature as he explored. As well, he visits us at our farm from time to time, so he knows the Steele Line, too.

From my description, particularly the dark wrist patches under the wing, Tony suggested that what I saw was probably a rough legged, dark phase. He concurred with Jo-Ellen that it was highly unlikely that it wouldn’t be a Swainson’s.

“What book are you using as a guide?,” he asked. When I told him, he chuckled, agreeing with me that the Peterson guide offers skimpy information. “You need the Hawks of North America,” he added, “a second edition has just been released. It’s authoritative and has great pictures, too.”

So, there you have it: bird identification is not always easy and in fact can be challenging if not perplexing. However, what’s important is to train yourself to mentally click through a mental checklist of the bird’s characteristics, from general to specific. Write them down if you can. Observe everything: from general body shape to size and shape of tail, through to characteristic behaviors, including such things as flight pattern or even its motion on the ground.

And, procuring at least one bird identification book is imperative. Other than that, taking a workshop with the likes of Tony Beck is a worthwhile endeavour, as well as distinct pleasure. To find out more about his courses and availability, contact Tony at


Merry Christmas to you all… and, keep your bird feeders topped up!


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes from her farm near Quyon. Contact her at