Not all who wander are lost. There is a great black hawk in Portland that has become quite famous — but only he knows if he left Mexico because our squirrels taste better.
The great black hawk is a native of Central and South America. Until now, you could say it never, ever leaves its tropical home. But this one did. It appears to be the same bird that was spotted on South Padre Island in Texas last spring. It’s a young bird with a distinct plumage characteristic that is identical in photos taken there and here. Somehow, it journeyed all the way to Maine, where it was first spotted in Biddeford last August.
It disappeared for a while and then astonished birders again by popping up a couple of weeks ago. It was rediscovered in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park at the end of November, where it seemed to be doing pretty well, feasting on gray squirrels. He was sitting quietly in a tree when I first saw him, and there was a squirrel working its way through the bare branches just two trees behind it. Apparently our squirrels are tasty and stupid.
The great black hawk is about the size of an osprey, which is larger than our resident red-tailed hawk. It’s impressive enough to be mistaken for an immature bald eagle, but it has surprisingly long legs. It often hunts on the ground, chasing prey on foot. It enjoys a wide diet of rodents, crabs, reptiles, amphibians, and even birds and bats. Note to this bird: Maine’s reptile and amphibian supply may be short for the next few months, but help yourself to all the rodents you want.
Louis Bevier is a research biologist at Colby College. Like eagles, great black hawks take several years to mature, and go through multiple plumage changes. Louis reports that this bird is molting from the juvenile plumage it would have in its first year, to the immature plumage of a bird in its second molt cycle. Furthermore, it shows a pattern consistent with the subspecies normally found from Mexico to Panama, which is slightly different than the great black hawks found throughout South America. Louis is amazingly good at spotting such tiny clues. I am convinced that if you left him alone with a bird for longer than 15 minutes, he could figure out who its parents were.
So we know roughly how old the great black hawk is and where it came from. But why did it come here? It joins a short list of celebrity birds that have gained fame in Maine. On that list, I would include the western reef-heron that appeared in Kittery for several days in 2006. That species is found in southern Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, but never in North America. Like today’s great black hawk, people from all over the continent flew into Maine to see it.
I would include the little egret, a bird that normally ranges throughout Europe and Asia. One has been showing up in Scarborough Marsh for the last several years. I would add the red-billed tropicbird that has been returning to Seal Island near Isle au Haut for the last 14 years. You’d normally have to visit the Caribbean, the Galapagos, or the Gulf of California to see one. I’d include the Mexican violetear hummingbird that visited a Bar Harbor backyard in August 2007.
However, all of those celebrity birds are known to wander. Wandering is nature’s way of encouraging a species to expand its range. An animal with too small a territory can wink out of existence if something catastrophic happens, like a hurricane, epidemic, or oil spill. Great black hawks are not known to wander. They have a wide range and plenty of tropical food. Frankly, some individual birds just have a genetic screw loose, affecting navigation, like when we rely too much on smartphone Google maps. When birds get to Maine, the ocean stops them from going any farther east.
The big danger is that we treat celebrity birds like we treat celebrity people, surrounding them with paparazzi and interrupting public dining. Even if a bird seems unaffected by people, the admiring crowd can drive away its food. Fortunately for this hawk, gray squirrels in a downtown Portland park are not very shy of people. I do worry about a tropical hawk surviving a Maine winter, but on the other hand, we have a lot of squirrels.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.