It takes an eagle eye... to spot a Harlan's hawk

Posted: Friday, April 24, 2009

Their raspy scream seems to almost resonate in a person's primitive consciousness, bringing them back to a long-ago time in human evolution. Those with sharp eyes have probably seen them, perhaps sitting atop a spruce tree scanning for prey. Or, if luckier, spotted one riding the thermal updrafts, or soaring overhead, slowly turning circles high in the sky.

Photo By Joseph Robertia
Photo By Joseph Robertia
While at first glance this bird perched atop a spruce tree off of Kalifornsky Beach Road on Monday may look like a juvenile eagle, it is in fact a Harlan's hawk -- a very dark form of the red-tailed hawk -- which comes to Alaska and northwestern Canada to breed in the summer.

It is the Harlan's hawk -- a very dark form of the red-tailed hawk -- which comes to Alaska and northwestern Canada to breed in the summer.

"They nest on the Kenai Peninsula a fair amount. They will build their own nest or take over an old raven's nest. I've seen them in the Swanson Oil Field, the Kenai Golf Course, lots of places," said Todd Eskelin, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge who specializes in birds.

Describing a Harlan's hawk can be a bit tricky since their coloration can vary, particularly the tail feather region. Typically, though, a Harlan's hawk in Alaska is a very dark colored bird with a bit of mottling, and frequently lacks a red tail. It was once considered a separate species, but ornithologists discovered many individuals that were intermediate between Harlan's and more typical red-tailed Hawks.

"There is a tremendous amount of variation in the appearance of Harlan's. Basically, most people consider Harlan's a subspecies of red-tail, but some consider it a race rather than a subspecies. Here on the Kenai I would guess that roughly 90 percent of the red-tail type hawks I have seen in recent years have been Harlan's type," Eskelin said.

At first glance some novice birders could even mistake a Harlan's for a juvenile eagle, but Eskelin said on second glance the difference between an eagle and one of these hawks should be more obvious.

"In coloration, there's not a huge difference, but size-wise, Harlan's are so much smaller than a juvenile eagle, and they don't have the massive beaks of eagles either. They also have shorter tails, too," he said.

While Harlan's may look quite a bit different than the average red-tailed hawk, the lifestyle is very similar.

"Other than appearance Harlan's behave exactly like a red-tail that you would see down south. They hunt open country, even though they may live in thick, mature forests, which isn't a problem here on the Kenai since we have such a mosaic of habitats," Eskelin said.

As to their prey of choice, this too is similar to the Harlan's more southern counter parts.

"They're one of the largest soaring hawks, so you're not going to see these guys feeding like falcons, zipping through trees or going 90 miles an hour and drop into a flock of birds to grab one. Harlan's will soar high up waiting for an individual mouse to come out of its hole to grab. Mice and voles probably make up the bulk of their diet, but they're also capable of taking squirrels and small hares," Eskelin said.

For more information on Harlan's hawks or other local wildlife, visit the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge off of Ski Hill Road in Soldotna, or call 262-7021.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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