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A Day at the Park—

In today’s hyperbolic world, exaggerated rhetoric is sometimes used to portray ordinary situations in superlative terms. Adjectives like ‘greatest,’ ‘biggest’ and ‘best’ are readily applied to any host of things. This tendency is especially prevalent among bird-watchers, as birds are routinely rated or prized for their relative rarity value. This “rare” label may result from species with limited or shrinking populations or endangered status or birds found at irregular seasons of the year. Vagrant birds, seen well outside their normal ranges, are a priority category that lights up social media and powers the extensive eBird network. A Roseate Spoonbill seen last September at Dover-Foxcroft and an errant White Pelican roaming the Maine-New Hampshire coastlines for several weeks are recent examples.

And then there’s the Great Black Hawk that first appeared in Biddeford in August before settling into Portland for an extended winter stay. This unlikely sighting generated a lofty designation, the “mega-rarity.” And, in this particular case, deservedly so. The initial detection and eventual identification of this extremely rare hawk at Biddeford happened almost accidently through a probing Facebook posting. After photographing this slightly different looking hawk (that resembles an immature Red-tailed Hawk to some degree), a curious Facebook user simply asked, “What is this bird?” As more people examined the posted photos, speculation about a possible Great Black Hawk gathered steam. And the rest is now history.

Not considered as a migratory species in the least, Great Black Hawks inhabit Central and South America. Last May a Texas sighting at South Padre Island established the first North American record, and detailed photo comparisons of the Texas and Maine sightings confirmed that it’s the identical individual. This young hawk’s plumage is developing well as it acquires the distinctive blackish body feathers and white tail with dark tailband of adulthood, a gradual process that spans three to four years and several molt cycles.

During a December 22nd holiday trip to Portland, we stopped at Deering Oaks Park, where the vagrant hawk spends much of its time feasting on gray squirrels, rats and rock pigeons. Dozens of squirrels scampered the grounds of the 55-acre park, bounding in all directions and spring-boarding between tree trunks. In their usual Neotropical haunts, Great Black Hawks feed primarily on small vertebrates, insects and reptiles. The bird’s longish yellow legs are undoubtedly helpful to fend off bites from squirming captured reptiles.

Upon our park arrival, a posse of expectant birders strolled the paved walkways. One couple had just driven from Massachusetts, joining throngs of other December birders aspiring to view the hawk. Meanwhile a hunched Cooper’s Hawk fed intently on pigeon remains on an overhead limb. Generally a woodland species, “Coops” also patrol random backyards and feeder stations, where Mourning Doves are common prey. On several other occasions, a competitive Red-tailed Hawk has temporarily rousted the black hawk from its park territory.

Soon an animated young birder rushed over toward us: “The hawk is just up the hill by some apartment buildings on Sherman Street!” Arriving at the street address, we observed the hawk perched sedately in a tall hardwood, patiently surveying the ground between buildings. Interested passers-by stopped to admire the now-famous hawk and get clearer views or deeper information. Will this city-bound hawk remain throughout the winter? No one knows, but he’s possibly made some dietary compromises while in the Pine Tree State: exchanging his more customary Mexican Gray Squirrel entrees for tasty Eastern Gray Squirrels. Bon appétit!