“Liggy” the light morph harlani

Over the weekend, Neil Paprocki caught and outfitted this light morph harlani with a GPS/GSM transmitter in Northern Idaho.

The members of our group decided that this harlani, the first bird to be tagged for the winter 2021/2022 field season, is to be named “Liggy” in honor of our mentor and friend Jerry Liguori. “Liggy” will be our flagship bird as we work to understand the unique plumage characteristics of harlani, and how this outstanding subspecies relates to the rest of the Red-tailed Hawk populations across North America.

Four birds join the project, in collaboration with Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station

In October, Bryce had the privilege of visiting the Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station (CGORS), a long-term fall migration monitoring station along the shore of Lake Michigan in central Wisconsin. Each year, strong winds from the west cause a large number of migrants to build up along the shore as they move south. CGORS is uniquely situated to take advantage of this build up, and capture and band migrants. Although this has been a long-term site, the banding effort has provided only glimpses into where the individuals passing through this region come from, and where they go. Because of this, CGORS was interested in collaborating with the Red-tailed Hawk Project to add to our efforts to understand movement in the Great Lakes region, and gain some insight into the birds they interact with each fall.

In the end, Sue Kaehler and Danny Erickson put out four transmitters on some stunning individuals. To see these four individuals in more detail, visit the Movement Ecology page.

One individual, Otto, is fairly typical in appearance for the borealis that breed in Wisconsin. The bird currently seems to maintain a winter territory only kilometers west of the research station near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It is likely that this bird will maintain this territory all winter, and may breed at the same location, and so opens up the opportunity for comparative work between winter territories of resident birds relative to migrants.

For instance, after being tagged, Madison moved down to Kentucky where it seems to have found a winter territory. Comparing the differences in winter territory between individuals and populations, as well as the characteristics of these locations, will give us insight into potential factors that drive differential behaviors in seasonal movements, as well as what factors contribute to a high quality wintering site. Another notable difference between these two birds is their age – Madison is a second-cycle and so may provide insight into how movements and territories may change across the annual cycle as birds age and become more experienced.

As our scope continues to grow, tagging second-cycle individuals and residents will become more important to better understand the factors involved in governing the different movement strategies between individuals and populations. We really appreciate CGORS for joining our effort and enabling us to better understand the intricacies in the life of the Red-tailed Hawk.

Special thanks to everyone at CGORS that assisted with getting these transmitters out, especially Jenn Schneiderman for her excellent holds.

Michigan to Kentucky: Movement Update

As we approach mid-November there is a lot to report on as our Michigan Red-tailed Hawks head towards their wintering grounds. So far, we have gotten data from 9 of the 11, hopefully we hear from the others. Here is a quick update on 7 of our birds we have heard from. First up are the new birds that have checked in over the last few weeks.


A gorgeous Northern bird that recently dumped a ton of data including his breeding location. This is our only tagged MI bird that bred in Northern Quebec. He was approximately 115km northwest of a town called Matagami. We are still waiting on a backlog of data to come in so we do not know where he is currently but he is definitely on the move.


We hadn’t heard from this bird since initially deploying the transmitter on April 2nd. The reason being is that on the same day we tagged her she crossed the Straits and reached her breeding grounds in Northern Ontario, a non-stop flight of about 235 km! She settled in the boreal forest near Shoals Provincial Park. She departed at the end of October and used the straits again, this time flying over Bois Blanc Island. Her last signal indicated she was just north of Grayling, MI.


Out of all our MI tagged birds, Trinity has bred the furthest north. She bred in Northern Ontario just southwest of Polar Bear Provincial Park! This was amazing to see since this habitat is essentially open tundra with probably a slim selection of large trees to nest in which is what these birds prefer. Trinity departed near the end of October and also used the straits area once again. She crossed over Mackinac Island. Currently she is near Hustonville, Kentucky approximately 1,800 km from her breeding location.


She decided to settle and breed right on the edge of the boreal forest in Northern Ontario about 85km northeast of Hearst. Sam also used the straits area during her fall movement crossing at Saint Martin Bay and then flying over Bois Blanc Island. Sam is currently following closely behind Trinity and is currently north of Aberdeen, Indiana. It looks as though she will be heading towards Kentucky as well. She is roughly 1250km from her breeding grounds.


We actually just received data from Morpheus last week for the first time since mid-April. Morpheus also bred in Northern Ontario. He bred in what could be described as Hudson plains habitat just like Trinity. Morpheus was about 60km southwest of the first nation town of Attawapiskat, Ontario. This is another amazing breeding location to document. We currently do not know Morpheus’s current location, but hopefully in the coming weeks we will get the rest of the backlogged data from the summer.

Patagium: When we first reported on Patagium we thought she had initiated her migration after hanging out near Villebois in Quebec for a few days in early October. It turns out she would end up flying back and forth between Villebois and her breeding location another 4 times before initiating her migration around Oct 17th. She is currently near Elliot Lake in Ontario and appears to be heading to the Straits region again. It will be interesting to see where she crosses.

Rowan: Rowan has slowly been working his way down through MI over the past month making long stopovers all along the way. As of yesterday, he is just south of Montpelier, Ohio. It appears he has found some nice fragmented forest patches mixed with agricultural fields. It will be interesting to see how much longer he takes to reach his winter territory.

Dark morphs tagged in Kansas breed in sympatry with harlani

Most of our birds are back on the grid as they finish their fall migration. As a result, we have breeding locations to share – perhaps the most exciting of which are the dark putative ‘non-harlani‘ birds.

Below are the breeding locations for the remainder of our tagged harlani, as well as individuals we tagged in Kansas last winter as an effort to better understand the breeding origin of dark birds wintering in the Great Plains.


Unfortunately, the third dark morph we tagged last winter is the one bird we have not heard from yet this fall. But, we last received locations when it was headed into Alaska, so we can be reasonably sure it is a breeder from that area.

As you can see, the dark birds we tagged that lack typical harlani characteristics, including the first two birds in our study, breed in sympatry with harlani. This is exciting, but not entirely unexpected. We knew before that these types breed in Alaska from our observations at Gunsight Mountain, Alaska during spring migration (Check out this collection of photographs), and from observations on the breeding grounds (see Bryce’s observations near Anchorage), and a bird very similar to Hathor that Rob Domenech tagged that bred near Wasilla, AK.

Does this mean they are harlani? Or are they intergrades? If so, intergrades between which taxa? Or is the explanation much more complicated? These are unanswerable questions at the moment, but luckily we have the blood samples to do genomic work that should help us understand things. No matter what the explanation, it is sure to be interesting.

There are many plumage characteristics that separate these dark birds from what we consider typical harlani plumage. Perhaps the most striking is the tail, as you can see in the image above that illustrates the diversity in tail plumage that can be found in Red-tailed Hawks breeding in this area of North America. If these are all part of the same subspecies, harlani, then it increases the phenotypic diversity in this taxon to an incredible degree. In that case, it begs the question of why and how such diversity is maintained in this population, and not others. To help understand this, we plan to add more samples to see if this pattern holds, and to start digging into genomic data for the samples we already have. Some exciting stuff ahead, so keep checking in for more updates.

Dark Morphs in Minnesota

Hi, everyone! My name is Allie, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Here in Duluth, fall migration is incredible, featuring high numbers of Red-tailed Hawks showcasing different plumages. Dark morph Red-tailed Hawks migrating and wintering in Minnesota are especially beloved by the raptor community.

Why is this?

Well, dark morph Red-tailed Hawks are not very common east of the Rocky Mountains. Western subspecies, like B.j. calurus and B.j. harlani, are polymorphic, meaning individuals can present dark, light, and intermediate plumages. In Minnesota, and all throughout eastern North America, Red-tailed Hawk subspecies, like B.j. borealis and B.j. abieticola, are currently known to be essentially monomorphic – only presenting variations of light plumage. Nevertheless, there are dark morphs observed during migration/winter in eastern parts of the Red-tailed Hawks’ geographic range. Thus, their rare presence is treasured and begs these two questions…

Which subspecies do these dark morphs represent, and where are they from?

In collaboration with Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, I am collecting genetic material from all dark morph birds captured at Hawk Ridge in order to determine which subspecies they are more closely related to. Additionally, I am deploying satellite transmitters on three adult dark morph Red-tailed Hawks captured in Minnesota during migration or on the wintering grounds.

Featured below are the two birds we’ve deployed transmitters on. Manley (a second-cycle bird) was captured in Savage, MN in February and Trudi (an after third-cycle bird) was captured close to Duluth, MN last week. So far, we know Manley has summered (but probably did not breed) in northern Manitoba, and Trudi has made it as far south as Indiana within a few days! Here’s hoping we will get a better picture of their full annual cycle over the next several years. Stay tuned!



Great Lakes Movement

After deploying all of our Michigan units this past April we have been patiently waiting for our birds to check back in and provide us with breeding locations. Luckily, fall migration has begun for adult Red-tails here in the East, and because of that we now have information on 2 more of our birds. Normally the peak movement of adult Red-tails here in the East is mid-October so more birds should be on the move soon.

Our first MI bird to provide us with information is Rowan. This bird bred on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Ontario about 12 miles Northeast from the town of Marathon. Rowan departed his breeding grounds on September 23rd to begin his migration. He crossed the straits area at almost the exact same spot from spring which is amazing to see (See map below). He is currently stopped over in Roscommon Red Pine Natural Preserve in Michigan. We can’t wait to see where he spends the Winter.

Our second bird to check in was Patagium a gorgeous adult Red-tailed hawk of the abieticola subspecies. This subspecies is also known as the Northern Red-tail. Patagium also bred in Ontario but this bird decided to settle on a patch of boreal forest North of Lake Abitibi close to the border with Quebec. She currently is outside of a town called Villebois in Quebec about 12-15 miles Southeast of her summer breeding territory.

Be sure to stay tuned as migration picks up, and we continue to get more data from our other tagged Red-tails.

Fall migration has started, as told by our harlani moving south!

The first three birds to check in after a summer off-grid are three of our harlani that we tagged last winter in Kansas and Nebraska. Fortunately, all three transmitters worked great and we now have nesting locations and some fine scale movement data! Here are their tracks to date:

There are still a lot of birds that have yet to send in their summer data, so we will soon have more to report. For now, enjoy these tracks!

Osborne is carrying a transmitter purchased by Luke Klicka and Peru State College in Nebraska. We really appreciate Luke’s willingness to collaborate on this work!

Bryce’s 2021 breeding captures

From Bryce: This photo sums up my summer in a very simple way. 40 birds – the result of countless hours, over 20,000 miles of driving to trap in 7 states, and sample 5 of the 14 recognized Red-tailed Hawk subspecies. When I set out from New York in late April, I had no idea how successful I’d be as I tried to trap birds during the breeding season. Fortunately, as I head back east in two weeks I’ll reflect on my success, and that I learned a great deal about this species in some very special parts of North America.

Next time you read a paper, or more simply hear or read a fact about a bird, consider the amount of time and effort it takes for us to learn these seemingly simple facts. Scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge is costly, and every time I learn something new from reading a paper, or even a google search, I take a moment to appreciate that cost.

More birds added to our project thanks to the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch

Bryce recently spent a week at the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch in Mackinaw City, Michigan, where he and Nick Alioto deployed eleven units on migrant Red-tailed Hawks. Nick will be conducting a movement ecology study focused on migrants in the great lakes region, and we’re excited to see what insights he gains from these tagged birds. Take a look below at the excellent new birds, and stay tuned to learn where these birds breed.


Trap location: Cheboygan, Michigan

Trap date: 3 April 2021


Trap location: 2 April 2021

Trap date: 2 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 2 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 4 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 4 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 4 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 5 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 5 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 5 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 5 April 2021


Trap location: Mackinaw, Michigan

Trap date: 5 April 2021

Thanks to Nick Alioto and Ed Pike, and the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch for their willingness to collaborate, and to Leah Rudge for her help! To learn more about their work, visit http://www.mackinacraptorwatch.org.