The NBRC has completed reviews of another packet of records. Among other things, this packet contained three records for Harris's Hawks. While one of these records (2011-016, Las Vegas Wash, 12/20/11) was not endorsed (description insufficient, according to a majority of the committee members), the other two records were both endorsed. For both of the endorsed cases, identification was never in question -- excellent photos and other documentation provided unmistakeable evidence of that identification. But for a species like Harris's Hawk, which is one of the favorite hawks used by falconers, the question of origin is of paramount importance. Falconers do lose birds. And those birds may show up pretty near anywhere. So when such a species shows up out of range, (and very far out of range in one of our cases), the suspicion that a wayward falconer's bird might be involved must be dealt with.
Record 2011-105, the astounding record of four Harris's Hawks inhabiting a residential area in Boulder City, first observed and photographed by Maureen Kammerer on 12/14/11 and still present, was one of the cases. There were a couple of specific issues that raised concerns. For one thing, photos (particularly of the immature bird) showed extensive feather wear, particularly a very tattered tail. "Cage-wear" is one of the pieces of evidence often cited when a committee chooses not to endorse a record of a species that might have been an escaped bird. And then there was the location -- several photographs showed the bird(s) sitting on a fence surrounding a home in Boulder City. Surely an escapee would be likely to stay near familiar territory. However, both of these concerns were dealt with by the committee. As to the very worn tail feathers, a falconry expert with a great deal of Harris's Hawk experience was consulted. He stated that wild Harris's Hawks, because of their habit of chasing prey on the ground in scrub habitats, often receive considerable damage to the tail. He was convinced that worn rectrices were not an indication of captive origin. And as to the residential location, for some reason, that's just something Harris's Hawks do! They are regularly found in their normal range in Arizona living in the suburbs. So those two arguments do not seem to argue against natural occurrence. One other fact argues strongly FOR natural occurrence. None of these birds had leg bands. Many of the great photos provided by the multiple submitters of documentation for this record showed the legs clearly. The falconry expert asserted that virtually all falconers put permanent leg bands on their birds, and that these are extremely unlikely to come off. Add the fact that this species has been showing up further and further from its native range in recent years, with many of these extralimital sightings being endorsed by state records committees, and the NBRC's unanimous endorsement of the record comes as no surprise.
Record 2011-014, a single Harris's Hawk at Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, photographed by Brian Day, the refuge manager, on 3/27/11, was an even more difficult challenge for the committee. Excellent photos showed that there were no leg bands. The written description of the bird's behavior sounded reasonable for a wild Harris's Hawk. Plumage appeared to be in good condition. So far, so good. But, while Boulder City is actually pretty close to the regular breeding range of this species, the Sheldon bird was hundreds of miles from any known population. In fact, research by committee members determined that this record appears to be the second northernmost record for the species ever to be endorsed by any state committee. (The Nebraska records committee has endorsed two records at approximately the same latitude, one slightly further north than 2011-014, one just a tiny bit south. One of our members contacted the Nebraska committee to double-check the report.) This record required two circulations -- there were two negative votes on the first round. On the second round, there was one negative vote. The NBRC bylaws state that a record receiving no more than one negative vote is considered endorsed.
But Harris's Hawk was not the "raptor of the packet!" Nor was the Mississippi Kite (Corn Creek, 5/21/03), endorsed unanimously. Nor the White-tailed Kite (Pahrump, 1/10/12), also unanimously endorsed. No, the most exciting raptor -- make that the most exciting bird -- reviewed in this packet, and one of the most exciting birds in the whole world, was the Gyrfalcon found (and photographed) at Stillwater NWR by Bill Henry. Unanimous NBRC endorsement of this record (2012-001) established this regal falcon (at one time only royalty could hunt with a Gyrfalcon) on the Nevada State Checklist. (I used the word "established" -- the species was already on the checklist provided by Carolyn Titus and adopted by the NBRC at its formation in 1994. However, the committee had never reviewed a record for the species until now.) The Gyrfalcon was seen by a number of Nevada birders and provided great joy to all. (I'm not included in that number, alas, but it's not from lack of trying.)
Another fabulous record in this packet was a Connecticut Warbler (Floyd Lamb Park, found by Andrew Lee on 9/3/11). This is one of the most difficult warblers to observe in western North America. (It's not all that easy to see even where it's supposed to be.) But there was never any doubt about whether or not to endorse this record. Great photos, and an absolutely wonderful video showing the bird walking around on the ground, were totally convincing for all committee members.
A number of other warbler records were endorsed, including one Yellow-throated Warbler (Dyer,6/11/11), one Prairie Warbler (Dyer, 9/13/11), one Blackburnian Warbler (Pahranagat NWR, 9/23/07), and one Painted Redstart (Corn Creek, 5/7/11). These four species are in the "very hard to find in Nevada, but not quite a Connecticut!" category.
A bit more regular for the state is Worm-eating Warbler. A sighting at Pahranagat NWR on 10/8/10 was considered to be the same bird previously reviewed (and endorsed) by the committee from a sighting at the same location on 9/26/10. There are now eleven NBRC-endorsed records for this species.
Five Tennessee Warbler records were endorsed by the committee -- Red Rock National Conservation Area, 5/23/11; Dyer, 5/30/11; Floyd Lamb Park, 9/8/11; Dyer, 9/11/11; and Dyer, 10/8/11. There are now fifteen committee-endorsed records for this species, with at least one record in five of the previous ten years.
There were three endorsed warbler records for species which have subsequently been removed from the review list (i.e, stil great birds to find in Nevada, but with enough endorsed records and a predictable enough pattern of visits to remove the requirement for the rigorous review process by the NBRC.) One Chestnut-sided Warbler (Pahranagat NWR, 9/13/11), one Palm Warbler (Miller's Rest Stop, 9/16/11), and one Prothonotary Warbler (Lida, 9/16/04).
A record for Yellow-throated Vireo (Miller's Rest Stop, 6/12/11) was also unanimously endorsed. That's the fifth endorsed record for that species. The weekend of 6/11/11 and 6/12/11 will be forever remembered by one birder (um, yeah, that would be me) as "Yellow-throated weekend!" (See Yellow-throated Warbler above.)
A record for Hepatic Tanager from Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, 6/7/11, went through two rounds of reviews but did not receive committee endorsement. Members of the committee felt that Summer Tanager had not been effectively eliminated by the extensive documentation. Of course, as with all records submitted to the committee, endorsed or not, the record remains in the database and the documentation remains available for future researchers (who sometimes reach different conclusions.)
Secretary, Nevada Bird Records Committee