Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] White-tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus, photographed in Sacramento, California. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: John del Rio, autumn 2007 [larger view].
More images by this photographer can be seen on the front page and in the gallery.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 idbirds
    February 24, 2009

    This is a White-tailed Kite. It has a long white tail, black patch on the front edge of the upper wing, small hooked bill, and black mask around each eye.

  2. #2 John Gall
    February 24, 2009

    Not on point, just a request for help with identifying a hawk(?).
    While standing outside at morning break here in east central Iowa, I was watching several small birds pecking about on the ground below a small tree. I was turning away from them when a hawk(?) with partially folded wings flashed across my field of view headed toward the small birds. I got the impression of light colored breast and the mottled brown of the rest of the bird. As he neared the small birds, they scattered and the hawk(?) flared vertically, giving me a brief top view. From head to tail, it seemed all mottled brown (similar to a hen Mallard) with the exception of a band of brilliant blue about an inch wide across each wing, right next to its body – from front to back, and parallel to its body. From this description, could you identify this bird for me?
    Please feel free to email me to keep the clutter from your site.

  3. #3 Michelle
    February 24, 2009

    Concur on the White-Tailed Kite. We’re supposed to have them in Washington, but I’m still waiting to see one. Beautiful birds.

  4. #4 Another Kevin
    February 24, 2009

    @John Gall

    It sounds from your description as if what you spotted was an American kestrel, _Falco spaverius_. The blue head and
    coverts on the male are pretty distinctive, and it’s one
    of the commonest raptors in the Midwest. Check out the
    pictures over at .

  5. #5 John Gall
    February 24, 2009

    @ Another Kevin
    Went and looked at your link and several others. Finally found top view of the female. Nope. Wasn’t the American Kestrel as there was no band of blue on the wing tops. The bird I saw had an inch-wide stripe of bright rich blue across each wing where the wing joins the body.
    Thanks, though.

  6. #6 Brent
    February 24, 2009

    I agree that this is a white-tailed kite. I have a nesting pair in my neighborhood. They’ve raised three to maturity each of the the last two years.

    John, did you get any impression of the shape of the wings, falcon vs. accipiter? Male merlins can be pretty bluish. The behavior suggests a sharp-shinned, which is also blue-gray on the back in adults. I can’t think of anything with the kind of stripe you suggest. Mutant teal with delusions of hawk-hood after eating ergotized grain?

  7. #7 JohnB
    February 24, 2009

    White-tailed Kite and I’ve only seen one on a trip through California a long time ago. Too bad we don’t have them here in NY.

    John Gall: You probably saw an first year juvenile accipiter (either a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned). The blue you saw could have been a freshly moulted adult feather, which would account for the “blue” and the symmetry. The males of both species are much bluer than their female counterparts, so my guess would be a male Coops…and their breasts tend to be whiter than sharpies (pin-stripey markings rather than bolder blotches).

  8. #8 John Gall
    February 25, 2009

    @ Another Kevin
    Head was not blue.

    Wing shape reminds me of an eagle – not very pointy.
    Mutant teal – heh.

    John B.
    Would a freshly moulted adult feather extend the entire width of each wing from front to trailing edge? Do birds moult symmetrically?

    Thanks all for your help!

  9. #9 JohnB
    February 25, 2009

    John Gall: accipiters moult their major flight feathers in a descendant fashion (starting with primary #1 and progressing outward to #10 at the wingtip). Symmetry between the two wings is common, although not as frequently in the secondaries as the primaries. I can’t be sure that what you saw were moulted feathers, but that would be my best guess. At any rate, the attack mode you described is a classic accipter rushing ambush.

  10. #10 NateB
    March 6, 2009


    What city and state are your White-tailed Kites nesting in?

  11. #11 Alann
    May 21, 2009

    We spotted one of these on our farm on the Olympic Peninsula. At first we thought it was a falcon, but it was hunting over one of our hay fields very low. We’re not familiar with kites, but the swept back wings, black mask, and black feathers on the wings are identical to the kite above. Aren’t we a little far north for this bird?

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