On June 28th, 2011, a trio of Mad Birders: Ali Wagner, Pat Folsom and Patti Haynes headed to Orleans County to help Patti achieve her 2011 goal of birding all fourteen Vermont counties in a single calendar year. Barr Hill in Greensboro was the target destination, but they were keeping track of every bird they saw in Washington, Caledonia, and Orleans Counties. After finding 53 species in Orleans County alone, they headed back to the Mad River Valley on Route 14 feeling quite satisfied with the day’s sightings and Patti was very pleased to have only one more county on her list.
They were still trying to ‘bird by car’ in Caledonia County, but when they crossed back into Washington County they all figured it was time to relax. Pat was driving and suddenly spotted a big white bird in a tree and exclaimed, “Oh, look!!!…” Patti looked over to the right and saw the bird and thought: ‘Holy macaroni Batman…a Snowy Owl???’ Ali, who had been ‘resting her eyes’ opened them up and wondered if she was still dreaming. Pat pulled the car off the road coming to a screeching halt and the trio held their collective breaths as they gazed upon the large snow white bird perched in an evergreen. They soon realized that it was a hawk, not an owl, by the head and face. They dared not move for fear of flushing the bird, so Pat passed her camera to Ali who took photos from the back seat. The bird remained unfazed, so Patti suggested Pat get out of the car to take another shot and that is the one you see above.
This bird had dark eyes, some dark primaries, and yellow legs. The beak was two toned: dark at the business end and light toward the head. The only thing that moved on the bird was its head. The raptor never changed position in the tree. The Mad Birders didn’t try to send it into flight but did talk about the tail, which they really could not see. The bird was not a true albino, because if that were the case, the bird would have had red eyes and a pink bill. Their conclusion was that this was a leucistic Red Tailed Hawk. Leucism is a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation in animals and humans.
They based their conclusion on their observations as well as the fact that a bird matching this description had been reported around Central Vermont for several years and they also surmised it was probably the same bird. In fact, Mad Birder Scott Sainsbury had seen and photographed a white hawk that showed a red tail in flight on April 17, 2010 over the Mad River in Moretown. Scott had named it el Blanco and one of Scott’s photos is shown below. Larry Clarfeld of North Branch Nature Center had also reported a similar sighting in Elmore. What a day for this trio of eagle-eyed Mad Birders!