Written By Tom Foulkrod.

Posted on August 29th, 2016.

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Something tickled my peripheral vision, and I turned my head in time to see a white raptor gliding across the valley.

Last March, I was driving up the West Branch Delaware River Valley on my way home from work. There wasn't any snow, and the deciduous trees were still bereft of leaves. Something tickled my peripheral vision, and I turned my head in time to see a white raptor gliding across the valley. It landed on a powerline pole about half a mile away. I didn’t have binoculars, so I couldn’t make out much except its white color and large size. The river was between us, so I zipped back to the last bridge. Unfortunately, by the time I tracked across to where the bird had been perched, it was gone.

What had it been? A big white bird…snowy owl? Barn owl? Maybe a male marsh hawk? An atypical immature bald eagle?

After that day, I was eager to see the bird again and try to identify it. The situations played out almost comically for several weeks, as the bird continued to elude me or fly just out of range for me to get a good look. My significant other took to calling the bird my “white whale.”

The most enjoyable of these adventures involved meeting some really gracious landowners. One day I spotted the bird perched near the road, so I bee-lined for it. With binoculars in my lap, I was just pulling off the road when it turned and took flight. It didn't go far; in fact it landed in a large oak tree that I'd seen it in before. So close! It was private property, so I aimed for the side door of the house. I quickly secured permission (more on that later), stalked around the house, and followed a drainage ditch to within 200 feet of the raptor. I didn't have long to see it, but it was the best view I've had. It was a hawk and not an owl. Its bulky build and wings marked it as a buteo (the family of hawks that includes red-tails). I also finally confirmed that it was an albino.

albino hawk

The best picture I’ve been able to take so far of my white whale, er, hawk.

With the light fading, my white whale glided off, so I made my exit too. Walking back to the landowners’ house, I was recovering from the thrill of the chase. It was then that I thought about what this whole scene must have looked like from the landowners’ perspective:

  1. A stranger pulled hastily off the road and peered at their property with binoculars while using his car for cover.
  2. Said stranger then dropped into a military crouch (to hide my approach from the hawk) and ran up to their front door.
  3. The very strange stranger spoke in excited jibberish: "Hi. Tom. White raptor. Your backyard. Please. Maybe a snowy owl. Thanks!"

Returning to their door, I made sure to walk at a more respectable pace. This time when I met them, I explained my purpose and enthusiasm. I pulled out my bird field guide and talked about what I’d seen. They in turn gave me more insight too. This was the third year they had noticed the albino, and they were certain it was a full time resident in their area.

All this information collected, I still can't identify the hawk. Sorry to be anti-climactic, but without the tell-tale plumage, so far I can only make an educated guess. I know it’s a large, non-migratory, resident buteo that spends most of its time perched in fields or gliding over field and brush lots. My guess from all that is that my white whale is an albino red-tailed hawk, but I don't know. If it calls at me with a loud, “Keeeeeeer,” I’ll take that as confirmation. Until then, I’ll keep on feeling a strong kinship with Captain Ahab.

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