A great black hawk clings to a tree branch Thursday in Biddeford Pool. The Maine sighting of the raptor was rare even by national standards because its only other U.S. appearance was in South Padre Island, Texas. “That’s what makes this so special,” said a Maine Audubon official. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

BIDDEFORD — Birders drove from as far away as New York – and two women even caught a red-eye flight from Arizona – to get a glimpse of a rare great black hawk in Biddeford on Thursday.

The great black hawk is the most unusual bird identified in Maine this year – if not for decades. It is only the second time the hawk native to Central and South America has been seen in the United States, according to Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox.

Every year, birders in Maine identify three to four birds that had not previously been seen in the state. But only twice in the past four decades has a bird been found in Maine that is rarely or never seen in the U.S., Hitchcox said.

“That’s what makes this so special,” he said. “We get rare birds, but not on this scale. I think this is one for the record books.”

The great black hawk is typically found from Mexico down through South America. Mostly black with a yellow bill that has a black tip, it stands 2 feet tall and has a wingspan of 40 to 50 inches. There are white bars on the underside of the wings. The coastal bird of prey is often found near woodlands, where it feeds on reptiles, rodents, bats, birds, fish and amphibians. One of the raptors was seen this year in South Padre Island, Texas.

How this bird ended up in Maine is a mystery, Hitchcox said. But every year the state gets visits from birds – called vagrants by ornithologists – that fly far outside their normal geographic range.

“It is assumed that most vagrants do not survive – think of it as a great example of natural selection,” Hitchcox said. “Most migrants use environmental cues to time their migrations, especially the change in the amount of daylight in a day. So as days get shorter, it should tell that bird it is time to move on. Hopefully, it goes in the right direction.”

Nicole Koeltzow of Georgia, right, and Amanda Damin of Arizona get a glimpse of the great black hawk Thursday. Flying to Boston from Phoenix together, they came the farthest to see the rare bird. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

The great black hawk was first spotted Monday near Maddox Pond in Biddeford. Before long, the sighting was posted on the American Birding Association’s Facebook page. Hitchcox found the bird at 6 p.m. Wednesday near Fortunes Rocks Beach and posted his findings on the Maine birds listserv.

Birders from outside Maine saw Hitchcox’s post and headed to Biddeford.

“By this Saturday there will be hundreds. They’ll be driving or flying here,” said Tom Graham of Seabrook, New Hampshire, who came Thursday. “This place will be packed. You could make $1 million if you had a bus to bus them all in.”

Tim Healy and Mike Zito of Nassau County, New York, left at 3 a.m. Thursday morning to get a look at the bird, which they did when they drove into Fortunes Rocks Road at 8:30 a.m. They got a speeding ticket on the way, but said it was worth it.

“My birthday is tomorrow,” said Zito, 36. “This is kind of like a birthday bird. We feel very lucky.”

Like all raptors, the great black hawk is a fierce hunter. Birders on Thursday said they observed it disrupting groups of robins. And raptors being what they are, it could be gone in a day – or an hour.

“Raptors can have a huge range,” Hitchcox said. “They are notoriously hard to chase. A lot of people will take that risk. That’s the fun part of birding, the unknown chase.”

As of Thursday morning, Nicole Koeltzow of Leesburg, Georgia, and Amanda Damin of Phoenix, Arizona, had traveled the farthest to see the bird. The two friends were birding along the California coast when they saw Hitchcox’s post. They drove to Phoenix and got a direct flight to Boston, then drove to Maine early Thursday.

Koeltzow, 37, a wildlife biologist who has worked in 11 national parks, said it is part of her quest to have a “big year,” seeing as many bird species as possible within the ABA’s range. The hawk gave her 734 species.

Koeltzow said she is the youngest female birder in the American Birding Association to see more than 700 species in a year. She has a Facebook page dedicated to documenting the effort.

“It’s a whole journey. It’s quite expensive,” Koeltzow said. “I may go up the coast to see a red-billed tropic bird. I’d have to take a (tour). I’m weighing the expenses and whether I should see it while I’m here. But that’s what chasing is all about. It’s always a gamble. We could have flown here and not seen this hawk.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

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Twitter: FlemingPph

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