ID questions that confounded experts 30 years ago can be answered easily today — the trick is knowing the tricks
Published: December 22, 2011
I begin this column with an apology to you and other birders who traveled to New Jersey 30 years ago, raised glasses besides the likes of Clay Sutton, David Sibley, and me during one of Cape May Bird Observatory’s raptor-identification workshops, and after seven days, still had trouble telling apart Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks.
It wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t our fault, either.
Fact is, back in the stone-knives-and-bear-skin age of raptor identification, most of what we knew about distinguishing accipiters, the genus that includes Cooper’s, Sharpies, and Goshawks, had to do with tail shape and the amount and character of streaking on a juvenile bird’s breast. Heck, we were still counting tail bands on the hawks known as buteos and looking for sideburns on falcons. Small wonder you struggled.
This fall, I stood on the hawkwatch platform in Cape May Point State Park with co-leader Mike Crewe and 19 eager raptor acolytes ranging in experience from zero to modest. In less than two days, they were telling Sharp-shinneds from Cooper’s, Merlins from kestrels, and I don’t recall ever breathing the phrases “mustache mark” or “squared and notched tail.”
Why look for details when distinguishing characteristics are manifest? The trick is knowing the tricks. It just took us 30 years to learn them and then to figure out how to pass the information on to you.
Decades in the making
It’s hard to run through my standard boilerplate welcome-to-the-birding-workshop litany when scores of raptors are zipping by:
“Now just remember that the difference between an experienced birder and an inexperienced one is that, thus far, inexperienced birders have misidentified relatively few birds, but experienced birders have... Sharp-shinned overhead! Wingbeats quick and snappy. Looks like a flickering candle flame. And no head. Sharpies seem to have no head... misidentified thousands.”
“Identifying hawks in flight is 4000-level birdwatching and... Merlin going by on the right! Dark and direct. Dark and direct. Kestrels are overall pale. Merlins are overall dark, and the shortest distance between two points is spelled M-E-R-L-I-N.”
But hard as it might be to rein in people’s attention when hawks are flying overhead, discipline is important. The 19 people who had registered for the workshop did not come just to see hawks; they were there to improve their raptor-identification skills.
Mike Crewe and I were equally serious about passing on a skill set that is decades in the making. The quest began in the fall of 1934 on a well-known mountain-ridge hawkwatch near Reading, Pennsylvania, called Hawk Mountain.
When Hawk Mountain’s original curator, Maurice Broun, first scanned the skies over the North Lookout, he brought with him a field-identification tradition that was woefully inadequate to the task.It relied heavily on small plumage-based traits to identify birds. It was incapable of telling far-off Red-shouldered Hawks from Broad-winged Hawks because the distinguishing characteristics (the width of the white bands in the tail) couldn’t be seen at great distances. But over time, new field marks were found that worked in the hawkwatching arena — characteristics still mostly related to plumage and structure that did vault the distance.
Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks remained notoriously difficult to tell apart, however. In the ’70s, the principal way to tell accipiters apart was by looking at the shape of the long, narrow tails.
The tails of Cooper’s showed a rounded tip (most of the time). The tails of Sharp-shinneds showed a squared-off or notched tip (most of the time). Some experts thought a modest amount of variability and overlap was acceptable. Some experts thought that unless a field mark was ironclad, it couldn’t serve as a field mark. Accordingly, some experts believed that accipiters could be confidently identified in the field. Others thought the birds could not.
The ensuing debate might be summarized like this:
“Yes, they can.”
“No, they can’t.”
“Yes, they can.”
“No, they can’t.”
Caught in the middle
And caught in the middle were the thousands of birders who just wanted to pin a name to the hawk. I was in the yes-you-can camp, and 30 years ago, I was indeed directing people to look at things like tail shape and head projection and degree of streaking on the breast — and watching people struggle as they tried to piece identifications together from accipiter parts.
Heck, I was struggling, too.
But a funny and predictable thing happened after two or three million accipiters went by: I realized I wasn’t struggling anymore. The reason was, at some point, I’d stopped looking at parts and was, instead, seeing and basing my identifications upon the whole bird. I found that I wasn’t identifying the hawk so much as recognizing it.
Then the trick became: Can you teach recognition? Sutton, Sibley, and I had described a holistic method of identifying hawks in our 1988 book Hawks in Flight. Now, with a second edition pending, my co-authors and I were again challenged to forge our recognition skills into words. The assembled members of the raptor-workshop group didn’t know it, but they weren’t just students; they were, in a sense, guinea pigs.
One of the great things about a place like Cape May is the volume of birds. Teaching raptor ID is hard when there are no raptors. It gets easy when birds of prey can be seen with every pass of the glass.
“Drop your binoculars,” I’d counsel; “just use your eyes and look at the bird. Can you see a head? Does the head project ahead of the wing? Or does the head fuse into the projecting bulge of the wings, get lost in the gully?”
I let the group study the bird but didn’t wait for an answer. “Now look at the overall shape. Does the bird look like a flying Roman cross or crucifix, or does it look like a flying wooden mallet?
“Wooden mallet,” someone offered.
“Right. Wooden mallet. It’s a Sharp-shinned. Now watch... There! See the way it flaps: quick and sputtery. The wings look like a flickering candle flame. There. Flapping again. Sharp-shinned Hawks are high-strung; they just have to flap. Even when soaring, they’re driven to bouts of flapping.”
“Cooper’s Hawks are reluctant flappers. They glide a lot. They soar a lot. But do you want to know the easiest way to tell Sharp-shinned from Cooper’s?”
Of course, everyone did.
“Look at your watch. What time is it?”
Some looked at me blankly. Some looked at their watches.
“Seven forty-five,” someone offered.
“Right. Sharpie. In Cape May, Cooper’s Hawks don’t migrate before nine.”
A few people chuckled. They assumed it was a joke.
“I’m serious,” I assured. “Cooper’s are like buteos. They wait for thermals to start perking before migrating. They’re hunting, low, at first light. But if you see an accipiter high overhead, migrating, and it’s before nine a.m., it is almost certain to be a Sharp-shinned.”
Yes, an ID question that confounded even the experts 30 years ago can be answered that easily today. The trick is knowing the tricks.
By George, they’ve got it
The morning moved on. The birds moved past. The hints and clues and tricks of the trade now nearly 80 years in the gleaning and 30 years in the refining were imparted and reinforced with each passing bird.
It was a good flight, a 2,000-plus-bird flight at the peak of accipiter and falcon migration. When it comes to teaching (and learning), repetition is key.
“Blunt wings or pointy wings?”
“Right. Falcon. Now, overall pale or dark? Fluttery wing beats and wandering flight, or strong and steady flight?”
“Overall dark. Strong and steady.”
“Right again. Merlin.”
By noon, the members of the group didn’t need the questions, the prompts. They’d learned what to look for and how. Their confidence grew with each and every correct identification.
Me? I was amazed and perhaps a bit contrite that a skill set that was once so hard to impart and learn could be conveyed and assimilated so easily.
What would Maurice Broun say about the state of raptor identification today? I don’t know. But I’m sure he’d be listening. And smiling.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.