David Allen Sibey's three keys to hawk ID
Published: August 21, 2009
Watching hawks migrate in fall is one of the more popular, and challenging, birding activities.
DISTINCTLY DIFFERENT: Adult and juvenile Red-tailed Hawks share fundamental similarities in shape and pattern, but the narrower and paler wings, whiter breast, and relatively long gray-brown tail of the juvenile (right) give it a distinctly different overall appearance.
Art by David Allen Sibley
Hawkwatching involves identifying birds in flight at great distance and thus relies on subtle and sometimes indescribable clues. It's simply pattern recognition at a fine scale.
Experience is key. People who have seen thousands of hawks can identify them confidently when they are distant specks, while novices can't imagine how it is done. To make your hawk identification more successful more quickly, focus on three things:
Shape. Ignore details of colors. Instead, look at the outline of the whole bird and the broad patches of light and dark. As a hawk turns, its silhouette changes dramatically; choose an angle to study and wait for the bird to come around to it. The classic angle (depicted in all the field guides) is the full underside view, but experienced hawkwatchers also study shapes of birds that are wing-on, head-on, going away, and more.
Flight style. Shapes and proportions change depending on what the bird is doing. A soaring Northern Harrier can look relatively broad and buteo-like. One in a steep glide can look falcon-like. Learn the different flight modes, and try to compare birds in the same attitude.
Age. Juveniles of most species differ from adults in shape, proportions, pattern, and color. As you can see in the accompanying paintings, it's functionally like looking at two different species. To advance your identification skills, consider adults and immatures separately.
The goal is to generate your own mental template for each species, but beware: There is no average Red-tailed Hawk. You'll need not one but a series of more precise templates, so that when you look at a distant bird, it will automatically trigger a match such as "soaring juvenile Red-tailed Hawk."
Finally, a note of caution:
This style of bird identification depends heavily on context and situation. Experts from one hawkwatch are often reduced to mere novices when they visit an unfamiliar site. The angles at which the birds come in, their wing positions and flight styles, the lighting, etc., are all different. Even at the same site, each day presents a varying combination of wind, weather, and lighting.
Learning hawk identification is a never-ending process, but by taking note of shape, flight style, and age, you can develop your skills quickly, laying the foundation for years of enjoyable visits to the hawkwatch.
David Allen Sibley is the author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, Sibley's Birding Basics, and Sibley guides to birds of eastern and western North America.|
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