The other day I was observing and enjoying a beautiful falcon. I was fascinated by his powerful talons and menacing beak. I looked at his large eyes that would enable him to pick out his prey from hundreds of yards away. Even though at the time of my observation he was perched on a tree branch I knew that he had broad wings that could catch the wind like a sail allowing him to effortlessly hover high above the ground. I thought about how awesome falcons are. Then somebody told me it was a hawk.
I have only been bird watching a short time, and I am quickly becoming fascinated with raptors, or birds of prey. One thing that I have quickly realized about the raptors is that it isn’t very easy to tell them all apart. There are several different kinds of raptors and many different species within those categories. A short time ago, a much more experienced birder was relating his birding day to me and he mentioned that he had seen, among other things, a Peregrine Falcon, Western Osprey and Red-Shouldered Hawk. I thought to myself, there is no way I would be able to tell all those apart.
So I decided to investigate. I wanted to find out more about the different categories of raptors, what distinguishing features those categories were based on and what to look for to help me tell them apart while on the field. My goal was not really to be able to identify all of the specific raptor species, but rather to be able to categorize a bird as falcon or eagle or hawk or whatever it might be. I couldn’t really find what I needed with a simple web search so I began posting messages on birding forums and talking with experienced birders. I found that birders are very wiling to help and several seasoned bird experts pointed me to HMANA (Hawk Migration Association of North America), which has a great power point presentation for download. I also received a few suggestions that I pick up a field guide. I chose the The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Both sources proved to be extremely helpful and I recommend them to any novice birder like me.
I broke up my task into three steps. My first step was to set parameters and classify the birds into groups. I decided to focus on North American diurnal raptors, which are most active during the day. Sorry, owls. Most diurnal raptors belong to the family Accipitridae along with the new world vultures and the true falcons. Among these we have eagles, vultures, ospreys, harriers, kites, hawks, falcons and kestrels. Most of these fall into two major sub-families: Buteos, which are include larger hawks and true eagles; and Accipiters, the true hawks. Falcons and kestrels are from the Falco genus. Kites, ospreys, harriers and vultures are in separate groups of their own.
After classifying the different types of raptor the next step was to begin looking for ways to tell them apart. For that I got some great advice from David Rankin. David works with the New Jersey Audubon Society and conducts the Montclair Hawk Watch, the second longest running hawk watch in North America. He summed it up this way. “Falcons are generally fast birds with long, pointed wings and long tails. Hawks can be split into two groups, Buteos and Accipiters. Buteos are the soaring hawks, and and they have long, broad wings and shorter tails. Accipiters have very long tails and generally shorter, stockier wings than buteos, and are more likely to be seen darting through the forest and engaging in sharp turns and acrobatics than buteos. Eagles look much like large buteos and are generally slow and ponderous in everything they do, from flapping heavily to soaring in long, slow circles. Vultures are large, dark soaring birds that often seem to rock back and forth in flight, a good way to distinguish them from hawks and eagles. Kites… are tricky. They often look like falcons, with long pointy wings, but have less powerful wing beats and soar more than falcons, and are generally more restricted in range.”
My last step was to form a list of general categories with some key features that would help me label the raptors that I observed. When identifying any type bird it is important to concentrate on specific features, and with raptors the size of the bird, its shape and its behavior can really help you narrow it down into its proper category.
Eagles are the largest raptors with wings that can span up to seven feet. They have large protruding beaks and very broad wings, which they flap slowly and ponderously. They also soar. In North America you are mostly likely to see a Golden Eagle or the well known, Bald Eagle.
Vultures soar high overhead, in search of carrion. They often circle in groups and do not flap a great deal. Black Vultures have black wings with white fingers and Turkey Vultures have dark bodies with lighter feathers across the backs of their wings.
Ospreys are large raptors that are sometimes mistaken for Bald Eagles due to their large beaks and light-colored heads. An easy way to tell them apart is the dark mask across their face. Also, as Bob, a birder I recently met on the trail pointed out, mature Bald Eagles are much larger and have white heads and tail feathers. Ospreys have white bodies and darker tail feathers, and they have a crook in their wings, giving them a “W” shape when they fly.
Harriers are slender with long wings and tail feathers. They have owl-like facial features and a distinctive white rump patch. The perch on low post and on the ground, rarely up high. When they do take to the air they can confuse even the most experienced birders, who are used to seeing them only on the ground. The Northern Harrier is the species likely to be spotted in North America.
Accipiter Hawks are the forest-dwelling hawks. They have short rounded wings and long narrow tails. They are built for speed and maneuverability. In open flight they will glide and flap intermittently. Some notables from this category are the Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Buteo Hawks are the soaring hawks. Their large wide wings and short broad tails allow them to catch air currents and soar without much flapping. They are often seen in large open areas. In North America you are like to see the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk.
|American Kestrel – Our Smallest Falcon|
Falcons are fast-moving raptors with long tails and long pointed wings. In flight they have a “sickle” shape and the rarely soar, but rather churn through air with power wing beats. Among these are the American Kestrel, North America’s smallest falcon, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon.
Kites are the most confusing of raptors because their features vary greatly. They can easily be mistaken for falcons because of their long pointed wings, but they do not flap as powerfully and their wings are usually narrower. In North American you are like to see the White-tailed Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite and the Snail Kite.
In the few weeks since I have begun this study of raptors I have already noticed a little bit of progress. I saw an osprey the other day perched on a lamp post over the highway and there was no doubt in my mind as to what it was. According to David Rankin, this is a great time of year to observe birds of prey as they are currently migrating, so the next few weeks should be a lot of fun. Please check out David’s birding blog, Zugunruhe.
Until Next Time,
The Birder who can now (hopefully) Distinguish a Hawk from a Falcon
Links that helped me write this: