Identifying a distant hawk is an art, not a science, a skill that can be polished only by hours of observation and practice. An experienced hawk-watcher can read the subtlest of clues-the cant of a wing, the speed of the flap, or the proportions of the body-to make an identification at incredible distances.
There are shortcuts to this knowledge, however. One of the best is simply spending time with expert hawk-watchers at established migration sites. Most are friendly and eager to help beginners, since they remember when they, too, were novices.
Characteristics of Flying Raptors
The following lists the major identification points for the species most often seen at North American hawkwatches.
Turkey Vulture Long wings, with silvery undersides, held up in shallow V; rocks from side to side. Red head on adults, gray on immatures.
Black Vulture Wings held flat, tall so short as to be invisible at long range. White wing patches at base of primaries. Black head in all ages.
Osprey Wings held in distinctive shallow M-shape; white undersides, dark above. Head often appears white from distance, and when seen from above or behind may be mistaken for bald eagle.
White-Tailed Kite Delicate, pale gray bird with falcon-like proportions; often hovers while hunting. Wings held in shallow dihedral.
Mississippi Kite Also very falcon-like in shape, but more casual and buoyant in the air than larger falcons. Light secondaries create pale line along trailing edge of wings on adults.
Bald Eagle Large, heavy-bodied bird with plank-like wings held flat. Head appears to stick as far forward as tail does behind. Immatures carry varying amounts (often considerable) of light mottling on back and undersides.
Northern Harrier Glides with shallow dihedral, flaps with deep, somewhat labored wingbeats. Wings and tall long and narrow; adult males pale gray with black wingtips, immatures and females rusty or brown. All plumages have light rump patch.
Sharp-Shinned Hawk Dove-size, with squared-off tall; quick, snappy wingbeats; proportionately short head. Chest and belly of immatures appear"dirty." Alternates flapping with short glides.
Cooper's Hawk Longish wings; longer tall with rounded tip and heavier white band (usually); slower, deeper wingbeats than sharpshin; protruding head; pale chest of immature usually contrasts with darker head. Alternates flapping and gliding.
Northern Goshawk Crow-size accipiter with buteo-like proportions. Tall appears short and wide, wings short and rounded. Underside of immature appears "dirty." Adults pale gray above and below.
Red-Shouldered Hawk Buteo that flies like an accipiter, with stiff, moth-like flaps. Tall and wings appear longer than in most buteos. Pale crescents at base of primaries ("wing windows") obvious if bird is backlit. Often flies on lee side of ridges, out of heaviest wind.
Broad-Winged Hawk Small, chunky buteo with deep wings that taper to a neat point. Adult tails are boldly banded in black; immatures brown with fine barring. Only eastern hawk to fly in large flocks, or "kettles".
Swainson's Hawk Long, finely tapered wings and long tall; wings held in shallow dihedral when soaring, crooked like osprey when gliding. Flight often resembles harrier. Normal-phase adult has distinct dark hood. Migrates in large flocks.
Red-Tailed Hawk Heavy, angular buteo with bulging -wings and short, wide tall. Dark belly band not always present; look also for dark markings along leading edge and at bend of wings. Brick-orange tail color only on adults, and only visible from above. Often hovers on motionless wings (kiting).
Ferruginous Hawk Large, eagle-like buteo, very pale underneath with rusty "leggings" (normal-phase adult). White-wing patches and rump patch visible from above. Immature entirely pale below, with dark "commas" at bend of wings.
Rough-Legged Hawk Long-winged buteo with highly variable plumage, from all-dark to pale; light-phase birds often have very heavy, black wing "commas" and black tall tip. Frequently hovers.
Golden Eagle Large, all-dark bird with wide, flat wings and buteo-like proportions; head appears smaller and shorter than that of bald eagle. Immatures have white wing patches (sometimes absent in eastern goldens) and white at base of tall; white disappears as bird matures. Brassy sheen on head and shoulders present in all ages.
American Kestrel Small falcon with buoyant flight; wings appear especially long and tapered. At distance, male's bluish upper wing surfaces and female's rusty wings visible. Frequently perches on utility wires; often hovers with rapid wingbeats.
Merlin Medium-size, generally dark falcon (pale in prairies) with powerful wingbeats and direct, purposeful flight. Adult males bluish above; young and females brown with pale throat and undertail. Does not hover.
Prarie Falcon Medium-size falcon with pale, sandy plumage. Dark auxiliaries ("wingpits"). From above, brown wings and body contrast wit paler head and tall.
Peregrine Falcon Large, long-winged, long-tailed falcon; flight swift, with powerful wingbeats. In full soar can resemble broad-winged hawk. Adults appear pale gray above and light below; immatures brownish. juveniles of tundra race have distinctive pale, golden crown.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication