On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
On the Road submissions wanted for Peace Corps week, a Mr. Frog week, and First Timer’s Week, and of course all other submissions are appreciated as well!
This week we have birbs with Albatrossity, take a wonderful walk in the park with BretH, BillinGlendaleCA brings us glaciers (!) not skies, Munira takes us through a winter wonderland, and we finish off the week with some stunning images from Wag.
Most of the hawks seen in this country are Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), and indeed, when people send me pictures of hawks that they would like me to ID, most of them are that species. In fact, one of the first things any birder in the US hears, when learning to ID hawks, is “It’s always a redtail”.
But that is not always true, we do have lots of different hawks, and this week we will showcase those and talk a bit about how to ID them. None of them are as common, or have plumages as variable, as the Red-tailed Hawk. But it’s worth getting to know them so that you can sometimes say “Hey, that’s not a redtail!”
I’ve chosen the following images to show as many of the relevant field marks as possible, but in most cases, there will be one or more that you can’t see in the picture. Additionally, a lot of the ID clues for these birds involve habitat preferences and behaviors. So don’t just look at pictures. Get out there and look at some birds!
First up is the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). This is a circumpolar species, and is known in Europe as the Rough-legged Buzzard. Roughly the same size as a redtail, and with both a dark and light morph, they are often confused with their more common congeneric. But they are relatively longer-winged, with more petite bill and talons, with a white base to the tail, and they all have that nice dark patch at the bend of the wing (carpal patch). As you can see here, they tend to sit out on the very tips of skinny branches. If you get a good close look, you can see the eponymous rough leggings; they have feathers on the entire tarsus, all the way to the start of the toes. They are also highly migratory; for more information on that, click here.
A common species in the wooded east, but only a recent arrival here in my part of Flyover Country, the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) is smaller and slimmer than a redtail. Denizens of wooded streamsides, they feed primarily on lizards, snakes and frogs. Banded tail, large head, and only 4 “fingers” (redtails have 5) on the end of the wing of this adult bird help you ID this one.
Another recent arrival to this patch of Flyover County, the Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is also familiar to both east coast and west coast birders. Adult birds like this one have the eponymous red shoulders (actually elbows), a banded tail, checkerboard pattern on the upper wings, and a quick stiff wing beat pattern that is quite different from that of a redtail.
Moving on from the buteos to some more acrobatic flyers brings us to the falcons. Long pointy wings and rapid flight distinguish these birds from the slower dumpier buteos. The smallest of these is American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), which is very familiar to all birders in not just North America, but in Central and South America as well. One of the few raptors in which the sexes have different plumages (this colorful one is the male), they are not apt to be confused with any of the birds above. But it could be confused with one of the other falcons below, so take a good look at it. And when you see one in the field, notice how it wags its tail upon landing, a behavior that the other falcons do not seem to have.
A slightly larger falcon, the Merlin (Falco columbarius) is not as colorful, but what it lacks in style it makes up for in attitude. These are swaggerers, to anthropomorphize just a bit, who will take passes at lots of birds, both bigger and smaller than themselves. They also have a stockier build and are more barrel-chested than kestrels, with a steady direct flight (kestrels tend to wander a bit). That dark tail with several narrow white bands is also a good field mark.
Flyover Country in winter is a good place to see a Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus), solitary birds of open country and relatively rare east of the Great Plains. Flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs provide plenty of food for these guys here. More broad-shouldered than Kestrels or Merlins, their sand colored uppersides are set off by underside spots. The best field mark is seen well in this image, the “dirty armpits” that distinguish this species from any other North American falcon.
Now we come to a couple of birds that give birders fits when it comes to ID, the accipiters. Identification is made more difficult by the brevity of the view; a typical sighting of one of these is a bird barreling past you at Mach2 or thereabouts. With wings that are shorter and broader than those of any of the birds above, they frequent woodlots and hunt other birds (at your feeders, often) almost exclusively. This is an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), the smallest accipiter on the continent. Relative to the Cooper’s Hawk below, they are round-headed, skinny-legged, bug-eyed and barrel-chested. But the two best field marks are seen in this picture. The dark crown coloration extends down the back of the neck like a hoodie, and the tail feathers at rest do not line up evenly (graduated tail feathers). If you can get a good look at one, they are easy to ID. Good luck!
The next size up in the accipiter class is the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). This adult shows lots of the relevant field marks. Body shape is more tubular, head is blocky (not round), and the crown color does not extend onto the neck (like a baseball cap instead of a hoodie). Note also the fatter legs and position of the eye near the front of the head; Sharp-shinned Hawks will have the eye more centrally located on the side of the head.
Finally, here is a bird that is not a buteo, falcon, or accipiter, but is pretty common across the continent. Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) tirelessly patrol open country, and are rarely seen perched. Field marks include long wings and long tail, and the white patch on the rump. Adult birds come in different colors depending on the sex of the bird (males are gray, females are brown), but this buffy-bellied bird is a youngster, so it looks a lot like the females.