This story was initially printed in September 2020.
Professional hawk-watchers can establish a raptor on the horizon that’s no greater than a speck of mud. It’s annoying. It makes us mere mortals really feel insufficient. The specialists can, in fact, clarify all the ideas they’re utilizing to make the identification, however that’s not their massive secret. Their secret is that this: they’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of hawks. Observe.
Hawk commentary is completely different than most fowl identifications, which rely totally on subject marks corresponding to coloration, breast streaks, tail stripes, and many others. Specks on the horizon aren’t shut sufficient to disclose any of these. The hawk specialists give attention to the best way the raptor flies. How is that attainable? All of it comes right down to that previous saying: “You might be what you eat.” The form of a hawk determines the way it flies, and the way it flies is set by what it hunts. So let’s evaluate.
In our little nook of the world, there are mainly 4 raptor households we have to contemplate: falcons, accipiters, buteos and harriers. There are three falcons we’re more likely to see in Maine: American kestrels, merlins and peregrines. There are three attainable accipiters: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and northern goshawk. There are three seemingly buteos: broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk and red-tailed hawk. And though there are round 20 harrier sort hawks on the earth, we’ve got just one in North America: the northern harrier.
Falcons are speedsters. They chase down prey. They’re constructed like jet fighters, with quick tails and pointed wings. The smallest — the American kestrel — preys totally on dragonflies and grasshoppers. Its eating regimen requires it to be nimble within the air, capable of twist and switch to grab a meal. The kestrel is the one falcon that hovers over its searching grounds, usually open fields. Whereas all falcons are likely to fly instantly with regular wingbeats, the kestrel’s flight is extra bat-like, with aerial jerkiness that helps establish it at a distance.
Merlins are bullet hawks — quick and direct, with the rock-steady wingbeats of a racing scull’s oars. They primarily prey on different birds, chasing them down in stage flight. They don’t stoop on prey the best way peregrines do. Kestrels are mild sufficient to glide throughout flight. The heavier merlins don’t.
Peregrines are lightning quick, however their bigger measurement and greater wings permit them to soar, which is one thing the opposite two falcons don’t do. Kestrels and merlins are comparable in measurement, however the peregrine’s bulk makes it straightforward to tell apart from the opposite two at a distance.
Accipiters are ambushers. They mix pace and agility to shock prey. They dine totally on different birds, flashing by means of the forest to seize a meal. They require quick wings and lengthy tails to be so maneuverable — design traits that give them fast acceleration and turning potential — however this creates drag throughout sustained flight. In consequence, they typically fly with a flap-flap-flap-glide type that’s recognizable from a distance. Sharp-shinned hawks are the most typical migrant. Because the smallest and lightest of the accipiters, “sharpies” are extra buoyant within the air, making them look extra fluttery in flight than the marginally bigger Cooper’s hawks.
The heftier northern goshawk prefers bigger prey, corresponding to woodpeckers, grouse and crows. It additionally relishes squirrels and snowshoe hares. Some do migrate. Most winter over on their breeding grounds, so goshawks aren’t typically noticed at hawk watches. When seen, its big measurement makes it straightforward to tell apart from the opposite two. All three accipiters can soar and circle within the sky. Their quick wings and lengthy tails give them a T-shape that helps kind them out from different hawks.
Buteos are slower, heavier hawks. They dine totally on small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. They normally hunt from perches, peering down from a limb, ready for one thing to maneuver to allow them to swoop down and snatch it. They’re constructed for hovering, with quick tails and broad wings, making them straightforward to inform aside from the opposite hawks at a distance.
Northern harriers are uniquely designed for gliding low and gradual over open areas, corresponding to fields and marshes. In truth, they have been previously named marsh hawks. They’ve lengthy wings and lengthy tails, obvious even at a distance.
So, that’s the key. Step one is to determine which household the distant raptor is in. Then, it’s only a matter of determining which of the three (or one) relations it’s. I point out all this now, as a result of we’re hitting the height of early hawk migration this week. Observe.