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Forget the minutiae -- learn the basics well

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Saturday, January 8, 2011 

Question – what are the most important aspects regarding hawk ID? Answer – shape and flight style. Yes, plumage is important, but shape and flight style are more reliable traits when plumage is difficult to judge. I was watching hawks in April 2009 at Gunsight Mountain in Alaska on a day when there were several hundred Rough-legged Hawks and Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks. A distant hawk approached at eye level….in certain postures and conditions, Harlan’s can appear quite lanky in shape, and hold their wings in a slight modified dihedral (wings raised at the shoulders and level at the wrists) similar to a Rough-legged Hawk. Anyway, I said, “here comes another Rough-legged Hawk”. The other observer turned to me and asked in a genuinely curious way “how can you tell?” as if I had a trick up my sleeve, but I didn’t.

Quite frankly, the “trick” is to learn the basics well before tackling the minutiae. These days, I think people concentrate on the finer details of plumage. It’s only natural, many guides show pretty pictures, and the Internet is full of beautiful bird portraits that reveal incredible feather detail. I enjoy close-up photos too. However, if you are looking for some obscure plumage detail in the field, chances are you may overlook the obvious ID traits such as shape, flight style, or the manner in which a bird holds its wings. You don’t need to know the fine details to identify hawks in the field. KNOW THE BASICS WELL. I know people who can recite bits of raptor plumage minutiae but are novices at flight identification. You need to learn the basics well to be adept at identifying flying raptors, PERIOD! Besides, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game to learn and apply the finer details accurately…that takes years and years of practice. Oh yeah, compared to a Red-tailed Hawk, a Rough-legged Hawk is less broad at the chest, and the wings are slimmer, longer-handed, and held in a more pronounced modified dihedral when gliding…every time.

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Blogger Dan Salemi said...

Great Tips- Thanks to all of the authors for the time they're putting into this blog.

January 9, 2011 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

The skills of hawk watchers are very impressive. I amazes me to hear them call an i.d. for a hawk so freakin' far away and they know what it is based on its shape in flight. I suppose I don't have the patience with myself to sit and learn to do that. Maybe some day...when I'm old. Funny that most of the hawk watchers I have met have all been college age guys and gals.

January 9, 2011 at 7:35 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

glad the posts are helpful...many more to come.


January 9, 2011 at 11:29 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Spot on Jerry! We can look back 77 years to the first Peterson Guide to Birds and see why Peterson did his guide the way he did. The pictures were not detailed--they were simple. General shape and pattern.

Click here to view a plate from the 1941 version of the Peterson Guide to Birds

If you can nail down the basics, you are going to have an easier time learning the finer details. And you will learn the details over time with experience.

I remember the first time I went to look for Gulls with Colby Neuman at the Bountiful Landfill. It was only 10 years ago but at the time I was at a loss. How was I ever going to find anything rare in those thousand of swirling gulls? It became easy after a few trips--look for the wing tips! Anything that had primaries that were not jet black helped pick out some of the gulls to look for. From there it got into the details--but that basis is still what I use today to pick rare gulls out of the masses. Great Post Jerry!

January 10, 2011 at 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

Thanks Tim!

I appreciate the comment...I have another entry relative to this I'll post soon. People need to "see the forest through the trees".


January 10, 2011 at 10:13 AM  

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