A beginning birder looks at hawk-watching like a Texan looks at lobster: “What do I do with this thing?” I’ve got good news and bad news. Right this minute, peak hawk migration is under way. The bad news is that the hawks often present themselves as little specks on the horizon. The good news is: that’s all you need. Unlike songbird recognition, color and tiny field marks aren’t that important in hawk identification.
An expert looks at the whole bird. The big ones are easy. Bald eagles are enormous and they hold their wings straight out like a board. Turkey vultures hold their wings in a big V shape and teeter a lot. Ospreys have a crooked wing shape, bent downward at the elbow. Even when the bird is a mile away, these differences are obvious.
The smaller hawks can also be sorted into groups at a distance merely by the way they look and fly. We’ll concern ourselves with three families of hawks: buteos, accipiters and falcons.
Buteos are characterized by broad wings and relatively short tails. There are about thirty species of buteo in the world, but we need to worry about only three. The broad-winged hawk is the smallest of these three and is the most commonly seen hawk in Maine. The red-tailed hawk is the largest and the most commonly seen across North America. The red-shouldered hawk is midsize between the two, but it is less common here. Buteos are “general purpose hawks” prone to sitting on perches and pouncing, or soaring and circling.
Accipters are secretive woodland hawks characterized by narrow wings and long tail. While buteos eat mostly rodents that they catch by surprise, accipters are built for speed and agility to chase their prey through the forest, typically small songbirds. Sharp-shinned hawks are common in Maine and look much like the slightly larger, less common Cooper’s hawk. Northern goshawks are the largest of this family in the state.
Falcons are built purely for speed in the open. The peregrine falcon can hit 200 mph in a dive, making it the fastest creature on earth. Merlins are smaller; American kestrels are smallest. Kestrels are frequently seen in Maine sitting on telephone wires next to farm fields. They will eat songbirds when they can catch them, but their diet consists mostly of grasshoppers, dragonflies and occasional rodents.
So that’s the secret. How they hunt determines how they look. Buteos have broad wings and short tails and are most prone to soaring. Accipiters have narrower wings and longer tails. They look like a flying cross overhead, especially when they are soaring. Falcons are tapered with pointed wings and a swept-back appearance, and only the peregrine soars. Buteos tend to glide past your mountaintop, barely flapping. Accipters are famous for short flaps followed by brief glides. Falcons are bullet hawks.
Location matters. Accipters tend to follow a coastal route to their wintering destinations. Buteos like to follow the Appalachian ridges. Merlins and peregrines like to follow the southbound shorebirds, feasting along the beaches. Kestrels are too small to prey on shorebirds and they are more likely to follow the route preferred by accipters. Two of America’s most famous hawk-watching destinations are Cape May, N.J., and Hawk Mountain, Pa. They are only 125 miles apart. Yet sharp-shinned hawks and American kestrels accounted for over half of the raptors counted at Cape May last year, while more than half of all the raptors seen at Hawk Mountain were broad-wings.
This knowledge makes your job easier, because it’s the same situation in Maine. Thirteen raptor species typically wing their way past hawk-watchers in Acadia National Park each year but, on average, 41 percent are sharp-shinned hawks and 27 percent are kestrels. Yup, two-thirds of all the hawks seen from the mountaintops in autumn are just two species. About 12 percent are broad-winged hawks, so if you know just the three species, you can identify 80 percent of what you’re seeing. Now isn’t that easier?
The simplest way to enjoy a day of hawk-watching is to drive up Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, preferably on a cool day with a northwest breeze, which the birds like to ride southward. From the third week of August to the second week of October, rangers and volunteers are stationed near the summit to help you identify raptors. Of course, having someone else do all the work for you is a little like the Texan who orders the “lazy lobster.” It’s really tasty, but somehow it feels unearned.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.