Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Birding 101: Accipiter's

That's right folks, it's back to Birding 101 for me and what better way to start than with one of the most confusing types of birds of all, which is none other than the Accipiters! Nope, I don't do things the easy way, give me the the biggest headaches first and anything after that is a piece of cake as far as I'm concerned!

I am nearing my 1 year anniversary of both birding and blogging so am spending some time going back on some of my earlier posts to see how much I've learned since. Since I seem to have taken a strong liking to birds of prey and have over 1000 photos of them stored on my hard drive, I chose to use some of my favorite accipiter photos and blog posts to see if I still believe the bird I identified back then is still what I believe now. I have a lot more help than I did back then, when the only guide I owned was my Peterson's and have since expanded and have The Sibley Guide, the Peterson Field Guide Hawks of North America, The Hawks from Every Angle Book and my favorite Hawks in Flight by Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton (do yourself a favor all and get this book if you like your raptors!). So with that, is my first post. I will be relying on no one for help or guidance on this as it's time for me to step up to the plate on my own a little more often. The free pass I got on my first year of birding is now officially over!

If you recall, back in June, I posted a photo of what I thought was a Northern Goshawk. I remember hearing the call of a raptor and it sounded different than what I was accustomed to (which is the Red-tailed Hawk), so I went to an open area and there up in the sky was the bird above. I was NOT using binoculars at the time so I used my camera as my eye. The bird looked different to me at first as it was the size of a Red-tailed, but didn't look like one at the same time. I zoomed in on my picture and excitedly thought that perhaps it was a Northern Goshawk! Went home, poured over my Peterson Guide, google, etc and posted the bird that I saw that day as a Northern Goshawk on my blog. I spent about an hour tonight, looking at the picture again and still make that claim. My reasoning is illustrated in the picture itself. One thing I should note is that I could barely see the eyeline if I blew up the picture, so you may not be able to see it on the picture above. I also want to note that this was one big bird! Must have been the female for certain?

And a really cool picture of a Red-tailed I took at some point that I chose to use as an example. Check out the S-curve on this bird, so cool and something I have never noticed before until now! I also want to include a little snippet from the Birds in Flight Book that I thought was very interesting. "Rule of Thumb: any bird that is first identified as a buteo and turns out to be an accipiter may safely be called a Goshawk". Of course, that rule of thumb is probably for the more advanced hawkwatcher out there on the field w/ years of experience, but I'll take it! ;-)

The one thing that threw me off when looking at my photos was the picture above. Yes Northern Goshawks are normally two-toned when seen from below, but the only problem is that it's usually in reverse order (meaning the underwings are lighter than the secondaries and primaries, at least as far as I can see).
I figured it was perhaps due to the sun and angle of the bird when I took the photo. The only picture I could get that would show a similar circumstance was in my Hawks From Every Angle (another great book!), that shows something somewhat like it, but on a juvenile (bird to the right). Notice how the darkness of the underwing coverts appear to go almost to the primaries vs. the picture of the Coops on the left of it.

Now let's go back a little further in time shall we? Back to when I spent a lot of my time birding via the kitchen window as it was too cold to do much of anything else for too long of a time. I was going to my kitchen in late afternoon as I remember I was baking something and I looked out the window and saw two Cooper's Hawks on my lawn and one had a bird. I sat there speechless for a moment as I saw one pinning its meal down on the ground as the other sat on my brush pile and watch intently. I quickly grab my camera go to the window, and off they go into my neighbor's yard. Off I run with my camera in just a t-shirt, fleece capris, and slippers to chase the bird! Hey, I got some good shots though don't ya think??

Anyhow, I called it a Cooper's Hawk then, and still call it one now. The reasoning??

1. The size, yes, I know that's not always a good thing to go on, but these were some pretty bird birds, plus you know one is male and one is female and if they are both big, than I take it as a clue!

2. The cap on the head that looks more like a bathing cap that doesn't quite fit (which is how I picture a Cooper's, vs a cap that looks more like a bicycle helmet (which is how I picture a Sharp-shinned Hawk)-yeah, I know, weird, but it works for me ;-).

3. the orange and white barring underneath as well as the rufous cheeks on the misses above.

And here is the male. What was interesting about the whole scene was that he was the one who killed that Rock Pigeon, carried it off and then sat there patiently while she ate. A romantic guy for certain! Notice his cap as it's a good example of my weird analogy. Also notice the rounded tail and white tail band that is clearly defined.

The following week, I had another hawk in my yard and this time its meal of choice was a European Starling (I am starting to kind of like these hawks at this point as I had a real Starling problem in my yard at the time w/ my home made suet). I identified this bird as a Sharp-shinned bird based solely on its size compared to the two birds I had seen the week before which were the Coops. Now as you can see, I am in a little predicament here. I don't see a definable cap and I certainly can't get a good look at the shape of the end of the tail, the only thing I do know is that the tail is long. I do believe it's a young bird (most likely its first winter) which makes it even more of a challenge. So, what'is a gal to do in this type of situation?

Why whip out some of her best pictures of Cooper's that will show off some of the plumage and size of course!! Now if you remember I got these shots of the Cooper's Hawk, the unfortunate morning in downtown Worcester when one of the Peregrine Falcon's was chasing it and the poor thing flew into the glass tower, stunning and injuring itself pretty bad. The Dept. of Fish & Wildlife came to take it to Tufts. Anyhow, the first thing that struck me was the size of the bird in the mans hands. I would have expected the Coops to look bigger than that so it's a really good shot to get a feel on just how big a Cooper's Hawk can be (remember size does vary-male vs. female though).

Also note the thin, dark streaks , that appears to end before the belly of the Cooper's. Sigh, such a gorgeous bird. You know I never did call Tufts to find out if the bird made it or not. I am embarrassed to admit, I was just too chicken (pun intended). I knew if I called and found out the bird didn't survive, I would have been very upset as it was my first rescue attempt so I just assumed it was ok as I hate sad endings.

So, is the bird of current subject a Sharpie, or is it a Coops? I am putting my
new found" credibility on the line here and am going to continue to call it a Sharp-shinned Hawk based solely on the size of the bird and the coarse, brown streaks it has on the underparts. The head, size of the legs and tail continue to throw me off as I think the head is big like a Coopers as well as the size of the tail in comparison to the body, but hey-what do I know!! I also have a couple of questions of logistics going through my head which are:

1. The photo was taken in March, Sharpies usually start migrating back north in late April, early May. I am guessing the juveniles are the last to migrate as well and I am guessing the bird with the starling is a juvenile.

2. Sharpies can get bigger birds, but their birds of choice are normally the size of warblers or finches unless of course, they are really good hunters and can score a bigger bird for a meal. This one scored a doozy for Sharp-shinned standards. Half baked conclusion here is this is one fierce Juve who came back early (or never left at all), as this bird knows how to hunt and had ample food in my back yard the entire winter! ;-).

Last, but by no means the least, the picture from hell. I never posted this picture on my blog and now that I see it, I don't know why as it is pretty good compared to some of the hawk flight shots I have taken recently! You will note that I actually jotted down the questions I had going on in my head and it was a bunch of contradictions as you can see for yourself. I so, so, so want to call this a Cooper's, but the tail has be completely confused. It's really short and squared with a noticeable notch, very similar to a Sharp-shinned Hawk. All of the other clues is giving me a strong Coops vibe, but the tail just won't allow me confirm it as one. Also note "narrow tail tip" should read "narrow tail band". It also looks rather lanky to me instead of stocky which is again more reminiscent of a Cooper's. So the tail was my determining factor here and I am going to cal this a Sharp-shinned Hawk here even though I am not completely convinced here.

Feel free to chime in with comments/opinions via email or comments. Who ever knew birding could be so much fun!


Marc said...


Good morning!
First, the last raptor in your post. To me, the picture suggests Red-shouldered Hawk. I'm curious where the pic was taken. My wife and I saw one in the field (Rutland Brook) a couple weeks back. A beautiful bird. I'd also be curious about size...would be similar to a Coop. Of course, to be RS Hawk, I'd expect underparets to be more orange, but the overall paleness might be a result of the light in pic. Impossible to be sure but more exciting to think it's RS (IMO) :)
I agree with your other ID's. I believe the Sharpie is in transitional plumage, streaked chest, barred belly, yellow eyes. In my experience, single white line above eye suggests Sharpie rather than Coopers. We generally have at least one Sharpie in our yard all winter. (Worcester)
Anyway, I'm no pro but enjoy this topic greatly.
One question, if I may. Where exactly do you access wetlands at St. Phil's?

Susan W. said...

Really enjoyable post! I have seen people almost come to blows about Sharpies vs Coopers, so I stay far away from the topic, myself. Your discussion was quite illuminating, however. Good job!

Kim said...

Hey there Marc! I don't know too much about the Red-shouldered Hawks but am eager to see one as it is a gorgeous bird! Where is Rutland Brook BTW? When you mentioned Red-Shouldered, I noticed some rufous like color that I can faintly see on the upper wing covert, and the patagium and axilaries in particular in my picture which I had not noticed before so thank you! The thing that throws me off though was the size of the bird from what I could remember as it seemed rather stout and shorter winged than what I think a Red-shouldered would be. I wish I took more pictures. The tail has me totally mystified so I decided to be real anal and measure where the legs of the bird falls in conjunction with the tail bands on the Coops, Sharpie and Red-shouldered. In my pic the legs appear to end at the beginning of the 2nd to the last tail band just like a Coops or Sharpie. The Red-shouldered's legs are in between the second to the last and the last tail band, but the tail in my pictures seems rather small to be an accipiter compared to a buteo so go figure!

Also confused even more with my picture between the analogy I was studying which is a sharpie is like a flying mallet vs. a Coops that is more like a flying cross. It looks more like a flying cross to me that's for certain. Grrrrrr, on that darn tail!

If you know how to get to St Philips, then go to the way back. There is fencing that is torn down in some spots and behind that are the wetlands. You are at a disadvantage this time of the year due to the remaining heavy foliage that still exist on the trees, but if you can maneuver yourself to some of the bare spots you can get some good looks at it with your binoculars. I suggest the area to the right in the way back. Park just where the pavement ends. This is where I see the Pileated the most and any overnight falcons that decide to make an overnight stop. You will know you are in the right location when you see the large Heron's nest. Enjoy! One of my favorite places to bird!

Kim said...

Hi Susan,

Yes, I have been hearing and reading about some of the ahem: "heated arguments" that can take place amongst birders on bird species and most of them appear to focus around Raptors and Gulls (my 2 favorite bird species so go figure HA! ;-). I guess it's like politics and religion at times for some as they are so passionate on the topic at hand. Thank goodness there are still some out there who can agree to disagree without a full blown argument, divorce or best one I have heard yet, a full blown fist fight! :-O.

BTW: Love your blog as Framingham isn't too far away from me via the Mass Pike, so its nice to see and read what you are getting down there.

Marc said...


You are definitely right about the respective leg lengths...and it's a good point that probably rules out RS. Perhaps it was wishful thinkin on my part as I see Coops several times a week. But, as you point out that tail in your pick just doesn't seem right for accipiters either...not long enough and also the light bands are usually thicker than dark bands on Coops and Sharpies...opposite on RS. Of course, if the pic was taken in a suburban area not near water, it would be extremely unlikely to be RS anyway!:)But I digress.
Rutland Brook is a MassAudubon sanctuary in Petersham, Ma.
Thanks for the info on St. Phil's.
My wife and I went to Barton's Cove today and three Bald eagles entertained us for well over an hour...some amazing(and a bit surprising), acrobatic flying.At first I thought one was a juvie Golden migrating through, but alas...more wishful thinking.

Kim said...

Note: Uppertail Coverts in my comment should read undertail, type too fast and hit the publish button before I spot read half the time. :-p.

Marc, it sounds like the perfect day to enjoy the fall weather w/ your wife. I have yet to be treated to a show like that by a Bald Eagle. I am hoping to see it this winter, when they start coming back around here in search of unfrozen water near some of our rivers.

The pic I took was actually at the Millbury bike path in the winter. I remember it vividly because I had just gotten done taking pictures of a Red-tailed getting stalked by a hawk and then suddenly this bird buzzed by and I was able to get a pretty good shot of it. One thing I love about the winter is I get some really good hawk flight shots. Especially later winter into early spring as they are doing their mating rituals.


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