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Raptor Quiz Answers

October 28, 2011

By Rafael A. Gálvez

We appreciate all the interest in the quiz and thanks to all who posted their answers. Follow the link for the original post and comments: This is one of several such quizzes we have posted since the season’s start in September. Please look back on our Facebook page for other interesting challenges.

As has been discussed during this quiz and in previous opportunities, it is often very difficult to identify a flying raptor from a single still image, particularly if that image was taken from an odd angle or if it is distant and blurry. Hawkwatchers rely on a combination of shape, form, and flight behavior to identify species. Most species do not have a single diagnostic feature that immediately helps us tell them apart from others. Instead, we must hone in on a number of different features, some of them structural, maybe even topographical, and certainly behavioral to make a correct identification. Practice, experience, patience – and humility – all help.

The answers below are how these birds were logged in our documentation forms as they were tallied at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch deck. These birds were observed at the hawkwatch from October 24 through October 26. The counters those days included Jim Eager, Tedor Whitman, Colleen and Charles Caudill, Steve Tryon, and I. Here we will look at each bird at a time:

1 – ML AD MALE. This bird went down on our data forms as an adult male Merlin.

Note the colorful undertail coverts, with plenty of visible orange/rust. Also, this is a rather pale bird below, with a golden wash to the underparts and relatively pale wings. The underwing coverts look relatively unmarked; these are typically much bolder and darker marked in adult females. The bold mustache is also a clue for a male Taiga (columbarius) bird.

2 – SS. This bird went down on our data forms as a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

It is all in the flight style for Sharpies vs Cooper’s, but that is not apparent from a single photo. Sharpies beat their wings faster and “whispier,” using mostly the outer wing and little force, whereas Cooper’s use more of the whole wing, and are more methodical, deeper and more powerful with their beats. As has been mentioned in the Facebook comments, and plenty of times before in previous quizzes, the square vs round tail for Sharpie vs Cooper’s simply does not work for very many birds. Note this bird’s small hands on a short wing, smallish head, and narrow waist. Cooper’s have noticeably longer “hands” and wings in general, bigger heads and a broader tail base. It is difficult to remember if we affixed any more detail to this particular bird because we saw many Sharpies this day. In reality, it went directly into the hourly counter along with many others. Although the photo is a small crop of a much larger picture that is 90% sky, with a bit of digital sharpening, we can make out hue differences in the underbody coloration. The upper breast, the lower-central belly and underwing coverts are rustier  and lighter – almost appearing as bars compared to the darker streaked breast . But the pits and general chest area is decidedly streaked – heavily so – enough to raise the flag of an immature bird. I will add that this bird just “reads” on the large side, so I will agree with Kevin Karlson on immature female Sharpie.

3 – SW. This one went down as simply Swainson’s Hawk because of the large kettles of mixed SWHAs that passed by, and our pressed time.

Most of the birds in this kettle, like the one in this photo, were immatures, many exhibiting variable plumage. Some were substantially buffy, like this one, while others were nearly white or very rusty. What all immatures show is an incomplete “bib” and “helmet,” as in this bird, whose head markings manifest more like a combo of mustache, eye-strip and nape brace on an otherwise pale head. Regardless of age, all SWHA are long winged with narrow “hands.” Their wings fold angular, reminiscent of a Northern Harrier, and their tail may appear long or sharply cornered, as in this case.

4 – ST D Imm. This bird was entered in our data forms as an immature dark Short-tailed Hawk.

One need not see much detail in the coloration or plumage of this bird to note it is a Short-tailed Hawk. The image to the right is the same bird from the back view, and silhouetted using a bit of digital manipulation. What remains is a silhouette of a broad-winged Buteo, with sharply upturned hands, particularly the primary feathers. Note also the bulging secondaries. This telltale wing GISS, combined with a methodical, slow manner of foraging and kiting typical of the species is all one usually needs to ID this bird, even at a distance. This is much like the bird posted on the quiz of October 18 (link: ). Note also the extensively pale bases of the primary feathers, typical of all Short-tails, regardless of color or age. The fact that this bird lacks any sort of defined dark trailing edge of the wings and tail indicates it is immature. In the field, spotting on the underwing coverts and body were evident, again indicating immature.

5 – SW. Again, another of the many immature Swainson’s Hawks migrating through the area that day.

I will include Jeff Bouton’s comments on this bird, because they recap it nicely: “As Kevin (Karlson posted), subadult Swainson’s Hawk – the underwing has developed the more adult-like look with the darker flight feathers being more distinctly contrasting, the body plumage has moved to the white basal coloration devoid of streaking (as adult) yet it lacks the full dark hood and bib of full adult. This is a bird that would have been born in summer 2010, so is approaching 1.5 years old.”
I will add that this bird is also showing an impression of a darker terminal band at the tail and flight feathers, which hatch-year birds lack – another indication of a subadult. As in all Swainson’s Hawks, this bird shows very long pointed wings with a narrow hand and relatively smooth edges. Note also the “headlights” on the leading edge at the bend of the wing – light catching on the relief of the wing structure.

6 – NH, Imm. This bird went into our data forms as juvenile Northern Harrier.

As explained by others in the Facebook commentary, the long thin tail and long angular wings indicate a Northern Harrier. The photo on the right is the same bird, showing the typical gliding posture of the species. The middle rendition is of the photo on the right, with a fair amount of contrast manipulation, to bring the bird out of the shadowed light it was photographed with and denote additional details. As can be seen, the bird shows an unmarked underbody with rich buff/orange, as is typical of juvenile birds; this contrasts against a dark head. An adult female would typically show substantial barring throughout the underbody and underwing coverts. Also, the dark secondaries of juvenile birds are obvious on these photos.

7 – BW Ad. Adult Broad-winged Hawk.

This is certainly an adult Broad-wing. Despite the fact that the great majority of the birds of this species seen through the Florida Keys are immature birds, this archetypal adult was captured on camera by Steve. Again, as others have commented, this bird has the bold dark terminal band on the underwing, the boldly patterned tail, and the rich rusty barring across the chest against a dark head. All Broad-wings show “candle-flame” wings, which are relatively pointed at the tip, broad at the base, and broadest at the center, with no prominent bulges or angles.

8 – BW Juv. This bird went into our data forms on 10/24/11 as immature Broad-winged Hawk.

From this angle, the wings might appear longer and more angularly cut than expected for this species, but the combination of broad wings and stocky body is readily visible, which allowed this bird to stand out from nearby Swainson’s Hawks; that species has a more slender body and noticeably longer wings. The overall pale plumage of typical immature birds is evident here, with little markings to the underbody and underwing coverts. Some birds, like this one, have a buff wash below, but their flight feathers are always nearly-white. Although this bird is missing the bold dark trailing edge of the wings that adults attain – see #7 – a dark outline is already evident. The pointed and dark finger tips combined with otherwise unmarked flight feathers help differentiate this bird from other contenders. A Short-tail would read as having dark and marked secondaries, and their bulge would stand out from this angle. A young Red-shoulder’s wing might look very similar, but they would appear square cut at the tips, with more visible splay at the outer primaries. In this photo, one can also see the classic streaking to the upper breast that many young Broad-wings have, although this can certainly be variable.

9 – SS. This bird went into the data forms as a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Please see the comments for bird #2 since for the most part, they apply to this bird as well. I will also include Jeff’s answer to this bird because it addressed vital points:
“Adult (male?) Sharp-shinned Hawk. You can detect the orangish barring on the breast (bars blend to a uniform orange wash at distance like this) and hint of grayish coloration on the upperwing typical of adult. Shows classic small head, squarish tail, but further we can see the hood and reduced light cheek typical of SSHA, Coops show more extensive light here that wrap and almost connect behind the head so this dark line connecting back and crown is often not seen.”

10 – CH, imm. This was an immature Cooper’s Hawk.

The long tail and rounded wings indicate an Accipiter. Note the long, rather straight wings on this bird, and the broad base of the tail; compare to the Sharp-shinned Hawk – bird #2. Cooper’s often glide with a hunched back, as in this bird, somewhat drooping the wings and keeping shoulders raised. Compared to Sharpies, their flapping is harder, deeper and more paced, often involving more of the wing. They will in turn soar with a slight dihedral that may be noticeable at a distance. As has been posted on this quiz thread, do not rely on the square vs. round tail for your ID.

11 – BW, Juv. This bird went into our log books as an immature Broad-winged Hawk.

This is much the way we experience Broad-wing Hawks at FKH. High flying immature birds right below the sun. I’ve added here another image of the same individual bird for a different look. Juvenile Broad-wings are highly variable, with some birds being nearly unmarked and very pale, or other much like bird #8, and some that are very streaked or buffy below. Over 90% of the Broad-wings seen at FKH are young birds. The shot on the left  – the quiz shot – shows the bird on a full soar, betraying the expected pointed wing tip of the species. Even though the “fingers” – or the outer primaries – are fully splayed, these feathers show little gap between them. As a result, the wings have a rather “squarish” look, somewhat reminiscent of a Red-shouldered or Red-tailed Hawk. However, the wing retains its “candle-flame” form, with no abrupt bulges; considering the very little gap between the splayed fingers, the wings retain enough of a pointed appearance.  Note also the near-white flight feathers of the species on nearly unmarked wings, except for the dark fingers and trailing edge of wings and tail.

12 – SW. Swainson’s Hawk

The center photo was the sole image included as #12 in the quiz. This bird was photographed within a loose kettle of 21 Swainson’s Hawks, and just like all other birds in the group it proved to be a SWHA. Photos “a” through “c” were taken within fractions of a second of bird # 12; “d” through “g” a few minutes later – they are all Swainson’s Hawks. Note the very long wings, forming a rather straight leading edge and an angular trailing edge, with an irregular bulge across the secondaries, typical of the species. Note also the long tail, that often looks sharply cornered when slightly fanned, as in “a”, or slender and flared-out towards the tip, as in “c”, “f” and #12, or even spatulate as in “d” and “e”. The impression of a Swainson’s Hawk can be unbelievably similar to that of a Northern Harrier. It is a dynamic Buteo that may at times also give the impression of a Short-tailed Hawk, as in “e”, or even like that of a Broad-wing. Like Northern Harriers, Swainson’s are buoyant flyers, making their differentiation all the more confusing; to make matters even more interesting, Swainson’s often exhibit white uppertail coverts that contrast their dark backs and tails. Look at bird marked with the asterisk (*): long tail, long wings, dark head and contrasting paler underbody – and then the field mark that most folks grip on – the white uppertail coverts. Northern Harrier? No, the asterisk bird is a Swainson’s Hawk. Note the dark flight feathers, which are also noticeable on “c”, “d”, “f”, and “g”.

13 – SW Imm. Swainson’s Hawk, immature.

At the left is the bird head-on/ventral view, and to the right the same individual dorsal. Please see the comments for birds # 3, 5 and 12 for more information.

14 – RS, juv. Red-shouldered Hawk, juvenile.

Here is bird #14 with an additional dorsal view photographed fractions of a second later. Even from the left head-on shot one can discern the squarish wing tips of the Red-shouldered Hawk. If you look carefully, even the telltale translucent crescents of the outer wing are visible on the left photo. Note the crooked bow of the Red-shoulder’s wings, another helpful hint for identifying the bird at a distance.

15 – BE, juv. Bald Eagle, immature.

Now, this is one of the nicest shots taken by Steve this day. At this larger size, the photo should reveal it clearly as an eagle. With Jeff ‘s permission, I will use his post as part of the answer to the quiz because he says it all:
“Immature Bald Eagle by large head and bill, longish tail. One year old bird by uniform very dark upperparts, black bill and very broad secondary base (or secondary bulge). In year 2 & 3 will adopt a whitish belly and back; as they age, their more Red-tailed Hawk-like wing profile (broad secondary base) moves to a slim tapered wing. The bill will begin to lighten by year 3 as well, and in 4th year will approach the typical adult look, with an Osprey like head (white with dark eyestripe) mostly light bill, white tail with dark tip.”

16 – AK Female. American Kestrel, adult female.

The odd angle of this photograph – tail-on – combined with the hovering posture of this bird might have you taking second and third looks. This is behavior typical of Kestrels, as they forage and scan below for potential prey. The colorful rusty tail is immediately evident, and the wings contrast grayer. One might be tempted to judge the contrast between the tail color and the wings as that of an adult male, but note the lack of a broad black terminal band on the tail, which would be indicative of a male bird. Note also that if this were a male bird, the trailing edge of the wings would have visible white or whitish spotting. Adult female American Kestrels often show a grayish cast to their flight feathers; the impression of this is enhanced by the foreshortened angle.

Thanks for participating. Look forward to comments.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2011 2:54 am

    Many thanks for the detailed analysis. This is like a book with excellent descriptions. Besides my binoculars, I now have the urge to bring my long Canon lens with me next visit. Thanks for inspiring me!

  2. Jeff Bouton permalink
    October 29, 2011 7:54 am

    I hate you #12… ;p I was sooo close.

    Regarding #13 given the darker mantle coloring and blackish tail (dorsal) and the apparent darkness of the underparts, it seems this bird is likely an immature “dark morph” Swainson’s Hawk. You don’t have any more shots of the underparts to be sure do you? It should look streaked evenly dark & light like a young “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk on the breast and upper/mid belly if I’m correct.

  3. Kevin Karlson permalink
    October 31, 2011 2:35 pm

    Great Quiz, but I was thrown off with the fact that you would put so many Swainson’s Hawks in a single quiz. Good job, and very informative to everyone involved. Thanks for the fun and the learning experience. Kevin Karlson

    • October 31, 2011 2:48 pm

      I am glad you enjoyed the quiz. It is great fun to read all the responses. I understand about the Swainson’s Hawks – had we actually gotten a photo of a Red-tail or a Peregrine those 3 days, I would have included them also. I suppose having too many of a species is a valid variable when trying to emulate difficult IDs at a hawkwatch. We tend to want to turn common or numerous birds into other species, because we hope they might be there or we expect them to be present. I suppose the omission of certain species from the quiz also makes it more challenging. We tend to second-guess ourselves. In defense of the Swainson’s Hawk inclusions – it is never a common species in S. Florida, despite it being a regular winter resident. I am constantly fascinated by how variable their form, flight and plumage is – I wanted to reflect that! RG

  4. Jeff Bouton permalink
    October 31, 2011 4:08 pm


    This may be where others who have been following the season, or know the watch history well (home field advantage) had an upper hand. In the twelve year history of the watch there have now been exactly 4 Red-tailed Hawks recorded. One in 2007, 3 this October. By comparison, a couple days before this post they had a single kettle of 33 Swainson’s and see high double digits every season. So thinking about this watch like a typical Eastern count puts you at a disadvantage in some ways. Having been following the counts vicariously though and reading the qualifying ‘… these were all taken over the last 3 days…’ was a big advantage for some of us. At any rate, as compared to typical Eastern hawkwatches, Swainson’s is a regular and numerous, predictable species through FKH!

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