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“Hawks in Flight, Second Edition”…..what’s changed?

September 16, 2012

A Review by Jeff Bouton

“Hawks in Flight” – first edition (L) and brand new 2nd edition (R)

The classic “Hawks in Flight” by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, & Clay Sutton has always been a special book to me. It came to market nearly a quarter century ago at a time when I was a fledgling professional hawkwatcher in my teens, struggling to develop identification skills.  Between the timing and the seminal content (unlike anything available in the marketplace) this guide offered enormous assistance to me and countless other raptor fans since.

David’s eye for detail and skilled hand allowed readers to clearly appreciate how wing shapes changed with the behavior of the bird and wind conditions through his lifelike drawings. While the complimentary text gave readers insight into each species personalities through lines like, “Merlin’s are usually solitary (because they have a bad disposition) and will frequently go out of their way to harass other birds in migration.” While tongue in cheek, there is certainly a great deal of truth here, as no other raptor species shows more aggression more consistently! The text also provided invaluable gems on wing profiles and wing flaps written in easily understandable descriptive wording. One that resonated with me was the description of the distinctive Peregrine Falcon wing beat. ‘…curling up to a smooth arc high above the back, then rolling down the wing in a powerful wave and ending with a purposeful inward snap of the wrists at the end of  the strong downstroke…’  This is not verbatim but close & I believe this was likened to a “bullwhip cracking.”

So here we are over 24 years and over 60,000 copies later, and the classic returns better than ever (and just in time for migration to boot).  At first glance you will note obvious differences:

  • The 2nd edition is a larger format measuring nearly 1” more in width & height
  • Color tabs at the outer edge of each page clearly delineate each section
  • High quality color photos have been added into each respective section
  • The 2nd edition is 81 pages longer than the original
  • The 2nd edition printed on high quality glossy paper (1st on flat stock)

Each section uses a uniquely-colored page border & color photos were interspersed throughout

The original book was intended and pitched as a supplement to field identification, and NOT as a field guide – a complimentary tome to be read at home. However, with the addition of the colored tabs (allowing easy location of varying sections even with the book closed) and relevant, high quality images that help further accentuate plumage differences and varying wing shapes, it is clear that the new 2nd edition will function more effectively as a true field guide in the classic sense.

 The 1st edition dealt solely with those species commonly seen at most hawkwatches and not ALL species occurring in North America. This original list encompassed 23 species of “raptors” (includes vultures) in the following order: Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, Swainson’s, Rough-legged, Ferruginous, Sharp-shinned, & Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Goshawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine and Prairie Falcons, Gyrfalcon, Mississippi, Swallow-tailed, and “Black-shouldered” Kites (White-tailed), Northern Harrier, Turkey and Black Vultures, Bald and Golden Eagles, and Osprey.

 The 2nd editionis more inclusive adding 11 species of resident regional specialties to the original 23 to address all resident nesting “raptors” occurring in US and Canada: California Condor, Hook-billed and Snail Kite, Common Black, Harris’, Gray, Zone-tailed, White-tailed, and Short-tailed Hawks, Northern Caracara, and Aplomado Falcon.

American Kestrel illustrations unchanged but reproduced larger in the new larger guide

Happily the classic, original text remains virtually unchanged, and total individual word changes from page to page between the two editions can generally be counted on both hands (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it). It also seems nearly all of David Sibley’s original artwork was reused as well. As evident from the image above though, the new larger format allowed these to be reproduced at a larger scale making them much more usable. Plus, I’ve noted new art done in the same style in the 2nd edition as well. The authors have also maintained the same order of species appearance, with only one exception: the new Crested Caracara section was inserted between the “Eagles & Vultures, Big Black Birds” and “Osprey, The Fish Hawk” sections. Otherwise all new sections were placed at the end of the book. Each individual section and species account is structured the same as well – beginning with general life history, family traits/characteristics, describing the migration, then moving to species accounts. As an example, the confusing Red-tailed Hawk (appropriately) appears first in the guide – it is 22 full pages long and includes 17 illustrations and 30 images to cover a full spectrum of plumage possibilities.

New section “Florida Specialties” adds Short-tailed Hawk & Snail Kite
– significant for FKH visitors!

In all, 82 pages are dedicated to these remaining new species chapters at the rear of the guide broken up into 4 new sections in the following order:

  • “Southwest Buteos & Kin” provides thorough treatment of Gray Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Zone-tailed, White-tailed, & Harris’ Hawks.
  • “Florida Specialties” provides in depth coverage of Snail Kite & Short-tailed Hawk
  • “Regional Specialties” provides coverage of Hook-billed Kite, Aplomado Falcon, & finally California Condor – the 11th new raptor species.
  • “Other Birds That Soar” addresses similar soaring birds that can cause confusion like American White Pelican, Anhinga, Wood Stork, Ravens & Crows…

I know for a fact I’ve been fooled on many occasion by a soaring raven in the west and certainly regularly by Anhingas here in Florida. Magnificent Frigatebird was not mentioned here, but I suppose that is an issue that one only sees on a trip to our Florida Keys Hawkwatch!

Even though 78 pages were dedicated to photos at the back of the first edition of “Hawks in Flight” it’s safe to suggest these were of marginal use for a variety of reasons. First, the photos were taken back in the days before digital, auto focus, and image stabilization >25 years ago. At that time, one had to rely on generally grainy film and used ASA settings of 400 or less, resulting in comparatively slow shutter speeds and a lack of crisp images of birds in flight. Today’s sophisticated electronic sensors are capable of shooting at very high ISO settings (equivalent to ASA in film) offering shutter speeds up to 10x faster than those used in the film era. Add the advantage of auto focus, image stabilization, and the “digital effect” of knowing instantly if your image turned out and being able to readjust metering settings and take the shot again if not, and our acceptance of a usable photo in regards to birds in flight has changed dramatically. Additionally these old photos reproduced poorly due to the conversion to black & white and printing on flat (not photo grade) paper.

Immature Red-tailed Hawk images from 1st edition HIF

Clearly (or unclearly) the images of immature Red-tailed Hawks shown in the 1st edition (above) are not very useful. The photo at left could be used solely for wing shape comparison as no plumage detail is visible due to shadowing, while the image at right was wholly unusable once converted to black & white as the blue sky reproduced to near the same shade of gray as the brown on the bird making the two inseparable. Compare these to the Red-tailed images from the vastly improved 2nd edition below.

Adult (R) & immature (L) Red-tailed images from 2nd edition “Hawks in Flight”

Despite flipping through the images in the original often in the past, I will admit that I only found these useful for helping with wing shapes, flight profiles, and comparative proportions much as a full silhouetted image would due to the poor quality. It is clear that these new modern images reproduced on a photo grade paper in the 2nd edition, will be all that much more useful as now definitive plumage characters can be seen easily (note – the image examples I provide above appear far better in the book than my hasty reproductions shown here). The fact that these images appear alongside the text that describes the features shown in the respective species account instead of in an appendix at the back of the book makes them far more relevant as well.

In short, I loved the first edition of HIF finding it to be an indispensable resource, giving away dozens of copies (including my signed original) to raptor fans and curious birders alike over the past 24 years. Considering that the authors have now made the 2nd edition that much more user friendly for field use and viable by adding new species and wholly usable (even stunning in some cases) images to boot, it’s safe to say this is a book no serious hawk watcher will want to be without. For those considering if the new guide has enough to consider upgrading from the first, I’d say definitely yes. The 18 pages treating flight styles & behavior characteristics of Short-tailed Hawk and Snail Kite alone are reason enough for those of us birding in Florida.  So my suggestion – Go out  and buy the new and improved 2nd edition HIF and then pass your old copy on to a fledgling hawk fan at your local hawkwatch insuring the torch is passed!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Winnie Burkett permalink
    September 17, 2012 5:38 am

    I didn’t think I needed a new edition of this book but after reading your review I find I definately do. Florida is not the only place there are Frigatebirds at hawk watches. They are regulars at Smith Point in Texas and several times I have seen them soaring overhead with Swallow-tailed Kites.

    • September 17, 2012 7:04 am

      It is great to more about Smith Point. At the Keys, visitors – and experience hawkwatchers alike – often confuse distant Frigatebirds with Ospreys. The bow of wings contributes to this confusion, and the fact that Frigate tails become difficult to see at great distances. Folks also get excited when they think they are seeing Swallow-tailed Kites, and in fact they are seeing Frigatebirds.
      It is also great to see that Smith Point is posting on HawkCount this season. We always like to see how that site is going! – Rafael

    • September 17, 2012 11:42 am

      I wholly agree with Winnie Burkett.

  2. September 17, 2012 10:13 am

    Thanks for the great review, Jeff. HIF was the first guide to preach “holistic birding”, a technique (or dogma, if you will) that has a Zen quality about it, something akin to “once you see no individual field marks, you see the bird”. Many recent guides have made progress in teaching this method but it’s about the hardest thing you can put down into words… like Zen training, I guess, it requires mentors and lots of practice in the field. David, Pete and Clay have really nailed it for raptors in flight, at least. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy!


  1. Review Roundup: September, 2012

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