Identify: Raptors of Iowa

Identify: Raptors of Iowa

Autumn at Hitchcock Nature Center means the return of our annual HawkWatch.  Every year from September through December a team of dedicated individuals take up residence on the observation tower here at the Nature Center to view and count migrating species of raptors.  The thermal winds coming off the Missouri River Valley mean that Hitchcock is perfectly placed along a “hawk highway” traveled by over a dozen species every year.  Visitors to the park are invited to join our volunteers and our seasonal hawk counter on the tower seven days a week to view these majestic creatures.
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HawkWatch volunteers are trained to watch for migrating raptors and identify the species while the specimen is in flight.  This can be quite a challenge with 18 species commonly spotted from the tower each year.  Wing shape, silhouette, & color variation are all tools that are used to identify each species as it travels south past our tower. But you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the annual HawkWatch.
Broad-winged Hawk, Photo by Ty Smedes

Broad-winged Hawk, Photo by Ty Smedes

When observing raptors in flight you will need to look for three major characteristics:
  • Shape and size of the bird’s silhouette – Are the wings long or short? Is the tail wide or narrow?
  • Overall color and banding patterns – Does the bird have banding on the tails or a differently colored head?
  • Flight characteristics – How does the specimen soar and flap its wings?

Hawks

There are three basic groups of hawks identified by the shape of their silhouette when viewed from below.  Your first step when identifying a hawk is to identify the group using the bird’s silhouette and then look for species within that group that match the color and flight characteristics of the bird you observed.

ButeosButeo Silhouette

This group will feature long, broad wings with wide fanned tails. Hawks in this group will soar for long stretches without flapping their wings.

Broad-winged Hawk

Broadwing Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Broadwing Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Red-tailed Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Red-shouldered Hawk By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk By Pete at Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rough-legged Hawk By Pete at Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk By Shravans14 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ferruginous Hawk By Shravans14 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk By Dominic Sherony (Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Swainson’s Hawk By Dominic Sherony (Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

AccipitersAccipiter Silhouette

Accipiters have short, round wings with long, somewhat narrow tails that make them suited for fast maneuvering in tree covered areas.  They are also soaring hawks, but their usual flight pattern will feature several flaps followed by a glide instead of a long, uninterrupted soar.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Cooper’s Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite By CheepShot (Mississippi Kite) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mississippi Kite By CheepShot (Mississippi Kite) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Northern Goshawk By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Sharp-shinned Hawks in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

FalconsFalcon Silhouette

The fastest birds of prey, these raptors are built for speed and feature a streamlined body with long tapered, almost pointy wings.  These birds rarely soar so quite often they will flap continuously while in flight.  The exception to that is when they tuck their wings and dive in the pursuit of prey.  Some falcons can dive at speeds of over 150 miles an hour.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (American Kestrel) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

American Kestrel By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (American Kestrel) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcons in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Peregrine Falcons in Flight, Photos by Ty Smedes

Merlin

Merlin By Drew Avery (originally posted to Flickr as Merlin Falcon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Merlin By Drew Avery (originally posted to Flickr as Merlin Falcon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon By Derek Bakken (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dobak/111692648/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gyrfalcon By Derek Bakken (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dobak/111692648/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon By U.S. Geological Survey ([1] or [2]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie Falcon By U.S. Geological Survey ([1] or [2]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are several other species of raptors that you may observe  that do not fall into the above categories.  These species are identified using the same steps listed above.
Easily our most looked for species of raptor is the eagle, but there are actually two individual species that are spotted from our tower each year, the Bald Eagle & the Golden Eagle.  These are two of the largest birds of prey in North America and both will soar with deliberate slow flaps.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle By Michael Gäbler [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bald Eagle By Michael Gäbler [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These easily recognizable birds feature a very distinct and eye catching white head & tail with a very dark body.  Their long wings are very wide and are held flat while soaring.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle By Denali National Park and Preserve (Golden eagle) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Golden Eagle By Denali National Park and Preserve (Golden eagle) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These birds feature a much smaller head and beak than their cousins & show a muted, brown coloration.

Osprey

Osprey in Flight, Photos by Ryan Johnson

Osprey in Flight, Photos by Ryan Johnson

These birds have a distinct “M” shaped silhouette with long, narrow wings that are crooked back at their wrist joint.  They primarily glide in flight and feature contrasting bands of light and dark feather coloration when you view them from below.

Northern Harrier

Norther Harrier By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Northern harrier  Uploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Norther Harrier By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Northern harrier Uploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These birds hold their wings in a strong “V” shape when you view them in flight.  Slender in both body and wing these birds will be easily identifiable by the white patch near the base of their long slender tails.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vultures in Flight, Photo by Ryan Johnson

Turkey Vultures in Flight, Photo by Ryan Johnson

These large birds make good use of thermal currants by soaring in circles to gain altitude.  A large bird, the Turkey Vulture features dark plumage with a noticeable red head that is unfeathered, with large wings that turn upwards at the very end.
Interested in learning more?  Join us Sunday, November 8th for our annual Eagle Migration Event.  A fun afternoon of birding hikes & demonstrations are planned & all ages are welcome to join us to turn their eyes to the sky.  If you would like to join the ranks of our dedicated HawkWatchers, we are always on the lookout for new volunteers.  All you need is a keen eye, a love of raptors & a desire to learn more!  Climb the tower and chat with our watchers or email me for more details.  You can train on the job with our experienced crew and be a part of this nationally recognized citizen science project.
We would love to see you here at the park!Eagle Migration 2015