Hawk ID Part 1: ID Techniques 101

Hawk ID Part 1: ID Techniques 101 by Josh Haas

With mid summer upon us and Fall around the corner, I thought it’d be fitting to start a series of Hawk ID blogs in hopes of helping aspiring Hawk enthusiasts with ID’ing these tough birds.  The goal will be to give ID techniques both individually and in family groups to help with differentiation between birds.

Broad-winged Hawks

Broad-winged Hawks © Paul Cypher

The first thing to do is throw field mark ID techniques out the window.  With hawks, it’s all about flight characteristics.  This can be difficult because we’ve been engrained to use field marks for ID for so long.  We tend to rely on this so heavily and refuse to let it go.  Flight ID is all about looking for things like body shape, wing shape, how the bird is flapping, whether the wings are held up when soaring (in a dihedral), and how they’re holding their wings in a glide.  By looking at these things and not worrying about field marks, you can identify individual species with certainty.  Of course, that sounds easy but as with everything it takes lots of practice.  Depending on your locale, one of the best things to do is find a local Hawkwatch during either the Spring or Fall and go where the higher concentration of birds will be.  This really can up the odds of retaining what you learn as you have the chance of seeing many birds of several species in a small amount of time.  It takes years to really get this Hawk ID thing down but when you start to get it, it’s one of the most gratifying in birding.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk © Josh Haas

As with everything you’re trying to get better at, birding with birders better than you is very helpful.  Spend time listening to what they’ve learned over the years and work hard scanning the skies for distant raptors.  It’s important to lay your pride down and be willing to call out birds full well and knowing that your mentor may correct you if you’re wrong.  Don’t let that get you down, this is just part of the learning process and an important one.  Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll tackle the falcons!


To learn more about Raptors check out: Identifying Raptors in Flight

Josh Haas

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2 Responses to “Hawk ID Part 1: ID Techniques 101”

  1. Tom Wood says:

    My general rule of thumb for identifying big buteo type raptors is “When in doubt, call it a Red-tail and you’ll be right most of the time”

  2. Christine Bastian says:

    This is very helpful. I was almost ready to give up, and resign myself to identify only perched and “obvious” hawks and falcons until this weekend. I finally confidently identified my first Swainson’s Hawk by its ability to hover. This is definately my next area of study. Great article! Especially for newbies like me.