Hawk ID, Part 4: Buteos by Josh Haas
The buteos are the open land, soaring hawks you see many times along highways and open fields. Most tend to be opportunistic but from a distance, they can be tough to ID as many are comparable in size and have similar coloration. This is another reason flight ID is key for this family.
The buteos we’ll go over include the Broad-winged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and the Rough-legged Hawk. The Broad-winged Hawk is the migrant that relies on kettles (swirling groups of birds taking advantage of rising heated air) and weather patterns for flights (specific winds, pressure, etc.) They mostly migrate in groups, many times well over 1,000 strong. As a typical buteo, this bird has broad wings without a very long tail. In flight, this bird’s wing flap is choppy and stiff. In a soar, the wings are held flat and in winds, the bird will flap to maintain balance.
In comparison, the Red-shouldered Hawk can be much larger and stouts a wing flap that is stiff, making the bird appear to be batting the air. While the Red-tailed has a quick wing flap relative to its large muscular body size, its flap is from the body and the whole wing is used. Comparing the Red-Shouldered to a Red-tailed, when thrown off course in winds, the Red-shouldered has to work to get back on course with several wing flaps and adjustments whereas the Red-tailed will typically only make a couple of flaps and is back on course. The Red-shouldered also has a peculiar glide where its wings go straight out and then curve downward from the wrists on. When comparing the glide to a Rough-legged, who has a strong upward wing shape, especially from the middle to outer ends, this contrast can make for obvious ID. Watching a Red-tailed in a glide, there is only a slight upward feel to it, giving the appearance of a slight dihedral.
The wings of the Rough-legged Hawk are quite long and uniformly broad. The tail is also long and broad. In flight, the Rough-legged retains its long-winged look and the wing beat is very steady. This buteo rarely flaps in series, meaning it doesn’t have even pumps and glides. If it does show a pump and glide pattern, it’s typically more pump. Rough-leggeds are powerful fliers and they know it. They do not rely on thermals and often power through watches early and late in the day.
Buteos are typically a family that is easy to identify. The tricky work comes when trying to narrow further to an individual species. Be sure to look for subtle differences in flight, soars and glides. It’s also helpful to have a cheat sheet in your pocket with one-line tips for each species. You can quickly reference this from time to time throughout the day to remain sharp!