To refresh your memory, here again are the photos for Bird Quiz #5. Read no further if you still want to have a shot at identifying these birds.
As I mentioned in the quiz, the first photo was taken in Fountain, Colorado in May. The second photo was taken in central California (near Salinas) in March. I’ll start by telling you that both birds are in the same genus.
The hooked beak on the second bird, just right for grabbing prey, tells you that we have some sort of meat-eater, a diurnal (during the daytime) raptor.
There are lots of diurnal raptors, so which family do these birds represent?
They look nothing like shrikes or eagles, and the only kite in California is the White-tailed Kite, so we can eliminate those options. That leaves us with some sort of hawks.
Neither photo gives an indication of size. The sky is no help at all, and we have no idea how big the branch is. (Since I took the photo, I know that it was more of a twig, and the bird on it is relatively small, but using that information would be cheating.)
This is where Sibley’s page comparing diurnal raptors comes in really handy. It’s an easy matter to skim through the drawings. We see that falcons have narrow, pointed wings. The top bird shows wider, rounded wings. Since we have a bird with finely striped wings and a distinctively banded tail, the only match is an Accipiter. I already told you both birds are in the same genus. Goshawks’ tails aren’t all that striped, so these birds are either Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, or one of each. If you got this far, give yourself a hand. As much as we would like to think otherwise, sometimes we just can’t ID every bird we see. Writing “Accipiter species” on your list is perfectly acceptable.
Of course, most of us would love to be more specific. It’s tricky. Numerous attempts have been made at distinguishing these two species. Two very helpful resources include a webpage from Cornell and an excellent chart published in the November/December 2010 issue of the Aiken Audubon newsletter (originally created by Don Freiday of the Cape May Bird Observatory). Please go check them out now.
I will be the first to acknowledge that my IDs here are really educated guesses. I could very well be wrong. If so, please let me know (gently) that I messed up, and explain why. I’m always eager to learn.
As far as I can tell (gulp), the flying bird is a Cooper’s Hawk, and the perched bird is a Sharpie. Why?
First the flying bird. Freiday’s chart mentions that with Sharp-shinned Hawks “the wings jut forward at wrist” and there is a “bulge at secondaries,” while Cooper’s Hawks have straight wings. Also, the head does protrude, the tail is straight out (not cocked), and the body seems thick and “tubular” as described in the Cornell page. Finally, I happened to be birding with some more experienced birders, and they thought this was a Cooper’s. Never underestimate the value of hanging out with the experts.
The perched bird seems to be more broad-shouldered and tapered, as with a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It lacks a distinctive skull cap, as are seen on Cooper’s Hawks. As I was alone when I sighted this bird, I’m much less sure about the label I attached to it.
As I tried to match these birds to the drawings, photos, and descriptions in various field guides, I discovered how very tempting it is to confirm an ID by changing the way I view the bird. It takes discipline, and the willingness to say “I don’t know,” to let the bird have the loudest voice.