The dull drone gradually got louder as the excited but purposeful boys, 10 and 12 years old, prepared their spotting cards and cigarette packs (each pack had a different plane silhouette on the back). Would these approaching planes be the friendly Hampdens returning from a nighttime raid, or German bombers headed to London? The Heinkel had twin engines and small tail whereas a Dornier had an unusual elongated fuselage and wide-spaced tail fins. The fast German Messerschmitt would be a great find, but most of the small fighters would be the friendly Hurricanes or Spitfires, intercepting the invaders and defending the homeland. Some say these planes could be differentiated by their sound, but these boys had become experts plane spotters by learning the characteristic silhouettes. It was the fall of 1940 and the boys were living on a small farm in Sussex England, previously relocated here from London, the main target of the blitz, with a dozen other children. No doubt about it–these were Dorniers, headed toward the city! The boys called their observation to the local Home Guard before the planes were even out of site, happy that they were doing their part.
Seventy falls later I was sitting on a elevated wooden spotting platform on the western shore of Delaware Bay. Not far away, along the beach, was a tall concrete observation tower, built in 1941 to help protect the homeland from German ships and submarines. During those war years it was important for our coastal defense but was now crumbling and overrun with vines. I had my spotting cards ready, thankfully scanning the skies for hawks rather than bombers, but using the same spotting techniques perfected by those English boys a generation ago.
Have you ever noticed, when birding with a group, if someone spots a hawk or eagle flyover everyone leaves their warbler or sparrow to train their glass on the raptor? The excitement picks up and the ID process begins. There is a mystique about these large birds, heightened by their hunting behavior, armed with sinister beak and claws, always ready for the next kill.
To review the basic classification there are the Buteos, Accipiters, and Falcons, with the side groups of Eagles, Vultures, Harriers, and Kites which I’ll discuss on a later post. The English schoolboys may have thought of the Buteos as the bombers, the Accipiters as the fighters, and the Falcons as the dive bombers. Years ago, before the age of binoculars, the ID was made by shooting the bird and then examining the field marks, bird in hand. The advent of good binoculars lets one check field marks on close or perching birds, but these details are rarely visible on the high, soaring, backlit raptors one usually encounters in the field, especially during spring or fall migration. This is where the silhouette ID’s of WWII are applied to hawk watching. Relative size, shape, wing-beat, behavior, location, and gross or large markings have become birder’s main tools, replacing the more subtle field marks.
A couple trips to the hawk watch platform at Cape May and Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania introduced me to the basic concepts. Learn the common birds first. In the pictures above and below the ID is easy. These are large buteos with wide wings and a dark leading edge or patagium on the center 1/3 of the wings, and dark comma seen on the outer 2/3’s. It can only be a Red-tailed Hawk, my most common hawk sighting in Maryland. The red tail itself is often not visible, but is obvious on the photo below.
The Red-shouldered is the most common buteo I see in Florida, but it is usually found perching in the woodlands watching for small prey, rather than soaring. Some say its a buteo that acts more like an accipiter. When seen in the air it is distinctly smaller than the Red-tailed with a more rapid wing beat and distinct call. Its a gorgeous raptor.
The smaller, long-tailed Accipiters come in small, medium, and large (Sharp-shinned, Coopers, and Northern Goshawk) and are referred to by Pete Dunne, et-al in “Hawks in Flight” as the “artful dodgers” for their rapid agile flight. This accounts for my limited photography of these. The Sharpie’s and Cooper’s however do have specific silhouettes making their ID easier. The small Sharpie has a “T” configuration with the head barely visible, whereas the larger Cooper’s looks more like a “t” with obvious head projecting in front of the wings. I have not seen a Goshawk.
The Falcons commonly seen in the East also come in small, medium and large (American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon). These are the fastest raptors with long, narrow, pointed wings, and are commonly seen in open spaces on purposeful straight-line flight, usually targeting small birds. The Kestrel or sparrow hawk is the falcon most commonly seen by me.
If seeing a single raptor is exciting, little compares with the accounts of large kettles of hundreds and thousands of birds observed during migration along the flyways. Reportedly the premiere location to witness this natural phenomenon is Veracruz, Mexico, situated along the coastal lowlands where the flyways of eastern North America converge over the narrowing isthmus of southern Mexico. Hawk watchers there report a hundred thousand raptors and vultures per day at peak migration. I have not been to Veracruz, but the next best place to witness the fall migration is Hawk Mountain, Kempton, Pennsylvania, which I have visited. Visit the web site for a history of this venerable site, set aside as a protected sanctuary in 1934 by Rosalie Edge. www.hawkmountain.org
I usually do not go on trips solely for birding, but on a recent beautiful September weekend we made a memorable trip to Hawk Mountain–my first visit. This rock strewn ridge or small mountain is at 1500 feet elevation and the north face, at the end of a relatively easy 2 mile climb provides a unobstructed view to the northeast and adjacent glacial ridges. The raptors use the updrafts from these to conserve energy in their yearly fall migration to the south, giving birders a wonderful opportunity to observe and count. The trail was deserted, but as we made the final climb to the summit we were surprised to find a dozen or more birders or hawkers, all settled in to the most comfortable rocky seats, with scopes and binoculars at the ready, and coolers on hand. These people clearly knew what they were doing, were here for the day, and smart enough to bring a cushion. They have helpfully numbered the subtle peaks to the northeast and the watchers would call out, “hawk over peak #3 heading to the right”. We’d all look for the bird, initially just a spot above the horizon, until someone would make an ID as the bird closed, perhaps by consulting the silhouette cheat sheet. When it approached our summit you could get a picture with a long lens, but remember, this was primarily long distance viewing. The stuffed owl on the pole in the picture above occasionally caused a close encounter, but usually the hawks passed by at moderate altitude.
We spent two wonderful half days on the mountain, learned much about hawk ID, and just enjoyed the hike and scenery. Our hawk count was relatively low as we were rushing migration season by a few weeks, but we did see 9 species of raptors and vultures and many other birds along the trail. I’ve experienced the mystique of these raptors and someday may make the trek to Veracruz. I also remember those English school boys and bet they would have made great hawk spotters as well.