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Hawks in flight . . . there could be entire books devoted to the subject. And there are. Soaring raptors are often the most straightforward. Those going directly away probably present the greatest challenge. But not too far behind those could be raptors that are heading directly at you. In those cases, judging wing shape and proportions can be challenging. In the field, we have the advantage of being able to focus on flight style and behavior—here it's a bit tricky.
That said, our bird isn't flying straight at us—in fact, we can actually get a good view of the wings and tail. And what we see is distinctive. Let's start with shape. Our bird has the wrists distinctly kinked upwards—typically an indication that the bird is gliding. But, also note how the hand still appears relatively spread (making it so that you can count 7 primaries on each wing that appear "separated" from the rest of the wing). And, the trailing edge to the wing still appears straight. This is a combination that usually isn't seen in the ABA area. Gliding birds typically have the hand held together; and the angle at the leading edge of the wings is usually shown on the tailing edge of the wing. Two other structural characteristics to note are the relatively long tail and the face. While difficult to see, the perception is that this bird has a big bill that makes it hard to see much more of the face. This structure alone is enough to tell us that this is a Hook-billed Kite. But what about Hook-billed Kite's distinctive "paddle-shaped" wings? This image illustrates how, in a glide, the wings will not look paddle-shaped, particularly when the bird is head-on, or flying directly away. Gliding Hook-billed Kites look, well, like this (a picture is worth a thousand words).
While structure is diagnostic, it's always best to use a suite of features to ID a bird and here we have a lot more to work with. Let's look at the plumage to help distinguish this bird from Zone-tailed Hawk. Looking carefully at the tail, we see one broad white (or grayish-white) tail band with what seems to be a very narrow whitish tail tip. The yellow feet may create the perception of another tail band. But even if one believes the feet could be covering another tail band (as is often the case on Zone-tailed Hawk), note the coloration of the underside of the primaries and secondaries. On our bird they are almost all black. The base of the outer primaries seems to have some white markings, but there is no broad dark trailing edge to the wing, like we would see with an adult Zone-tailed Hawk (and juveniles lack the well-defined tail band of our bird). These light markings at the base of the primaries are another characteristic of Hook-billed Kite
This black-morph Hook-billed Kite was photographed in Jalisco, Mexico in February 2005.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the November Bird Photo Quiz—Hook-billed Kite:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.