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Ah, accipiters, don't we all just love 'em! Those of us that don't spend time at hawk-migration spots probably don't see more than a few a year all that well. Those of us that do spend time at such places have a bit of an advantage on this one. Or do we? I have found during my 1000s of hours at hawkwatches that certain "sure-fire" ID pointers are used, perhaps, a bit too strenuously, without real understanding of their usage. This month's quiz picture has the purpose of pointing out two such pointers and providing a bit more context for their use.
With the understanding that our quiz bird is an accipiter – of other species guessed, Northern Harrier and Merlin lack our bird's strong black-and-white tail banding, Hook-billed Kite has considerably wider wings and tail, and the buteos have different underwing patterns and/or have longer wings – let's see if we can quickly rule out the odd-one-out, Northern Goshawk. That species lacks the strong rufous tones of the underparts and wing linings of our quiz bird and usually sports wavier tail banding.
The two small accipiters, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, are quite similar and can be told by various features, but it is absolutely critical to understand how those various features appear in differing postures. Our quiz bird exhibits a seeming mix of "sure-fire" ID pointers, particularly the jutting-forward wrists nearly even with the front of the head of a Sharp-shinned and the round tail of a Cooper's. What are we to do with that? Well, we should analyze what the bird is doing. The tail is spread, indicating that the bird is maneuvering and the angle of the tail (and of the body) to the plane of the picture tells us that it is turning right, away from us – it has dipped the right side of the body and using that as the fulcrum on which to make that right-hand turn, like a motorcycle-rider leaning into such a turn. This action, then, could explain the rounded tail, as even a completely straight-ended tail will appear round when fully spread (like a fan; the manual kind, not the rotary-air-impeller kind).
So, it's a Sharp-shinned Hawk then, eh, with the bent wrists and the straight tail. Well, hold on just a sec. Wing posture is subject to the needs of the bird and most all birds – including Cooper's Hawks — can, and do, show bent wrists when gliding. Additionally, many Cooper's Hawks, particularly males (which are smaller and more Sharp-shinned-like), have fairly straight-ended tails. Well, then, how do we judge between such apparent not-so-sure-fire characters?
Cooper's Hawk, even those with the most straight-tipped tails, have the outermost rectrix on each side shorter, often quite a bit shorter, than any of the other rectrices and it's usually fairly rounded (the individual feather, that is). Our bird's outermost rectrices are not really obviously shorter and also have a straight outside edge all the way to the tip, creating a subtly different appearance to the tail corners than that exhibited by Cooper's Hawk. Additionally, juvenile accipiters have longer (often, considerably longer) tails than do adults. Since our bird is a juvenile (the underparts streaking, among other things, tells us that), the bird's tail really doesn't look all that long (juvenile Cooper's Hawks often appear as if they're pulling along a train, their tails are so long). Finally, our bird has a fairly small head dominated by what appears to be a large eye, a character quite in line with that of Sharpie, but different from the large-headed, small-eyed look of Cooper's Hawk. I took this picture of a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk at Higbee Beach S.W.A., Cape May Co., NJ, on 19 September 2008.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the September Bird Photo Quiz—Sharp-shinned Hawk:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.