For the Birds Radio Program: Hawk Ridge Weekend

Original Air Date: Sept. 15, 1989

3:48 Date confirmed

Audio missing


(Recording of a Sharp-shinned Hawk)

Today is the first day of the annual Hawk Ridge weekend sponsored by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. Hawk watchers from all over Minnesota and Wisconsin are gathering in Duluth in hopes of a big hawk day–the kind of day 15 or 20 thousand hawks pass over. And even if the hawks are few and far between, other migrants are always hanging around. Besides, the weekend is a fine time to rekindle old friendships and spark new ones.

A lot of serious birders have trouble with hawk identification, with good reason, so beginners shouldn’t feel embarrassed if they can’t tell a hawk from a handsaw. Not only are hawks at the top of the food chain, but they also maintain such large territories that during most of the year they are truly both few and far between. Many hawks don’t have the conspicuous field marks of familiar songbirds, and many species have variable plumage. And it’s hard to judge just how far away a bird is against a blue sky–it’s either big and far away or it’s small and near. No wonder some bird watchers give up and sit, like Ogden Nash, visualizing in their gin/ the Audubon that they audubin.

But if identifying hawks is tricky, it’s hardly impossible. The most important thing to learn is to trust your eyes. Observe how the hawk flies–whether it flaps quickly or slowly or soars without any wingbeats at all. And study the shape of the wing. Some of the rules are easy: If the wings are long, narrow, and pointed, the bird may be a falcon. If the wings are long and rounded, and the bird has a short tail, it’s probably a buteo. If the wings are short and rounded, and the bird has a long tail, it’s an accipiter or a Blue Jay. But these rules are only guidelines. If the wings are short and pointed, it may be an accipiter with its wings set for fast flight. Red-tailed and Broad-winged Hawks can also set their wings to have a point. Ospreys show quite a bit of white and have a crook in their wings–but, unfortunately, so do seagulls. Adult Bald Eagles are easy, but it takes them four or five years to assume a white head and tail–before that, they’re brown and splotchy.

Field guides are a big help with hawks, but don’t rely too much on them. On territory, Sharp-shinned Hawks are often seen flap-flap-soaring, which all the field guides mention, but on migration they often flap steadily, or soar with broad-wings, especially after they’ve eaten for the day and start to ride thermals. Broad-wings, which are supposed to soar, do quite a bit of flapping before they catch a thermal.

How do the hawk counters possibly count a kettle of swirling hawks? Easy–they don’t. They wait until the hawks stream out in a line. How can they identify a sharpie or a peregrine that looks just like a tiny speck in the sky? Well, it’s easiest when the bird is flying in a kettle of broad- wings–then the difference in size and shape is clearer. It’s much harder when the bird is alone–that’s why experienced counters know they’re going to get at least a few unidentified flying objects each day. Finally, why don’t the hawks act like the field guides say they’re supposed to? That just goes to show that birds can’t read.

(Recording of a Sharp-shinned Hawk)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been For the Birds.