How To Identify Hawks at a Distance (and a recommendation on binoculars)

i-698e3747f3f1544c4c69899f56bce8d9-HawksAtDistanceCoverk9417-thumb-250x346-63003.gifImma let you hear all about how Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors is a remarkable and important field guide, but first I want to mention that one of the most interesting parts of that guide is the forward by Pete Dunne, who himself has written a bird book or two. Dunne reviews the history of bird identification guides, going back to the time before they actually included illustrations (yup, just words!) and follows the evolution of bird guides through the 20th century, with special reference to how raptors have been handled. Or, more exactly, mishandled.

It make sense to question the old ways: When was the last time a hawk came to your feeder and hung around in close view, or a small flock of hawks hopped around in a nearby meadow for ten minutes or perched on a bush for a minute or two? Yet, most depictions of raptors have used the same posing and otherwise been handled the same way as depictions of wrens and sparrows. True, various guides, including Peterson's, have included silhouettes of selected birds in flight, and indeed, that is the point; As time has gone by, bird books have treated raptors more and more differently, until finally Jerry Liguori came up with his now classic Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight.

And now, the subject of today's review, Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors, takes raptor identification to a new level, showing multiple photos of hawks, eagles, kites and their kin of North America as they almost always appear: Way the hell over there!

Like this:


For each species, there are numerous photos. The photos show the birds at multiple angles and with a variety of lighting conditions, and across a range of morphs and ages, as appropriate. The photographs are all taken during the fall migration. Indeed, the book is oriented (as suggested by the title) towards use by people observing raptor migrations, though it really will be useful for anyone any time of the year.

In addition to the photos there is a series of all-black silhouettes showing the birds in a variety of positions and from multiple angles. These are the old-time silhouettes of Peterson cloned and on steroids. It's almost too much to take in all at once but I'm not going to say its a bad idea until I've used it for a while. The silhouette plates would really shine in a larger format book.

Speaking of format, Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors is of medium format, larger than a pocket guide and probably about as small as it could be and have the photos make sense. My copy is the Twelve Dollar Paperback Version, and there is also a Kindle Version which I have not seen, and can't imagine how that would be useful. Kindles are delicate and not good at photos. A cloth (hardcover) version is available but its more expensive and less lightweight, so I'm not sure why you would want that one either. The paperback actually has a very sturdy cover and the book is priced nicely, so you won't worry much about getting it worn through field use.

I am sure that I'll keep this book with me all season. I've test driven the guide for the last four days. That one hawk I see now and then near 81 and 169 is a sharp-shinned hawk, and Amanda got a positive ID on a Northern Harrier. Neither ID would have happened with certainty without reference to the photos in Hawks at a Distance. Nicely done, Jerry.

Oh, one other thing: In his front matter, the author reveals his current choice for hawk-watching optics. He likes Zeiss Victory FL Binoculars. Yes indeed, they do look rather nice.

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We've got a new hawk in our neighborhood in Chicago. I saw it snatch a sparrow from the air in our back yard. I've seen it twice since on the phone lines. Been trying to figure out if it's a Cooper's hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk.

Maybe I should pickup a pair of the Victory FL's so I can get a better look. I'll stop eating now and by August I should be able to get a clear view of it. I hope the hawk stays around 'till then.

Greg, I purchased "Hawks From Every Angle" and can't share your sanguine opinion of it. Liguori apparently doesn't know (or doesn't care) that Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida also have hawks, and that they aren't necessarily the same species as occur at the popular northeastern hawk-watching sites. These need identifying too, but that book is no help at all. For you, though, it'd be useful, especially if you make the trip up to Duloot for the fall hawk-watching season at Hawk Ridge. As for me, I'll wait for a hawk expert with a less provincial outlook.

By Pete Moulton (not verified) on 23 Mar 2011 #permalink

Pete, the subtitle of the book is "Identification of Migrant Raptors". Thus it is aimed at those hawk watching sites along the migration pathways, which in North America are primarily the northeast. It thus is, as you say, not really for you, It is for the hawk watcher along a river or the Great Lakes or at Cape May or somewhere like that where there are sometimes thousands of hawks an hour at peak migration. Of course it is useful for others, but that is the target.

I've added it to my Amazon wishlist, I'll probably be feeling spendy and hurtle the free-shipping minimum within a week or two, so this book might be just in time for the return of the wimpy migratory birds that, for whatever reason, choose not to experience the full glory of a prairie winter (can you tell I'm biased towards ravens?).

Now all I need is a bigger telephoto lens and some advice on bringing such photogenic animals closer than the 2-km buffer they maintain around themselves. "In focus" is a meaningless term when the subject is 30 pixels across.

By TheBrummell (not verified) on 23 Mar 2011 #permalink

Markk, my remarks referred to the earlier book, "Hawks From Every Angle," which is subtitled "How To Identify Raptors In Flight." Pretty misleading, as far as I'm concerned, and reason enough to prevent me from buying any more of his books. Apologies for being unclear.

By Pete Moulton (not verified) on 23 Mar 2011 #permalink

Pete, I appreciate your comment about the book that I did not review, but a bit of advice for those looking on: Avoid the hawks from every angle book if you live in Arizona (apparently) but don't assume that every book from one source is good or bad based on one book from that source. If you looked at the Peterson Pocket Guide (the little one with the smallest number of birds in it) you would not like it ... not enough birds. That would be a bad reason to not buy any Peterson books thereafter.

Coverage is tricky in bird books. What hawks are in your area that are no covered? Are they Mexican/Southern/Central American species?

If you'd like, I can send you a list, Greg, but it'd make for a pretty tedious comment. There are possibly a dozen species left out, and several of those are migrants.

Agreed that every book should stand or fall on its own merits; however, the subtitle of the new book is a pretty strong indication that he's left Arizona out again.

By Pete Moulton (not verified) on 23 Mar 2011 #permalink

The book is not that clear on what it covers, though there are raptors from both coasts. There are abougt 50 species of raptor in North America and this book covers 29.

Terrific article and book; plan to purchase SOON! I live 1 mile off the E. coast of L. Michigan-MANY raptors and this will indeed be a great help! Well done sir!

By Dave Rohde (not verified) on 23 Mar 2011 #permalink

Neat. I've actually seen a hawk perched on fence post and a bald eagle gnawing at something dead on a highway median, but when they're in flight it's hard for myopic me to tell them apart from the ubiquitous turkey vultures near my office, except when the hawks give an iconic screech while swooping.

I wonder who ate the skinks I hardly ever see anymore. is aimed at those hawk watching sites along the migration pathways, which in North America are primarily the northeast.

I suspect south Texas rivals any migratory point in the northeast. During migration, we routinely get kettles numbering in the thousands. And silhouette is the only way to identify them. I'm always amazed at the hawkwatchers who can look at a kettle for a few minutes and report back "X% sharp-shinned, Y% broadwing, three kites, and two confused cranes."

What is a kettle?

Mark, a "Kettle" is a flock of birds wheeling about in one area (as opposed to a V or some other formation, going in one direction). Often they are multi species and they are often raptors but lots of other birds form kettles (polygynous, storks, etc) Migrating hawks will form kettles that will in turn move in the migratory direction, but kettles need not be associated with migration (they are more often associated with feeding, probably, if you don't care how small the kettles are)

The neat thing about kettles is that they have a very different group dynamic from flocks. Thousands of martins migrating behave as a flock, moving together, landing on the same trees together, the individuals purposely wanting to be adjacent and that forcing them to move as a group. A kettle is a far more haphazard kind of thing. Raptors rarely associate in more than pairs or threes. And, in fact, you can see those couples and threesomes in the kettle. What makes the kettle is the thermal. Some of the hawks first notice it and start spiraling up it. The others, noticing the first few, then go and use the same thermal. The birds enter low and leave high. They aren't coordinating with each other, except to use the same thermal and not collide. Birds will enter from different directions, and leave at different times and altitudes. As far as I know, it's the only circumstance where you will see thousands of raptors all in one spot.

I agree with Mark K and Greg, Hawks From Every Angle is awesome. It does say in the book that it covers common migrants that occur throughout the US, so Pete is a mistaken about his comments. Regardless, I just got my copy of Hawks at a Distance today and it is incredible. It is geared towards migrants but does cover more species this time. Looking at it right now, all the kites are there, carracara, Short-tailed, White-tailed, Zone-tailed, Condor. I like the fact that Liguori takes a migrant angle, it helps to identify them as they are really seen like the book says. You really have to take the book at its face value and absorb what it is about. There are plenty of field guides that cover all the species plumages.

Pete, sounds like it is personal between you and Liguori. That's too bad, I got to watch hawks with him at the Goshute Mountains in Nevada in 2002 and he was very kind to talk identification all weekend. Amazing skills if you haven't had the chance. I wouldn't judge his new book based on his last...they are both very helpful on the hawks they do cover and Pete Dunne and others counts him as the best there is, so I am just happy someone like that is willing to share their knowledge for the rest of us. Pete's comments are valid, but you can look at it this way, all the birds in the book can be seen in Arizona so it is still helpful to people in Arizona. You'd be missing out by not having them.

J Saltas

By Jonah Saltas (not verified) on 24 Mar 2011 #permalink

I like the Sibley Field Guide to Birds, which has pretty good illustrations of hawks in flight and perched positions, but I'm definitely getting this book, too.