Ask SIB: Which Hawk is This?

Linda Rogoff recently sent this beautiful hawk picture to SIB requesting assistance in identification. Identifying hawks can be confusing, so we asked our resident naturalist Bob Mercer for his opinion.

Bob’s Response:

A nice picture like this from Linda Rogoff makes the identification easy!

When one looks at a hawk, the first task is to decide whether the birds genus is a Buteo, Accipiter, or Falco. The way to do that is to look at the general shape of the wings and tail. Broad wings and shorter broad tail define a Buteo. An Accipiter has broad wings and a long thin tail. A falcon has thinner wings and longer tail giving them a very different shape.

Linda’s bird falls in the Buteo genus. Note the broad wings and the fat and relatively short the tail. That immediately narrows down the options. Here in South Carolina in February, can expect to see only two species of Buteos—the Red-tailed Hawk or the Red-shouldered Hawk. The challenge becomes separating these two species. Linda’s bird has red (or what ornithologists call red) barring on its chest, which could make one think Coopers Hawk if we had not already noted the Buteo shape that ruled out the Accipiters.  The  red under the wings makes this bird a Red-shouldered Hawk. A Red-tailed Hawk would have a white chest with flecks of black feathers crossing the belly. The wings would be white and without those beautiful black and white wingtips. A Red-tailed Hawk also would have a black rectangle on the leading edge of the wing close to the body.

Linda’s picture shows a crescent of white between the black tips and the red underwing that when backlit like in this photo stands out. Birders refer to this as the Red-shoulder Hawk’s “windows.”

Both Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks can be found on Seabrook Island and these field marks work great for adult birds like Linda’s. Separating the immature birds creates new challenges. Something for another day.

Readers with questions for “Ask SIB” should know; one does not need to be afraid to submit a lower quality image of a bird with an unknown identification or pose a behavioral observation with no pictures. That just make the learning more challenging and fun.

Author: sibirders

SEABROOK ISLAND BIRDERS / “watching, learning, protecting” Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) are residents, renters and guests of Seabrook Island, SC who have an interest in learning, protecting and providing for the well-being of the incredible variety of birds that inhabit Seabrook Island throughout the year.

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