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Look Up! Raptors with HawkWatch

One of my family’s favorite things to do when we “get out and discover” is to watch birds!
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We’ve had some especially great bird-watching weather this fall, but I’m always a bit stymied to help my kids sharpen their bird identification skills   It’s nice to be able to move from “look, there’s a bird” to “look, there’s a raptor” and beyond.

I was glad to learn that HawkWatch International is presenting their HawkTalk coursethis fall at the Museum.  Whether you can come to one session, or all six, the knowledgeable and very fun to work with education staff at HWI promises you will sharpen your Raptor Identification Skills.

I asked Jen Hajj, HawkWatch’s education director , specifically about last week’s subject, Accipiters.

Janet: So, Jen, what is an Accipiter??

Jen Hajj: Well, think about a hawk. What is it like?

Is it a big-bodied, wide-winged bird soaring around in lazy circles overhead?

Is it a smaller fellow, lurking in the bushes of your backyard, its eyes on the little birds at your bird feeder?

There is significant diversity in our hawks of North America.  Our taxonomic classification system — the way science names things — has hawks split into two basic groups:

Buteos (pronounced bee-YOU-tee-ohs) — hunters of the open field

Accipiters (pronounced ak-SIP-it-ers) — marauders of the forest

Three kinds of Accipiters can be found in Utah: the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Cooper’s Hawk, and the Northern Goshawk.  As all three have similar habits and habitats, they can be difficult to tell apart, especially in juvenile plumges.

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The Northern Goshawk (pronounced GOS-hawk) is rather easy to identify (see the photo above). It is large, silver grey, and has a white line above its eye, which is usually blood red! The tail is a wedge, and seems wide when the bird is in flight.  Goshawks tend to be found in more remote areas.  You probably won’t see them near your house, but you may if you go camping in the forest.

The adult Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-shinned Hawk are best discussed together.  Both have slate-grey backs and wings, banded tails, and sepia-orange striping across the chest.

The major differences between these birds are the length and shape of the tail and the marking on the head. Cooper’s Hawks have a dark cap at the top of the head, whereas Sharp-shinned Hawks have the same color on their head and back.  The tail of the Cooper’s Hawk is longer and rounded at the tip, but the Sharp-shinned Hawks have a shorter, square tail.


Next time you see a hawk soaring above your head, take a sharper look at the tail and size. Look around your environment to ask yourself if this would be a Buteo or an Accipiter. Is this not enough information to identify your raptor? Here are some other resources:

– Send Jen Hajj an email through the Museum’s Ask a Scientist Weblink

– Visit the HawkWatch International Website

– Pick up bird-watching books at your library, bookseller, or at the Museum Store.

– Come to the new HawkTalk at UMNH this fall!

– But mostly, get outside and look up!

— Janet

P.S. One of the other great things about working with Jen is that she’s a song-writer and performer. Check out her singing on The Accipiter Song

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