ID Migrating Hawks 101

ID Migrating Hawks 101

One of the best things about watching hawks is the opportunity to learn to ID them at your own pace. Unlike songbird migration, or just watching songbirds for that matter, when you watch hawks migrating, you often have a much longer view of the birds and the opportunity in some cases, to compare species flying together, which makes identification much easier! Eagles are easy to figure out because of their large size. Vultures and osprey have unusual shapes and flight patterns, and kestrels are, well, really small. But some other raptors can be harder to figure out at first.

To make the ID, you first need to get the right category of hawk. To do this, look at the size, shape and flight patterns. The Hawk Migration Association of North America created this great set of silhouettes of the three main types of hawks you will see. Become familiar with these silhouettes and this will give you 2 of the three key points you need to be sure you have the right type of hawk.


Size: This is a quick way to narrow down what kind of hawk you are seeing. Is it really large like an eagle? Or is it a much smaller falcon size? If its mid-range, then to narrow it down more, check out the shape…

Shape: If it’s a medium sized raptor, what’s the general overall shape? Is it stocky or slender? The stocky raptors with long, wide wings are buteos which are birds built to soar, and hunt for prey while they circle overhead. Red-tailed Hawks are a good example of this kind of hawk. The more slender hawks with rounded wings and long tails are accipiters which are built for maneuvering through the forest chasing birds, like Sharp-shinned hawks. Falcons, like Peregrine or the very small Kestrel, are mostly smaller with very slender and pointed wings – these birds are made for speed as they often hunt birds or insects in flight.

Flight Pattern: Here is where you can confirm what you are seeing from these 3 categories. Buteos typically will soar for long periods of time with wings outstretched – often in circles, climbing and then descending with the air currents. Accipiters will mostly be seen taking a few flaps and then gliding along, but they are more active in flight than buteos. Falcons typically will be seen flapping their wings rapidly almost constantly.

For more detailed information on making raptor ID’s when in flight, check out more info from the Hawk Migration Association.