Credit: Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Let’s review. Right about now, peak hawk migration is underway. Do you remember what I told you last year?

Identifying hawks at a distance is hard, except that it isn’t. Knowing just a few tricks and tips is enough to transform a raptor-phobic novice into a competent hawk-watcher in short order. The first step is to throw your field guide in the trash.

Field marks matter little when it comes to hawk identification. Most hawks are various shades of brown and gray.

Typical observations are made at a distance, when size, shape and flight style are more helpful than color and field marks.

Do this: divide and conquer. Your brain makes the first division unconsciously. How big is that approaching hawk? Is it smaller, bigger, or about the same size as a crow? You may not have seen thousands of hawks in your lifetime, but you’ve seen that many crows.

Size matters. It may be difficult to decide the size of a lone bird, but if it’s a good day at a hawk-watching site, a hundred raptors may pass the summit before noon. With so many fly-bys, it takes only a few minutes before size comparisons become obvious, and you can go on to the next division.

What family is it? The big birds are generally easy to identify even 5 miles away. Bald eagles, turkey vultures, and ospreys are quite distinct from each other. Northern harriers are smaller than these, but still bigger than the rest of the hawks passing by. Besides, there aren’t that many harriers passing the summit, so ignore them for now.

We’ll concentrate on the smaller, more numerous raptors. Although there are nine species in this group, they’re divided into only three families. Three. Just three. Your field guide dutifully shows you pages and pages of hawks, which makes hawk identification seem overwhelming, but all you’re trying to do is figure out which of three families that hawk is in: falcon, accipiter or buteo.

A barn swallow (above) harasses a cooper’s hawk. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Falcons are small and fast. They’re shaped like jet fighters, built to chase down prey in the open. They have short, pointed wings and tails. American kestrels are smallest, about the size of a blue jay. Merlins are only slightly larger. Peregrine falcons are the biggest, about crow size.

Most of the passing falcons will be kestrels. Although capable of preying on small birds and mice, they feed primarily on dragonflies and grasshoppers. That requires them to be nimble, acrobatic flyers. They have a peculiar, fluttering flight style when migrating, noticeable from far off. Merlins are bullet hawks, dining primarily on other flying birds. They flap continuously, speeding to wherever they’re going. Peregrines are equally swift, but with their bigger wings and size, they are more apt to soar and glide during migration.

Accipiters are built for ambush attack. They have short wings for quick acceleration, and long tails for agile maneuverability. They migrate with a flap-flap-glide flight style, when not in pursuit. That pattern is recognizable even at a huge distance.

Sharp-shinned hawks are about the same blue jay size as kestrels. They resemble a small flying T, when passing overhead. Cooper’s hawks are slightly larger with bigger heads, giving them more of a flying cross shape. The larger females are about crow-size. Northern goshawks are large, powerful brutes, also cross-shaped in flight.

If all this seems like too much to remember, relax. Most of the accipiters flying past summits in Maine are sharp-shinned hawks. Last year, hawk-watchers on top of Cadillac in Acadia tallied 593 sharp-shinned hawks, only 13 Cooper’s hawks, and a mere six goshawks. You can impress your friends by calling every passing accipiter a sharp-shinned hawk — 98 percent of the time, you’ll be right!

Buteos are built for slow soaring, before diving on ground prey. Buteos have relatively large wings and wide tails, which means they flap noticeably less than either falcons or accipiters. This, too, is apparent at a distance. Broad-winged hawks are crow-sized. Red-shouldered hawks are slightly bigger. Red-tailed hawks are the largest buteos likely to be migrating through Maine.

The buteos also make it easy for you. Acadia hawk-watchers totaled 395 broad-winged hawks last year. Only 18 red-tailed hawks passed the summit, and not a single red-shouldered hawk.

So here’s my dirty little secret: when you’re seeing loads of kestrels, sharpies and broad-wings in one morning, an oddball sticks out, begging for attention. Suddenly, hawk-watching gets easy.

OK. You can take your field guide out of the trash now.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at He can be reached at