If it’s October, then it is time to look up. Look up for migrants, look up for confusing fall warblers, but, most of all, look up for hawks. And, then you see it, a large shape with wings stretched out, gliding on a thermal. High, very high, too high to see any colors. Or a small shape, but clearly more powerful, more steam lined than a gull. Low, moving faster than a locomotive. What is it? How do you even begin to puzzle out the identification?

Hawk watchers and birders who look at hawks (not always the same group!) have been blessed with many guides. There are probably more identification guides about raptors than there are for any other bird group. But, before Jerry Liguori’s wonderful photographic guides of Hawks at a Distance (2011) and Hawks from Every Angle (2005) and before Clark and Wheeler’s classic Field Guide to Hawks of North America (2nd ed., 2001), before the videos and web sites, there was Hawks in Flight: the Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors by Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton.

Published in 1988, Hawks in Flight was unique for its time. First of all, it talked about hawks in flight and only in flight. Second, it abandoned the standard format for field guides established by Roger Tory Peterson (who wrote the book’s Forward), succinct lists of field marks and arrows pointing them out, to engage in long paragraphs discussing how a hawk soaring above might be identified. As the authors explained, identifying hawks in flight was not a matter of observing one or two diagnostic field marks, it was the evolving science of diagnostic uncertainty: “A bird was identified as a particular species no longer because it had or showed this or that particular field mark but because it seemed to have this feature or tended to exhibit this particular behavior when another species tended not to do so. Identification became more subtle, focused on subjective or transitory clues, and an element of uncertainty became acceptable.” Third, Hawks in Flight was primarily illustrated by David Sibley’s excellent black-and-white drawings, supplemented with a collection of black-and-white photographs in the back of the book.

Twenty-four years later, a second edition of Hawks in Flight:The Flight Identification of North American Raptors has finally been published and hawk watchers all over North America are rejoicing. There really is nothing like this book. And, although this second edition is strongly rooted in the first, it is clearly not one of those second editions with a new chapter or two and some new photos. This is a second edition that has been rewritten, updated, and re-invented, and it will doubtlessly become the hawk identification bible of our birding era.

The original Hawks in Flight treated 23 raptors, the major hawks that migrate through North America. The new edition adds 11 species, birds such as Zone-tailed Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and California Condor that are only seen in specific areas of North America. Not only does this make the guide more useful to birders in the southwest and Florida, it also accentuates the possibilities. As birders in New Jersey recently found out when a Crested Caracara showed up in a farm field in the middle of suburbia, hawks just might show up anywhere! (Yes, I saw the bird and it was incredible.) The original organization of chapters on Buteos, Accipiters, Falcons, Kites, Northern Harrier, Eagles and Vultures, and Osprey has been kept, with additional chapters on Crested Caracara, Southwestern Buteos and Kin, Florida Specialties, Regional Specialties. Another addition is Other Birds That Soar, a chapter that gives guidelines for differentiating amongst hawks and all those other birds who just might be up there in the sky.

Each chapter follows a format that will be familiar to readers of the first edition: an introduction to the hawk group that discusses migration patterns and identification marks that will distinguish the hawks in that group from other birds, followed by a description of the “generic” buteo or accipitor or falcon. Individual species accounts follow, featuring a description of the hawk’s range, a little of its history in North America, sections on Identification and In Flight. Identification means detailed descriptions of how the hawk looks in the air, how it looks in varying light and flight conditions, with attention paid to differences in age and gender. In Flight is all about how the hawk soars, glides, kites, hovers in the air, how it flaps or does not flap its wings, the angle of the wings, and any other behavioral clues that contribute to knowing its identity. Where appropriate, there is a section on Subspecies, regional differences and morphs.

Putting It Together, the section at the end of each chapter, will probably be the most read and most valued part of Hawks in Flight. This is where we learn how to differentiate Broad-winged migrating hawks from Red-tails, immature Bald Eagles from immature Golden Eagles, Northern Harriers from “the rest” and, of course, that classic conundrum, how to know a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a Cooper’s Hawk. Over two pages of text discuss “Sharp-Shinned Versus Cooper’s.” There are the classic field marks, size of head and shape of tail, but, we are told, never rely on just one or two features! In addition to differences in tail bands, streaking on juveniles, and flight style, the authors offer behavioral clues which I find fascinating and much easier to remember than width and color of tail bands. If the accipiter swivels its head to look at a group of hawk watchers without moving its body, it’s a Cooper’s. If it moves its body or drops a shoulder to get a look, it’s a Sharp-shinned. If the bird is flying alone, it can be either. If it is flying with other birds, it’s a Sharpie. I love this part of hawk watching. It’s like watching people, only I need to look much higher. (And now for a personal observation: Putting It Together is also the title of a song by Stephen Sondheim about the difficulties of intersecting art and commerce. How does one make a living from one’s passion? How do you explain the mystery of your passion to other people? I don’t know if Dunne, Sibley and Sutton are Sondheim fans, but I like the use of the phrase here, a change from edition one. Even the lyrics of the song echo the art and science of hawk watching, “Link by link, making the connections…”)

Chapters are strategically illustrated with David Sibley’s drawings. These are not just drawings of hawks per se. They are deliberately keyed to identification questions discussed in the text, with captions summarizing significant points. So, for example, the section on the flight patterns of Swainson’s Hawk is illustrated with a drawing of four Swainson’s Hawks flying head-on: wings raised in a dihedral, gliding with wings slightly arched, gliding with wings strongly arched. It is a good visual summary to the ½-paged detailed discussion. In the same chapter, a whole page is devoted to five full-bodied images of juvenile and adult Swainson’s Hawks, underside and upperside. This is how the hawk watcher would see these birds in the field. It is important to remember, and the authors make this point throughout, that when you are seeing hawks at a distance field marks of color and plumage matter less than field marks of light and dark, pattern and behavior. The black-and-white drawings are an essential part of this identification process, and work here where they might not work in a standard field guide.

Color photographs have been added, a big change from the 1988 book and one that is likely to attract birders used to looking at bird photographs on the Internet. The point is also made that optics have improved to the point where color is now a more viable element in field identification. Principal photographers are Jerry Liguori, Ned Harris, Kevin T. Karlson, and Clay Sutton, with ten additional photographers cited as contributors. I like photographs, and I confess that I did not use the first edition as much as I should have because I prefer photographs to drawings. The photographs are plentiful and well integrated into the chapters. Like the drawings, they are used to illustrate specific points of identification: the colorful pattern on an American Kestrel in flight, the variability of the patterning and colors of immature Bald Eagles.

The color photographs and black-and-white drawings help create a beautiful book with quality paper and binding, lovely to look at and handle. A great deal of thought has obviously gone into how Hawks In Flight is made and how it will be used. Chapter pages are bordered in shades of blue, green, orange, purple and brown, creating a color index for each hawk group. The inside covers are illustrated with drawings of every of the 34 hawks in the book, in size proportion and with identification. The inside back cover also contains the necessary diagrams of a generic hawk with parts identified, Topography of a Raptor. I very much appreciate this placement; even though I have mastered the placement of hand, wrist, and arm on a hawk’s wing, I still have trouble with greater secondary, median secondary and lesser secondary coverts.

Pete Dunne (left) is the director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, where he is often accessible to visiting birders. I happened to be standing next to him several years ago when he was doing hawk watch duty at the platform, and almost keeled over when he yelled out in a strong, clear voice, “Northern Goshawk!” He is the author of many bird and nature books and articles, including Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion (2006), The Feather Quest (1999), and The Wind Masters: The Lives of North American Birds of Prey, illustrated by Sibley (2003). David Sibley, who was identified in the first edition as a “noted bird artist”, is the author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, The Sibley Guide to Trees. David also writes Sibley Guides, a blog in which he talks about natural history subjects. His latest posting describes the pen-and-ink technique used to create the illustrations for Hawks In Flight. No computers, just “a bottle of India Ink, a crow-quill pen nib in a handle, and a watercolor brush.” Clay Sutton (left) is known as one of the best products of Cape May, a naturalist, instructor, tour leader, and, with his wife Pat, the co-author of many books about birds, butterflies, and natural history, including Birds and Birding at Cape May: What to See and When and Where to Go (2006), How to Spot Hawks and Eagles (1996), and How to Spot Butterflies. Pat and Clay also have a blog that you may want to pursue, especially if you are interested in butterflies and wildlife gardening.

The excellence of Hawks in Flight is rooted in the expertise, experience and skills of all three authors. The writing style is both informative and absorbing. It did take me a while to get used to this style; I like a briefer, with bullet points and arrows and boxes. Hawks in Flight’s authors take their time, engaging in long, protracted descriptions of how a hawk looks in flight, or how a juvenile light morph differs in wing and tail pattern from a juvenile dark morph. Whole pages are devoted to the possible identification errors hawk watchers might make, and why. Some of this detail can be overwhelming to the novice hawk watcher. But, when you think about it, the writing style does make sense; it echoes the experience of sitting with a bunch of experienced, maybe even Riff-Raff hawk watchers, listening to them reason out an id. When you read that “High-flying Merlins often betray themselves and distinguish themselves because they are vigorously harassing another raptor (even ones as large as Gold Eagle)”, you know that comment comes from years of field experience. There is also poetic feel to parts of the book, echoing the passion hawk watchers bring to the science. Here is the description of Swainson’s Hawk in flight: “A gliding Swainson’s Hawk holds its wings in a unique configuration. With wrists thrust well forward (projecting beyond the head), the wing configuration combines the dihedral of a harrier and the crooked-wing configuration of an Osprey. It appears as if the bird is resting its weight on the palms of its hands”.

There are two areas in which Hawks in Flight falls short. The first is the absence of range maps. This probably didn’t seem necessary for the first edition, but they are missed in this newer, expanded edition. The second area in need of improvement is located in the back of the book. The Index is basic but decent, with listings by common and scientific bird name and text graphics in italics. The Bibliography lists major books and articles on hawk identification, with an emphasis on birding rather than ornithological literature. There are surprisingly few articles cited that were published after 2002. And, there are no listings of web-based articles, even when a print version is listed. More extensive and more puzzling is the omission of the online versions of the 30 species articles from The Birds of North America series,. The print version of BNA was completed in 2002, but the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology has been periodically updating them online, including some that are cited here. Finally, I was surprised not to find more information in the section on Raptor Conservation (included in the chapter Birds That Soar). A listing of raptor conservation organizations seems the logical item to follow an appeal for support of these organizations. I can only imagine that expanding and updating these back-of-the book sections were activities beyond the time limits of three incredibly active writer/naturalists involved in a myriad of pursuits. The Introduction states that as soon as the first edition of Hawks in Flight was published, readers were clamoring for changes and additions. So, Pete, David, and Clay, I respectfully request that you make a note to work on these issues for your third edition.

So, should you buy the second edition of Hawks in Flight? If you are of the birder tribe labeled Hawk Watcher, the answer is a big “yes!” If you have the first edition, you will want the new insights, color photographs, new chapters, and increased ease of use of this volume. It’s larger, it’s prettier, and easier to use in the field (though at 1.8 lbs. it is heavier). I do think that Hawks in Flight might be overpowering for beginning birders. It is a book to aspire to, after mastering Wheeler and Clark’s A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors or Liguori’s Hawks From Every Angle. But, ultimately, this is the hawk book you will want in your birding library. At $26 retail (less money through the usual sources), it’s a bargain, the cumulated lessons of decades of hawk watching wisdom in 352 pages.

It’s Hawk Watching Season! Where are you watching hawks this fall? What are you seeing? And, what books are you using to help identify our buteos, accipiters, falcons, and eagles?

Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Raptors, Second edition.
by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company, Sept. 2012.
Hardover, 352p. $26.00 (retail)
ISBN-13: 9780395709597
ISBN-10: 0395709598

Photographs of the cover, Pete Dunne, and Clay Sutton were provided by Houghton Mifflin, the publisher. (No photo of David Sibley was available.) Houghton Mifflin also provided 10,000 Birds with a review copy of Hawks in Flight.

Written by Donna
Having been attached to books all her life, Donna Lynn Schulman is thrilled to be engaged in a passion that requires fealty to an information artifact called a “field guide.” A former labor educator and labor relations library director at two large universities, Donna also reviewed books for Library Journal for 15 years (totaling over 100 titles), and has contributed articles on to academic journals and monographs. She wrote her first birding book review for the Queens County Bird Club’s News & Notes, which she formerly edited, and also reviews books for Birding magazine. Donna discusses birding books with Nate Swick and other members of the Birding Book Club on the American Birding Association Podcast several times a year, including the popular Best Birding Books of The Year. When she is not birding in Queens or working on her nature photography, Donna travels to Los Angeles, where she attempts to turn her granddaughter into a birder.