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Identifying birds of prey

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Offline judith

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« on: April 30, 2008, 21:56 PM »
Hi all, (no-one in particular, but perhaps especially John C. !)
I keep seeing all these wonderful birds of prey in the Gredos and the dehesas towards Oropesa, but apart from generalising on Eagle, buzzard, falcon or hawk, I am having great difficulty pinning them down to definite species!
Any good tips on how to tell Booted Eagles from Golden from Buzzards etc. when they are high in the sky?
Cheers !
Judith

Offline John C

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« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2008, 13:54 PM »
It's not easy - any birder that tells you they can always ID distant raptors without error is either lying or Dick Forsman (author of the definitive guide).  Off the top of my head I'd suggest the following stratagies:-

1 - Keep looking hard at those raptors you can identify when at a reasonable range.  As they vanish into the heavens you will be able to study their individual quirks safe in the knowledge that you're looking at a Buzzard, Booted Eagle or whatever.
2 - Conversely keeping looking at the distant ones in case they come closer.
3 - Unfortunately, identifying distant raptors is often a matter of judging proportions, flight pattern, number of 'fingers', shape of trailing edge and other subtleties all of which depend on experience.  Nonetheless try to make judgement regarding the relative tail/body length, broadness/length of wing.   Pay particular attention to the angle of the wings (esp as seen head/rear on) when soaring or gliding - are they flat, raised or drooping?   It's hard to give examples since this is often a matter of gut reaction than logical deduction (which is an admission that sometimes I don't know how I knew)
4 - Sometimes they do something quite diagnostic - so note anything that resembles a display flight (Honey Buzzards, for example, wingclap, Common Buzzards never do) and if the bird exhibits a particular mode of flying.   Short-toed Eagles hover regularly, but so can Buzzards - I find there's a subtle difference between the manner they do so (see end of point 3) . 
5 - Be prepared to let some birds go as unidentifiable - I know I do!
6 - Look at raptors at every possible opportunity whether they're near or far, preferably in the company of someone who knows how to identify them.  No amount of book learning can substitute for field experience (but do buy a good book if you want!)
7- Buy a good 'scope to effectively reduce the range (then you can worry about the darn birds you couldn't even see through bins before!)
8 - Be prepared to let some birds go as unidentifiable - I know I do!
9 - .... and finally always remember that badly seen, distant bird that promptly dropped out if sight is ALWAYS a fantastic rarity or the particular species you're lomnging to see :)

It's not easy, but the greater the pleasure when you've cracked it!

John




Offline judith

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« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2008, 20:57 PM »
Many thanks for the tips John!
Next birthday I must ask Peanut for a 'scope!
Hopefully will meet you at the next summit, then I will have my expert on tap! ....or if any forummers want to see birds of prey with ease but no expert advice, you are welcome to come and see us here!
Will keep watching and posting anything I do observe!
Again, thanks John!
Judith

Offline John C

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« Reply #3 on: May 02, 2008, 00:13 AM »
I see I repeated myself with points 5 & 8 .... actually point 8 was originally a different point altogether, but in the cutting and pasting to put my ideas in a more logical order I deleted it.  Naturally, I can't recall what it was!

John

Offline Dave

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« Reply #4 on: May 02, 2008, 12:58 PM »
Hi All
Interesting this identifying Birds of Prey, last night around 9:20 pm (Failing light) I saw a dark shape flying around the Terrace, definitely a Raptor, but it´s size and darkness threw me, and it wasn´t until it spread it´s tail, and display a dark border to it´s tail, that I realised it was our local kestrel, the dark sky had magnified the bird considerably, so add to the list, the effects of light levels on perceived size and colour.
Regards
Dave

Offline John C

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« Reply #5 on: May 02, 2008, 15:47 PM »
I was about to add my forgotten comment when I saw that Dave has done it for me!  It was to be cautious about judging size.  Tricks of the light, false assumptions and so on can mislead.  If you can directly compare the mystery bird with another of known identity then you may be able to make a more accurate judgement, but even then be certain that the two birds really are at the same range and remember that there's variation in size within raptor species (- females are usually distinctly larger),

John

Offline judith

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« Reply #6 on: May 02, 2008, 21:13 PM »
Actually John I quite liked the repetition of points 5 and 8, thought it was deliberate!
Judith

Offline Technopat

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« Reply #7 on: May 09, 2008, 16:45 PM »
Greetings All,
Reading postings like John C's 9-pointer is one of the many things I love about this 'ere great iberianatureforum. Makes me realise there's hope for me yet ...

I, too, thought the repetition of 5 & 8 was intentional - in the great traditions of British humour  :dancing:

Regs.,
Technopat
Technopat's disclaimer: If this posting seems over the top and/or gets your goat (Sp. anyone?), please accept my apologies and don't take it personally - it's just my instinctive tendency to put my foot in it whenever/wherever possible. See also:
http://www.iberianatureforum.com/index.php/topic,266

Offline Clive

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« Reply #8 on: May 09, 2008, 19:27 PM »
But John missed of the most important point!

All lists have to be in groups of 10 so I propose the tenth point to be

10. Be prepared to let some birds go as unidentifiable - I know I do!

:)
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Offline John C

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« Reply #9 on: May 09, 2008, 20:12 PM »
Since you are such a hopeless *decaphile, Clive, here’s my tenth!

10 – Use a good textbook to read-up on raptor ID (or watch a DVD for the technologically more advanced).   

For the first I’d recommend, lousy maps aside,  the new edition of   ‘Collins Birds of Prey’ (in the UK it’s £30 or £18 via Amazon).  Unfortunately there’s not a DVD specifically on European birds of prey (although there is one on UK only species), but,  at £30,  Paul Doherty’s 6 DVD set on ‘The Birds of Britain & Europe’ is such good value and so useful that it’s worth getting anyhow!

To be honest, I too rather liked the repetition of my point 5 & 8 – so much so that I nearly left it as it was,

John   

* I think I just coined this word – at least  it’s not in my dictionary – which should mean lover of tens!

Offline Clive

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« Reply #10 on: May 09, 2008, 20:25 PM »
I have never been called a Decaphile before... (captital D please)......... :) I feel almost honoured...

Please refrain from plugging Amazon when there is a perfectly acceptable bookshop available here at the forum that amazingly has as many books in it as amazon........

If you want a book, buy it via the :sign: BOOKSHOP............ We need the money :)
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Offline Keith

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« Reply #11 on: May 17, 2008, 12:46 PM »
This is my first post having just joined the forum so apologies for being a bit late in the day.

Good advice already but I shall try to give a slightly different slant based on what I look for in my part of the world, the Guadalhorce valley aea of central Andalucia.

The size of the raptor is the first thing I look for. If the bird is distant (i.e. most of the time) a large raptor will appear to be moving more slowly than the smaller falcons and hawks (hovering apart - see below).

Large raptors may often be differentiated at distance according to number, flight pattern, shape and (if close enough) colour.

1. Numbers
Eagles are normally seen singly or in pairs, Common Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures and Red Kites the same. Larger numbers are usually colonial Griffon Vultures, Honey Buzzards or sometimes Black Kites, both the latter on passage. Harriers are usually seen singly, though I have seen as many as 8 Montagu's in the air at once on migration.

2. Flight Pattern
Eagles and Buzzards tend to hunt by circling, gradually drifting to cover ground. The Booted Eagle is a classic example and appears to circle almost lazily - if you are close enough, a flash of the golden wing patches on the top of the wings is a good indicator. A large hovering raptor is probably a Short-toed Eagle (I haven't seen many Buzzards doing this myself). The Short-toed also circles slowly. The Bonelli's is a more powerful flyer and flies at speed even when circling. The Golden Eagle is a higher flyer rarely seen in my area. The Osprey, being a fish eagle, is usually seen over large expanses of water, which seems obvious but it's sometimes all you have to go on. Apart from its acrrying a fish in its talons, which is often the case.
Griffon Vultures, due to their large size, make great use of thermals and rarely flap or move their wings much. The rarer Egyptian Vulture similar uses thermals and can soar very high but is much smaller and a very different shape.
Kites have a characteristic flight, twisting and turning in small circles and using their tail as a rudder, and are usually seen at medium height.
Harriers hunt close to the ground, floating up and down and appearing to cover ground quite slowly (habitat is a good guide, Marsh Harriers preferring, well, marshy areas, Hen Harriers open arable fields, and Montagu's often hunting just over the treetop level in olive groves).

3. Shape
The Booted Eagle has a compact outline with a small head and sharp tail corners. Short-toeds have long and broad wings and a larger head. The Bonelli's sometimes shows its characteristic straight trailing edge of the wings when gliding, but more often the wings have a rounded look and the tail appears very thin. A Golden Eagle is long-tailed and its wings look narrower at the base than the broad outer parts. The Osprey looks narrower-winged with carpals well pushed forward.
The Griffon Vulture has very broad wings, an apparently small head due to its neck being retracted, and a short tail, whereas the Egyptian has a small, pointed-looking head and a distinctly wedge-shaped tail.
Kites have their forked tail to distinguish them (though on Black Kites this is often not so apparent), with an even smaller head than the Booted Eagle.
Harriers tend to be narrower-winged with a clearly long tail.

4. Colour
Books such as the Collins Bird Guide tell you all you need to know, but some pointers might be useful. A raptor with predominant white body and wings with a black trailing edge is either a Booted Eagle (darkish head)  or Egyptian Vulture (yellowish head). A Booted also has golden wing patches on dark brown ipper wing surface, often seen as they circle and twist towards you. Dark above with white body and head with darkish wings and tail is a Bonelli's. Short-toeds are very pale underneath with a dark head. Golden Eagles often have whitish wing patches on an otherwise dark underside, more so juveniles, and are unlikely to be confused with Black kites which also show indistinctly light patches. Common Buzzards look dark above and wings are often whitish underneath with black carpal patches. Honey Buzzards also have the latter but with lots of black and white ringing around them (and there are uaually lots in the sky at once).
Griffons look dark underneath but a closer view reveals black trailing wing parts and brown leading parts.
Red Kites have the reddish body and lighter wing patches than the Black.
Harriers show black wingtips underneath. The Marsh Harrier female is distinctively dark underneath with creamy head, whilst the male has a reddish/grey combination. Hen Harrier males grey above and white underneath with grey head, females striped wings with a white rump. Montagu males have black bars, one above and more below, on their wings. Females are tricky to tell from female Hen Harriers, both with white rump - time of year is the best indicator - Hen in the winter, Montagu's in the summer, as well as hunting terrain as above.

That's enough for now - without even touching on smaller raptors. None of the above is failsafe or complete (when is it ever?) and it may not be applicable to other areas of Spain (e.g. the Spanish Imperial Eagle hasn't been touched on but we don't get them here) but I hope it's of some use.
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Offline lucy

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« Reply #12 on: May 17, 2008, 15:11 PM »
Hi Keith,

Welcome to the forum. That's an excellent summary - I'll be referring to it in the future.

Lucy

Offline John C

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« Reply #13 on: May 18, 2008, 20:02 PM »
A very interesting post, Keith with much useful stuff and a good compliment to my deliberately generalised advice.  I had started writing something more specific - a key of sorts - to post, but I think you've already said most of what I was intending to say and a good deal more besides!   I especially liked your comments on shape and flight pattern.  I would recommend looking closely at how the wings are held when soaring or gliding - whether that are raised in a deep or shallow 'V', flat or drooping can all be good pointers.   I thought your comments about judging size particularly interesting although this can be very hard to judge at long range.   With regard to plumage details one think to always bear in mind is that Common Buzzard are extremely variable - ranging from almost entirely brown birds to others largely light brown, white or creamy!   I suspect my perspective when birding in Spain is somewhat different to yours as many of the birds I see (in Cadiz province) are migrants and appear in much larger groups and at greater height than I guess you tend to see in your part of the world,

John


This is my first post having just joined the forum so apologies for being a bit late in the day.

Good advice already but I shall try to give a slightly different slant based on what I look for in my part of the world, the Guadalhorce valley aea of central Andalucia.

The size of the raptor is the first thing I look for. If the bird is distant (i.e. most of the time) a large raptor will appear to be moving more slowly than the smaller falcons and hawks (hovering apart - see below).

Large raptors may often be differentiated at distance according to number, flight pattern, shape and (if close enough) colour.

1. Numbers
Eagles are normally seen singly or in pairs, Common Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures and Red Kites the same. Larger numbers are usually colonial Griffon Vultures, Honey Buzzards or sometimes Black Kites, both the latter on passage. Harriers are usually seen singly, though I have seen as many as 8 Montagu's in the air at once on migration.

2. Flight Pattern
Eagles and Buzzards tend to hunt by circling, gradually drifting to cover ground. The Booted Eagle is a classic example and appears to circle almost lazily - if you are close enough, a flash of the golden wing patches on the top of the wings is a good indicator. A large hovering raptor is probably a Short-toed Eagle (I haven't seen many Buzzards doing this myself). The Short-toed also circles slowly. The Bonelli's is a more powerful flyer and flies at speed even when circling. The Golden Eagle is a higher flyer rarely seen in my area. The Osprey, being a fish eagle, is usually seen over large expanses of water, which seems obvious but it's sometimes all you have to go on. Apart from its acrrying a fish in its talons, which is often the case.
Griffon Vultures, due to their large size, make great use of thermals and rarely flap or move their wings much. The rarer Egyptian Vulture similar uses thermals and can soar very high but is much smaller and a very different shape.
Kites have a characteristic flight, twisting and turning in small circles and using their tail as a rudder, and are usually seen at medium height.
Harriers hunt close to the ground, floating up and down and appearing to cover ground quite slowly (habitat is a good guide, Marsh Harriers preferring, well, marshy areas, Hen Harriers open arable fields, and Montagu's often hunting just over the treetop level in olive groves).

3. Shape
The Booted Eagle has a compact outline with a small head and sharp tail corners. Short-toeds have long and broad wings and a larger head. The Bonelli's sometimes shows its characteristic straight trailing edge of the wings when gliding, but more often the wings have a rounded look and the tail appears very thin. A Golden Eagle is long-tailed and its wings look narrower at the base than the broad outer parts. The Osprey looks narrower-winged with carpals well pushed forward.
The Griffon Vulture has very broad wings, an apparently small head due to its neck being retracted, and a short tail, whereas the Egyptian has a small, pointed-looking head and a distinctly wedge-shaped tail.
Kites have their forked tail to distinguish them (though on Black Kites this is often not so apparent), with an even smaller head than the Booted Eagle.
Harriers tend to be narrower-winged with a clearly long tail.

4. Colour
Books such as the Collins Bird Guide tell you all you need to know, but some pointers might be useful. A raptor with predominant white body and wings with a black trailing edge is either a Booted Eagle (darkish head)  or Egyptian Vulture (yellowish head). A Booted also has golden wing patches on dark brown ipper wing surface, often seen as they circle and twist towards you. Dark above with white body and head with darkish wings and tail is a Bonelli's. Short-toeds are very pale underneath with a dark head. Golden Eagles often have whitish wing patches on an otherwise dark underside, more so juveniles, and are unlikely to be confused with Black kites which also show indistinctly light patches. Common Buzzards look dark above and wings are often whitish underneath with black carpal patches. Honey Buzzards also have the latter but with lots of black and white ringing around them (and there are uaually lots in the sky at once).
Griffons look dark underneath but a closer view reveals black trailing wing parts and brown leading parts.
Red Kites have the reddish body and lighter wing patches than the Black.
Harriers show black wingtips underneath. The Marsh Harrier female is distinctively dark underneath with creamy head, whilst the male has a reddish/grey combination. Hen Harrier males grey above and white underneath with grey head, females striped wings with a white rump. Montagu males have black bars, one above and more below, on their wings. Females are tricky to tell from female Hen Harriers, both with white rump - time of year is the best indicator - Hen in the winter, Montagu's in the summer, as well as hunting terrain as above.

That's enough for now - without even touching on smaller raptors. None of the above is failsafe or complete (when is it ever?) and it may not be applicable to other areas of Spain (e.g. the Spanish Imperial Eagle hasn't been touched on but we don't get them here) but I hope it's of some use.


Offline Keith

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« Reply #14 on: May 18, 2008, 21:15 PM »
Thanks, Lucy and john C, for encouraging comments. This post took some effort but I found it a useful exercise to lay down at least some of the identification rules which I use, many of which I hadn't crystallized, if that's the word, beforehand.

John C, the point about how a raptor holds its wings is of course perfectly valid but I tend not to use it much - I find it difficult to judge this if raptors are high in the sky as they need to be flying either towards or away from you at something nearer eye level to make this apparent.

Common Buzzards are indeed variable, but whatever the phase it is often possible to spot the key darker carpal patches which pretty much spell 'buzzard'. Our main alternative, Honey Buzzard, is always on passage here and is hence almost always in groups usually of 20 or more, and the other rarer species, well, I have never seen here despite reports of their passage at Tarifa.

As for size, I am not really sure how I judge this, it's almost an instinctive thing, but I do find that apparent speed of flight is a very good indicator for large raptors. Whilst some of the smaller ones such as Kestrel don't really fly at speed (whilst Peregrines, Merlin, Sparrowhawk etc certainly do) they fly with a sort of rapid change of direction of which the larger raptors are generally incapable (so they appear to be flying slowly). The Bonelli's Eagle is something of an exception, as this powerful flyer, who seems to have little need of thermals, often seems to be moving extremely quickly. This is, I suppose, when shape and colour come into play.

That's the best way I can express it. It would be interesting if anyone else can help to clarify just how we make these sort of size judgements.
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Offline John C

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« Reply #15 on: May 18, 2008, 21:46 PM »
Interesting - I suspect that we all look at birds in a different way picking up on individual elements that, for whatever reason, we're tuned into. The way in which the wings are held is something I often look for and which, I find, can be seen at long range not only when a bird is head on but also when it is circling.    It can certainly be a crucial factor in distinguishing distant Honey Buzzards from Common.  Oddly enough, although my little place in Alcala sits close to the main migration route I've only seen singleton Honey Buzzards from the terrace - largely because I'm never there for the main migration period for this species.  That said, a large group of buzzard like raptors is far more likely to be Honeys.    I absolutely agree that the dark carpal patches of the Common Buzzard is an excellent feature, but against the light this isn't always easy to see. 

My favourite bit of BoP ID lore concerns Merlin and Kestrel; a Merlin is to a Kestrel as a Harley is to a moped.  Not much use if you're wholly ignorant about motorbikes, but if you do it perfectly encapsulates the gutsy, power packed character of Merlin!

John

Offline Keith

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« Reply #16 on: May 19, 2008, 19:53 PM »
Of course, John, you're right, the purpose of a thread like this must be to exchange such useful information. Hope my posts have been of some help and I, for one, will take a closer look at this wing-holding business in future - certainly the books make something of it and the point is well taken.
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Offline John C

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« Reply #17 on: May 19, 2008, 23:46 PM »
Of course, John, you're right, the purpose of a thread like this must be to exchange such useful information.

Absolutely!   It's the best way of learning something new or refining what you "knew" but didn't know how to express it! 

John