Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hawks at a Distance

Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors
by  Liguori, Jerry
2011, 190pp, ISBN: 0691135592
Basics:  softcover; nearly 600 small color photos show 29 of the expected 34 species of the hawk/falcon family in the US; all photos show the birds in flight and at a distance; a full-page photo is given for 19 of the raptors; 1-3 pages of text on each bird focuses on describing two things:  the bird's flight pattern/behavior and the bird's various plumages

This is a rather unique book that takes the unconventional approach of purposely basing the entire work on not just small, but on tiny photographs.  If that seems unorthodox or even unwise, it is the tiny nature of the photos that is paramount to the aim of this book.  For those of you who've seen the author's previous work, "Hawks from Every Angle", just imagine opening that book again but standing 15 feet away to look at the photos.  If you have not seen it, simply think back to a time when an apparently small raptor soared high in the air and then multiply that experience by 600 more birds of the same smallness; and, then put them all into one book for your identification enjoyment -- and practice.
This book addresses a narrow niche of identification, which is done by providing a myriad of photographs that show a distant raptor from below, above, and head on.  In all, 29 of the expected 34 species in the US are examined. Greater attention is given to 20 of these raptors.  These primary 20 birds are shown with a range of 9 photos (Gyrfalcon) to 79 photos (Red-tailed Hawk) and accompanied by 1-3 pages of text.  The other 9 species have considerably less material with just 1-6 photos and 1-2 paragraphs of text each.  In case you're wondering, the five species not included in this book are Harris's Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Gray Hawk, Snail Kite, and the more restricted Aplomado Falcon.  These exclusions will be a disappointment to birders of the Southwest since three of these birds are routine sightings in the region.

In all, there are nearly 600 color photographs, all of which show the birds in flight. A very nice full-page photo is given for all but one of the primary 20 species covered (no big photo for the Gyrfalcon).  At first glance, the small photos are…umm…tiny.  The majority are between 1 and 1.5 cm from wing tip to wing tip.  But, that feature is the very point of this book.  What the author does is to draw your attention to the subtle, critical features that are present when you know where to look.  With these subtle identification points, you are being shown how to identify the bird not only to species, but often to gender, age, and subspecies for some (e.g., Merlin and Peregrine Falcon).
The text for each bird focuses on only two things:  Flight mannerisms and plumage variations.  Regarding the flight mannerisms, the writing style is straight forward, almost as if the author is standing next to you in the field as he tries to point out the key features when you ask, "What's that speck soaring over there?"  Not surprisingly, much of this information is subjective and garnered from considerable time and experience of observing these birds.  As an example, Merlins are described as "…have stout chests, broader-based wings, and slightly broader, shorter tails."  Another note says, "…have shorter wings and slim, short tails that are typically square-tipped when folded, lacking a taper toward the tip."  Without photos to help demonstrate what this means, this can be difficult to convey to some people -- almost like trying to describe the difference between the musical notes of C-sharp and a D-sharp without making any sounds.

A very nice job is done describing the various plumages which cover ages, genders, races, and phases.  These descriptions often go into fine detail and are typically compared against similar features found in other raptors.  Since the descriptions refer to variously named parts of the bird, it would be wise to become familiar with the terminology by reading the terms defined in the introduction; and, to examine the adjacent photos of a soaring hawk that have the body parts labeled.  As in the author's prior raptor book, the more critical notes are emphasized with bold text.  These are the key features the author believes you should memorize.
Included in the back of the book are 19 separate plates, each showcasing the in-flight shapes of one of the primary raptors (again, Gyrfalcon is not included).  Each "shapes" plate is composed of a busy collage of 40-50 silhouette-like images of the bird.  These show the bird at different angles and with the wings held in different positions.  The images are well organized to help quickly scan over the many shapes and positions possible in the field.

As one small critique, it would have been nice to show the more similar species side-by-side in the color photographs (e.g., Cooper's/Sharp-shinned or Peregrine/Prairie).  This would have helped to see what was meant by describing one bird as being broader, thicker, narrower, more tapered, less squared, etc. than the other.  The current layout requires you to flip back and forth between pages; and, to match up similar poses to get a fair comparison.  However, it should be pointed out that some comparisons are possible with the "shape plates" found in the back of the book.  Although some flipping of pages will still be necessary, at least the two pairings noted above are positioned to face each other on opposite pages.

This book certainly gives a new perspective, and hope, to viewing those "too-far-to-identify" raptors.  The raptor enthusiast and the avid birder who's always trying to expand his knowledge of advanced identification tips will appreciate this book.  However, this book may not be for every birder.  Just because the photos aren't moving and you can stare at them without time limits, the subtleness of the features may still be frustrating.

This book probably should not be considered as a starting point for the typical new birder who simply wants to know the name of that raptor soaring up in the sky.  The difficulty of distinguishing the features of a distant bird may be even more basic than just a kestrel versus a Merlin.  The newer birder may first need to determine if that soaring or zipping bird is a falcon or a sometimes similar dove.  A foundation of observant birding should first have been practiced before trying to absorb what this book attempts to teach.  It's a new facet of material to learn and, for the right birder, will be enjoyed.  – (written by Jack, shown with sample pages at Avian Review, April 2011)


  1. Great review, very thorough. I have the book, and love it, I think if I had to take one hawk book in the field with me, this would definitely be the one. My one comment of the review is that the similar birds (sharpie vs. Cooper's and Prairie vs. Peregrine, etc. in the "Shapes" section are side by side for easy comparison.


  2. Thank you for the comments; and, for offering the accurate note about the "shapes" plate. You are quite correct and I've made a modification to my posting to reflect this.