4 Simple Steps to ID Raptors in Flight

One of the biggest problems I had starting out birding was learning the bigger birds that flew by at a distance.  I’m not talking far away or up in the clouds, but birds at a reasonable distance that I thought I should be able to ID. Here is the process I developed and used the other day to ID a big bird. Nothing unique here, just the basics that you can find at several sources.

1. Once Again, Know Your Status and Distribution

There might be a rare raptor fly by but 99%+ of large birds that fly by will be expected birds and in decreasing percentages.  For Central Indiana this is what I would expect to see in mid-September.

S&D Raptors
Looking under the Sep column you can see the expected raptors (less falcons) for Indiana. There would be basically nine choices. eBird Bar Chart for Indiana

2. Study your Field Guide for Raptors in Flight

I like Sibley’s basic drawings showing raptors in flight.  I have used them to compare my own rough sketches. It is remarkable with just a little practice you can match up raptors to his drawings.  But you need to take time to watch birds you have positively ID to match the sketch.

RTHA SibleyA
I like the basic sketches that Sibley puts in the upper right hand of most of the larger birds. Once again it shows something doesn’t need to be fancy, just get the point across. From The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

Which takes us to…

3. Confirm or Eliminate it’s not a Red-tailed Hawk

In the Midwest, and probably the whole US, the first thing to do is learn your local Red-tailed Hawk.  If you haven’t spent time studying Red-tailed Hawks you need to. This is far and away the most important thing you can do to ID raptors.  By confirming or eliminating Red-tailed Hawks you have probably eliminated over half of the choices. (That  would be an interesting number – what percent of all raptors you see are Red-tailed Hawks?)

4. Narrow it down from there

Maybe I make it too simple but that’s about it for me.  After step 3 there isn’t much else to do but figure which raptor it is or decide you don’t have enough info to confirm the ID. Remember you aren’t going to be able to ID everything.

Now the story

While scanning my local shorebird spot late Saturday morning, which is developing nicely but too late in the season, a large raptor flew by. Luckily I was taking a break from scanning the far shore or I would never have seen it. How many birds do we miss by having our eyes to the scope?  Another question to ponder.

My local shorebird spot is developing nicely, but probably a little too late in migration. South Indianapolis 9/12/15

I immediately knew it was bigger and flying differently than a Red-tailed Hawk.  It was moving right to left at a good pace without showing any signs of stopping or slowing down. I caught sight of it when it was already a little left of center.

Double-crested Cormorants didn’t really cross my mind. But I did have these four fly over Sunday morning which is a little unusual in our area. Greenwood 9/13/15

And here was my thought process.

By size I immediately eliminated Red-tailed Hawk which meant I eliminated anything smaller than a Red-tailed.  I ruled out Turkey Vulture since the bird was flying hard and fast with no teetering. So that brought it down to Bald Eagle, which I have on one occasion seen within a few miles of here, or an Osprey. And from the “floppy” flight I knew it was an Osprey.

So that took me about 5 seconds. I’m watching, thinking, and bringing the camera up all at the same time.  And in those 5 seconds the bird had flown far to the south. So here is the only shot I got of the Osprey flying away. But even from this photo I could tell it was an Osprey from the wing pattern.

The Osprey had already moved far to the south but even at this distance the “floppy” wings were evident. South Indianapolis 9/12/15
OSPR SibleyA
Compare the above photo to Sibley’s drawing of an Osprey in flight. To my eye they match up pretty close. From The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

Something I learned from watching Osprey’s is their “droopy” flight pattern. The wings are held up at the shoulder and droop at the elbow.

I learned most of what I know about Osprey flight from watching a late migrating pair for a couple of hours on the Illinois River at Marseilles on 10/22/2010. To conclude here are a few photos from that morning.

OSPR 102311 (4) OSPR 102311 (3) OSPR 102311 (2)

 OSPR 102311 (7)

OSPR 102311


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