Hawks are a long-time nemesis of mine when it comes to bird identification. In fact, I have several nemeses - hawks, shore birds, sparrows, to name the three worst of the lot.
Hawks present a particular problem because one seldom sees them close-up in the field. They always seem to be at a distance and very often on the wing, so the birder is only able to see their belly. Moreover, their plumages are so variable that it is very difficult to isolate field marks that one can point to with assuredness.
And then there is the matter of their speed. If you are looking at a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Cooper's Hawk or one of the falcons, you had better look quickly because these babies are fast!
So what's a poor birder to do? Well, we rely on our field guides, but very often those are of minimal help. What we really need is a field guide that will help us identify hawks at a distance.
Jerry Liguori, a leading expert on North American raptors, recognized that need and has tried to meet it with his new book, Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors.
Liguori's innovation is to show these magnificent birds as you most often actually see them - in flight and at a distance. He does show one close-up shot of most of the species, but he follows that with many shots of the bird in action from different angles. Studying these excellent pictures gives one a sense of the shape of the bird, which is one of the most indicative traits for identification, and it allows you to see those obvious field marks that might actually be seen from a great distance.
It is an interesting concept and one that I think may be extremely helpful to many serious birders. For the typical backyard birder like myself, well, I'm not so sure. I've studied the book for several days now and I'm afraid I'm not any closer to being an expert identifier of hawks. I can easily identify the Sharp-shinned (squared tail), Cooper's (rounded tail), Red-tailed and Red-shouldered, the hawks that I see every day. I'm still going to have to work harder to be a good identifier of those less common hawks, but at least this book is one more tool in my kit and I need all the help I can get.
(Full disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me at no cost by the publisher for purposes of this review.)