Book Review: Hawks in Flight

Hawks in Flight (2nd ed.), by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton, Houghton Mifflin Company (www.hmhbooks.com), 2012, 384 pages, $ 26.00.

In the parlance of birders, there are two kinds of known unknowns: the LBBs (“little brown birds”) and the BBBs (“big black birds”). Both acronyms are code for the befuddlement that ensues when confronted by a bird that moves too quickly or is too distant to identify on the fly. For as long as birding has been a hobby, field guides have struggled with how to guide their users toward a successful (and painless) species identification. And even though field guides marked a departure from the traditional shotgun approach (literally), to this day even the most detailed black and white illustrations, color photography, or careful field marks still handicap observers to what they can see through a pair of field glasses. At 100, 1,000, and 10,000 feet, the bird in flight is increasingly a different beast than the bird at rest. Field marks vanish, colors blur, and songs get carried away in the breeze.

With that in mind, Hawks in Flight tackles the lofty goal of hawk identification when your BBBs have taken to the skies. Unlike the recently reviewed Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors – which capitalized on identification through photographs taken… well, at a distance against cloudy to brilliant skies – Hawks in Flight emphasizes a distant hawk’s gestalt and carriage – its patterns, posture, form, character, and placement in the sky. Hawks in Flights treats the silhouette as a bird in and of itself to scry the shadow’s caster.

Reprising their roles for this, the guide’s second edition, Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton have updated Hawks in Flight to include all hawks that breed in the United States and Canada, including the California condor. Following intuition rather than convention, the guide is broken up into chapters that lump birds easily mistaken for each other: the buteos (red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, Swainson’s hawk, rough-legged hawk, ferruginous hawk), the accipiters (sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk), the falcons (American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon, prairie falcon, gyrfalcon), and the eagles and vultures (bald eagle, golden eagle, turkey vulture), not to mention white-tailed kite, northern harrier, and osprey. These and other specialty chapters also cover east coast species, borderland species, Florida species, and other regional variants and subspecies. In each chapter, the focus is on wing shape, body proportions, areas of light and dark (patches, windows, commas, bars, stripes), and flight behavior. And in closing each chapter, there is an emphasis on teasing confusing species apart by examining the pitfalls and pratfalls of misidentification.

Pairing concise illustrations (Sibley, natch), sterling photography, and tried-and-true wisdom (“To simplify the identification process, don’t look at a hawk perched on the crossbar of a utility pole, perched on a tree along the highway, or soaring over a woodlot and wonder, ‘Now, which one of North America’s ten buteo species is that?’ Ask instead, ‘Is that a Red-tailed?'”), Hawks in Flight is both practical and revolutionary, helping to close the gap between bird and birder.

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