There can be no greater thrill on an Adirondack hike in autumn than to stand on a summit and have hawks and falcons stream over your head. Perhaps there’ll be an eagle or two shooting past for good measure, and an osprey or harrier, too. Fall colors and prime hiking weather coincide with migration season for day-flying raptors. What you see on particular hikes is a matter of hit or miss, but if you hit just right, you may get exciting close looks at birds otherwise difficult to admire close up in the wild.
While migrating long distances, hawks, eagles, falcons, harriers, and ospreys join turkey vultures (once grouped with the diurnal raptors but now known to be close kin to storks) in conserving energy every inch of the way. A key strategy is to find and ride updrafts. Birdwatchers often refer to all updrafts as thermals, rising columns of air that form over hot spots in the landscape such as farm fields and parking lots. Yet in wild mountain country such as ours, thermals are the exception and orographic updrafts the norm.
An orographic updraft is created when wind moving more or less horizontally across a landscape encounters a barrier such as a mountain or range of mountains. Rather than coming to a dead stop, the moving air swings upward toward the sky, carrying moisture, migrating monarch butterflies, raptors, songbirds, and sundry other airborne items toward the sky. The hiker lucky to be standing on top as the elevator disgorges its passengers may be astonished to meet, say, a southbound peregrine falcon face to face.
Thanks to updrafts, Adirondack hikers take in one of the greatest shows on earth. It’s a dividend for all the altitude we work so much harder than the birds to gain. Yet how to identify the raptors you see while you’re up there? Without practice, it isn’t easy. Standard bird field guides provide help, but distinguishing the shapes and fairly bland colors of moving objects at wildly varying distances offers an enormous challenge. The basic guides, marvelous as they are, aren’t quite up to the job.
Eager and ready to rush in and fill the void are two new field guides: the long-awaited second edition of Hawks in Flight, a first-rate pioneering manual by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton, and The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors, by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan.
First, let’s take a look at the qualities the books have in common. They’re both written by the best of the best. The names Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton are better known in the birding world than Crossley, Liguori, and Sullivan, but the second of these two all-star teams is catching up fast. I’ve been watching hawks from mountaintops and elsewhere for thirty-two years. As far as I can tell, there’s not an error of substance in either volume. Both stand out for the extraordinary clarity of the words and a matching elegance and refinement of the illustrations. Both aim, too, to help the raptor enthusiast name every last bird, even the ones that are specks far out over the horizon and even those that pass overhead so suddenly and at such close range (this can happen on summits) that you glimpse only sharp-clawed landing gear and a portion of an underside.
To contrast the books, let’s take a single species and see how each of the two author-illustrator teams handles it. I pick the red-shouldered hawk, a breeding raptor in the Adirondacks and autumn migrant that often soars or flaps over our heads.
In the hands of Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton, we meet the red-shoulder (or “shoulder,” as hard-core hawk watchers call it) in a hefty block of text beginning on page 41. One immediately gets the sense that the approach here is measured, calm, and even a little bit old-fashioned. I see these as positives. The one-species-at-a-time and one-plumage-at-a-time approach, rooted in taxonomy and tradition, has much to recommend it. “The red-shouldered hawk is a forest buteo—the buteo that thinks it’s an accipiter,” write the authors with an anthropocentric flourish. So it is. Less likely to soar over open country than its close relation, the red-tail, and far more likely to steal quietly and with lethal intent through eastern forests, the “shoulder” is a buteo (a genus of raptors that tend to be large of wing and broad of tail) that hunts more like the slender, turn-on-a-dime raptors ornithologists tuck into the genus accipiter. This fact is helpful in recognizing the red-shouldered hawk on the wing, and the authors of Hawks in Flight let you know it up front.
From their initial introduction Sibley, Dunne, and Sutton go on to provide a thorough rundown on how red-shoulders look at all angles and distances. Supplementing and complementing the text are color photographs and handsome, detailed line drawings. In the illustrations the armchair hawk-watcher finds all the features described with painstaking care in the text. Among them are the rusty “shoulders” that give the bird its name, the translucent “windows” near the tips of red-shouldered hawk wings that are often (but not always) visible, and the alternating light and dark bands crossing the tail. The dark bands are wide and bold, the white narrower and less obvious. The authors sum up this arrangement elegantly as “chalk lines draw on a black slate.”
All in all, Hawks in Flight provides a thorough illustrated crash course on how to recognize red-shouldered hawks—and our other day-flying raptors—when you see them.
The Crossley ID Guide’s approach could hardly be more different. After a quick grounding in anatomy and field marks (the authors call this section “raptor topography”), we plunge into the species presentations. Here in two double-page spreads the bird nerd or would-be watcher meets the “shoulder” in all its airborne and perched permutations. Text in this part of the book is helpful but minimal. Mainly there’s an instructive feast for the eye, one featuring color photographs that show the birds from every conceivable angle. We’re shown the red-shouldered hawk near, far, from below, from above, soaring, flapping, and perching. Among the portraits is a jaw-dropper of an adult red-shoulder photographed from above, its shoulder patches blazing. The same image, by co-author Jerry Liguori, appears in another excellent raptor guide, Liguori’s own Hawks at a Distance.
Astonishing photography shines throughout the Crossley guidebook. The approach here emphasizes show over tell, whereas Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton start with an old-fashioned classroom lesson and move on to illustrations as a matter of course. The photos in Hawks in Flight aren’t as good or as abundant as those in the Crossley book, but then Crossley lacks the exquisite pen-and-ink work by Sibley that gives Hawks in Flight a rich classical touch. Which book is better? The question has no answer. Some who peruse and compare the books will prefer one over the other, but the preferring will have more to do with the stylistic inclinations of the beholder than with the relative merits of the contents.
The Crossley book also includes a block of text on the red-shoulder (first rate but lacking the pizazz of its competitor’s) and fun, immensely helpful quiz pages showing multiple species at once. Here the reader gets to spot raptors in the sky and undertake the tricky business of naming them.
Hawks in Flight retails for twenty-six bucks. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors for $3.95 more. Both books soar in quality and utility. Consider each a bargain, and if you want to know hawks, buy both if you can.