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Sharpen Up Your Sharpie ID With New Crossley Raptor Guide

sharp-shinned hawk practice photo - large version

We were pretty impressed with Richard Crossley’s first bird ID guide when it came out in 2011. So we can’t wait for the next installment: a guide dedicated specifically to raptors, due out in April 2013. Could our excitement have anything to do with his coauthors? Yes it could: they include raptor wizard Jerry Ligouri (author of a guide or two of his own), and the Cornell Lab’s own Brian Sullivan, an eBird project leader.

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors continues Crossley’s turned-on-its-head approach to bird guides. Instead of putting one or two large, detailed images front and center against a white background, Crossley inundates the reader with photos of the bird in all postures, plumages, and—most importantly—sizes. The birds skitter across a single landscape photo, forcing the reader to pay attention to the most important aspect of identification: size & shape.

This approach is especially well suited to raptors, which you typically see from a long distance away in challenging light. The first thing we learn about raptors is how to tell the shape of a buteo from an accipiter from a falcon. Refining that ability to judge shape is what makes raptor watching an enduring pursuit. Take this sample plate for example—how many jump out immediately as Sharp-shinned Hawks, and how many surprise you?

I asked Brian Sullivan for some tips on this small accipiter, and here’s what he told me:

Distinguishing the accipiters is one of the most challenging aspects of bird identification. Let your eyes roam across these images, and pay particular attention to shape. How do the various shapes translate as the birds get farther away? Sharp-shinned usually shows a relatively small head, a narrow-based, often squarish-tipped tail, and short, stocky, rounded wings. The wings are pressed forward at the wrists, often making Sharp-shinned appear smaller-headed than the other two accipiters, Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawk. Ageing accipiters is often easier than identifying them: first-years are brownish above and streaked brownish below; adults are blue-gray above and barred reddish or (for the goshawk) grayish below.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library