Photo Quiz: Cape May Edition

October 30, 2009
Two unidentified hawks aloft Images by France Dewaghe.
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Last weekend our ace programmer, France Dewaghe, skipped out of Ithaca for Cape May to catch the tail-end of fall migration. Here at work, we had been thinking a lot about bird identification and the power of groups to hone in on IDs, even tricky ones. So when France came back with a memory card full of bird photos—in his spare time he’s also the reigning champ in the digital SLR category of the World Series of Birding—we thought we’d give you all a look at one of the most enduring of all ID problems.

Take a look at these two birds and leave us a comment about what you think they are. Are they the same species or different species? Different age or sex? What do you think they are, and what leads you to that conclusion? We’re interested in hearing from anyone out there, whether you’re an expert or just learning; whether you know the answer or just have a hunch.

Here are the images one by one, a little bigger. Both were taken October 25, 2009, at the hawk-watching platform in Cape May, New Jersey.

Exhibit A
Exhibit B

Let us know if you like these bird quizzes and we’ll offer more from time to time (you can also check out the semi-regular Mystery Bird feature at GrrlScientist). And if you find all this bird ID confusing, check out our Inside Birding video series for easy-to-use tips on your technique.


  • Anthony Roberts

    I guess I’d say Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-Shinned Hawk based on the long, slender, striped tail, but it’s hard to tell which without seeing them in person or having some other means to determine their size. I see them often in the Chicago area, and I always guess based on size. Luckily, I’m usually with friends who have little knowledge or interest in birding, so as long as I sound confident I can always get away with it.

  • jonner

    Both juveniles, not sure about gender.

    A = sharp-shinned – square tail, coarse streaking on chest, small head

    B = cooper’s – rounded tail, fine streaking on chest, larger head.

  • I agree A is the sharpie only because of the squared off tail. I can tell they are different birds but am not learned enough to distinguish them. Thanks for doing this.

  • I am definitely in the “still learning” category when it comes to identifying raptors in flight but I’m going to go with A: adult female sharpie B: juvenile male coops.

    B is juvenile since the breast is streaked, A the breast has barring so looks adult.

    I guessed B is male because it just looks smaller to me. I’m going to agree with another comment that said A is sharp shinned because of the tail shape, square vs. rounded.

  • Hugh

    Thanks everyone for chipping in! The two birds are indeed an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk and a young Cooper’s Hawk. (We really enjoyed-and identified with- Anthony’s brutally honest comment.) Still, the relatively small head of the sharpie and the clean, squared-off tail help identify this bird. The Cooper’s Hawk shows a thicker body, fuller head, and more rounded tail. Also, the streaking is fairly fine and mostly confined to the breast. I think it’s interesting that wing posture – a mark you often hear used with these two species – is backwards in these examples. The Cooper’s Hawk has its wings crooked forward making sort of a notch for its head, while the Sharp-shin has its wings spread straight out, cross-like. Just goes to show how variable wing posture can be, and how split-second looks such as this one can be deceiving.

    I’ll see if I can get France to post his own insights on this ID. Is anyone interested in more of these kinds of quizzes? Just let us know! Thanks – Hugh

  • France

    Looks like everyone covered most of the id points for these two birds. Only additions I have are the thicker white band at the end of the tail of bird 2, very good for Cooper’s, and the difference in wing shape between bird 1 and 2. Notice how the trailing edge of the wing is more deeply curved on bird 1 instead of bird 2. This is another good distinguishing feature between Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s.

    Personally I hate identifying Accipiters by photos. I much prefer having them soaring by where I can use their flight style to help with id. A little tip which I use (which is not perfect but helps) is counting the wing-beats. If you can count the wing-beats easily then it is most-likely a Cooper’s or Goshawk, if you cannot count the wing-beats (they are too fast) then it most-likely a Sharpy.

  • Getting to this a bit late, but wanted to chime in that Yes! I like these quizzes and would like to see more of them, particularly for tricky urban bird IDs that may be relevant to your audience (obscure Hawaiian birds probably wouldn’t interest me as much). I don’t get out as much as I’d like to go birding in the field (as a writer, I’m very much computer-bound most days), so it’s nice to have a chance to put my thinking skills to the test mid-morning with a fun pop quiz on a favorite subject. Thanks!

  • Michael Corcoran


    I would love to see more in the way of quizes. Thank you, for mentioning the wing posture it was the only thing hanging me up on the Cooper’s photo. France makes a great point about flight styles in the field. Sharpies quick wingbeats give a boyant(butterfly-like)appearance, where Cooper’s wingbeats are much more deliberate and powerful. All too often, you are looking at the bird’s rump as it is flying away and field marks are hard to come by.


  • Tom Wiltison

    I’m just getting my raptors in the air down pat but I thought immediately of a Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned. The Cooper’s The wings and tail where the main clues. After reading all the other responses I do believe I’m getting better at this game.

    Thanks for the quizzes it’s helping me a great deal with all identifications.


  • Laurel W.

    Thank you for the quizzes! I’m really enjoying them.

    I once heard this method for distinguishing Cooper’s vs. Sharpie: if you think it could take a jay, it’s a Cooper’s. If not, it’s a Sharpie :)

  • For a unexperienced like me the first thing will be visual look.. I think it’s different by the color.

    A = white

    B = Yellow

  • Margot

    interesting tip on the speed of the wingbeats. Thanks!

  • I am so new to this, I just am starting to enjoy birding during a stay at a wonderful cape may bed and breakfast. I believe both to be the same species with different lighting. Just a short walk from the center of cape may the Higbees Beach wildlife refuge offers fantastic views.

  • Keep up the good work!! It is great to give tourists visiting our area such a variety of things to do while visiting our area!!

  • Dave C

    Problem with that is a female Sharpie can be as big as a male Coopers Hawk