NATURE NOTES - Number 5 September 28, 2020 Introduction:
Our current topic: Hawks vs. vultures
A common reaction of scouts in seeing a large bird soaring overhead is to yell “hawk!” Sometimes it is a hawk, but more often it’s a vulture (commonly called a buzzard). There is a rather simple way to determine if the large soaring bird is a vulture or a hawk. Vultures will always fly with a slight “V” shape where the wings rise up from the body. The body appears to hang slightly from the wings. Hawks are perfectly flat across their wings and body. You might have to wait for the bird to turn a little to see it from a different angle, but be patient and look for that slight, shallow “V”. If it is without the “V”, it is a hawk. Usually, not always, the hawk will also reveal some color (often a rusty red) or bars across its often fan-shaped tail. Vultures will be uniformly black. There may be some color under the wings of the hawk as well. These large soaring hawks are called broad-wing hawks or Buteos. There are several species, but the most common in our area are the Red-tailed, the Red-sholdered (usually along a stream or wet area), and the crow-sized Broad-wing hawk (summer only). It’s also easy to see Red-tailed hawks year-round sitting in the open on a tree limb or utility pole along the highway. They can be identified here by their light-colored breast with a dark band across it. Also, hawks usually are solitary (sometime you will see two circling together) where vultures normally are in groups. Another category of short-winged hawks not likely to be confused with vultures is called an Accipiter. The crow-sized Cooper’s hawk and smaller Sharp-shinned hawk belong to this group and are fairly common, even in suburban areas. You might find them lurking around your bird feeder looking for a small bird for lunch. These hawks don’t generally soar, but move with a series of rapid wing beats and then a glide, followed by wing beats and then a glide. They always seem to be flying direct, in a straight line. Their tails are long and narrow, and often their color is grey. A Harrier is another hawk in our area. Usually flying low over open ground, its best field mark is the white rump patch in front of its long tail. The final common hawk in the area is really a falcon: the American Kestrel. Look for this small brightly colored bird sitting on a telephone line along the road near open fields.
There are two species of vultures in the area: the more common Turkey vulture with its ugly red, naked head, and the slightly smaller Black vulture with a black head. At a distance they might be difficult to separate. The Black vulture has a white spot under its outer wing.
So spend a little time looking for the birds above in a good bird field guide and then start looking and see what species you can find. There are field guides on just hawks, but for the beginner they can be confusing with too many details. Stick to a basic guide. Inexpensive binoculars will help greatly in hawk (or vulture) watching.
Make sure you consider the time of year, as some are not common in the winter, and there are a few other species, such as the Rough-legged hawk, from the north that occasionally come to visit western Virginia in the colder months. Check the range maps in your field guide.
Remember, you can use this for requirements for Second-class scout, as well as Nature and Bird Study Merit Badges. Plus, it might be fun. Reason enough.
The more you look, the more you will find.