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Sharp-shin Vs. Cooper's: Wrong Again, and Happily So

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When we last left our heroine, she was flying through the air at a high rate of speed on her way to Orlando to give three talks and accompany (I won't say lead) two field trips in five days at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in beautiful balmy Florida.

I left this...this...crapola... just this morning...

for this...

don't miss huuuuuge gator with nose on shore...

with my best boyfren Liam at Blue Springs State Park, Orange City, Florida. We watched the sun go down to the gentle exhalations of about a dozen of the 300 manatees parked there in the 72 degree crystal clear water. It is a wonderful world. You can fly two winter weary people to Paradise in just under three hours. 

Just as I went to turn my phone off just after noon today, a private Facebook message came in from none other than Kenn Kaufman, field guide author (birds, mammals, butterflies), writer and naturalist supreme. I'm taking the liberty of copying it here. After a friendly salutation, he wrote:

I looked at your blog post on Accipiters this morning, and just between us, I feel uneasy about the ID. I'm not an expert but I did spend a lot of time looking at plumage characters when I was working on Advanced Birding; I never saw a Sharp-shin, in a museum or in the field or in diagnostic photos, that had such a blackish cap. Just looking at the head in your photos - the blackish cap, pale nape, mauve-gray auriculars, and position of the eyes on the face - I would have been confident in calling it a Cooper's. I know about the leg shape difference and I've tried to illustrate it in the past, but to me the bird in your photos looks inconclusive in that regard.

I didn't want to start a public debate, but I thought it would be worthwhile to contact you privately about this. If the bird is indeed a Sharp-shinned, it totally alters my concept of head pattern on the species. At the very least, it would be far from typical, and it might be good to tell people that. But I'd encourage you to look at those characteristics of head and face pattern and reconsider this bird.

I think my favorite line is "I'm not an expert..."

Nah. You're not. Then, um, who is?? I chuckled and made a few quiet squees to myself, turned off my phone, and settled into my crappy airplane seat with a happy sigh. So it's a Cooper's after all. Well, dangit, my first thought was that it was a Cooper's, but then I talked myself into sharp-shin. Go with your first gut's rarely wrong.

And when we landed and I turned my phone back on, there was another Facebook message from none other than Keith Bildstein, Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Dude has seen and ID'd a few hundred thousand accipiters in his time. He wrote, 

Julie, looks like a Coops to me. White band prominent on rounded tail tip, but the relative closeness of the eye to the bill (versus the back of the head) is a dead giveaway. I hope this helps. In AZ now chasing TVs.

I. LOVE. IT. I'm leaving the original post just as it is, with a little addendum to point people to this one for, as Paul Harvey used to intone, "The Rest of the Story."  Because like paint thrown at a wall, the erroneous post has a beauty all its own. And for me, the beauty is that this is subtle stuff.  Even as I'm watching it down the last of its starling, this bird is morphing before my eyes. One moment it looks like a great big female sharpie; the next it looks like a small male Cooper's. One moment its bill looks delicate; the next a bit large for a sharp-shin. I just could not decide. And then I saw what looked like spindly legs, and I thought I had it nailed. Not so fast, Zickefoose.

photo by Diane Husic

I've been known to make a bad call from time to time. I think I was making one just last September when this photo was taken, in fact, and Keith Bildstein, who is perched on the rock above me, turned around and corrected me. Heh. Heh. It was a broadwing, and I was calling it a sharpie. Duh. Outta shape, Zickefoose? Well, on your bird ID you are. Besides. Who wears pants like THAT at South Lookout??

And it's clear from what I wrote that I was cornfused. I even  mentioned the dark cap as being atypical for a sharpie, but I didn't know it was contraindicated. 

And those spindly legs? Well, I guess it's a Cooper's with spindly legs. What do I know? Not much. Relative closeness of eye to bill? So a Cooper's hawk's eye is closer to its bill than to the back of its head? Ohh kay. Now that you say it, I guess I can see it. And I love it. Who knew? Not me. Others. 

I warned you that I was paddling around the shallow end of bird ID. And now two great big sharks have cruised in to set me straight, and I couldn't be more pleased about it.

Because for me, and for any naturalist who is driven by curiosity and the desire, above all, to get it right, the point of all this is to ferret out the truth. And the truth is out there. And I've got two nice private messages from two experts to prove it. That feels good. Knowing what the bird is feels even better.

Me and Keith at Hawk Mountain's South Lookout, September 2014
Photo by Diane Husic

Thank you, Big Sharks! It's a Cooper's hawk. Well, dip me in chocolate. 


The End.

Humblest thanks to Kenn Kaufman, Keith Bildstein, and gardnie 07 (comments section of the original post), all of whom set me straight and taught me a thing or five.



Posted by Gail Spratley January 20, 2015 at 7:39 PM

And I probably would have been proud of myself to just say it was a hawk!
Love how you went to such lengths to determine its true identity!

yep, really tough to tell those two apart... unless, of course, you are an expert...

Ah-HAH! I KNOWED they was the same bird!

Julie, are you registered with the "ID Frontiers" birding listserv group? Coopers/Sharpie decisions might be a bit mundane for them, but still could've been interesting to put your bird there and watch the discussion. If it's a slam-dunk Coopers, you'd pick up a lot of pointers on making that call, or if it created back-and-forth debate, those are always interesting and instructive (the extended discussions on the site are always worth reading).
Now to figure out how do the hawks themselves tell each other apart? ;-)

Having to be right, engineer style. I love it. Go Zick!

I love this whole thing. If I've learned nothing else since I so recently came to birding as a major THING in my life, it's that I should keep my mouth shut and just look, and listen. And maybe on occasion venture a timid "could it be a...?" HA! Meanwhile, these two posts have been very instructive vis-a-vis attempting to tell a COHA from a SSHA.

Lovely that your experts were so nice about it. So many people are asses in the world, it's always nice when people are nice. I couldn't help but think of this Bird and Moon comic:

And when all else flails, I just say that the bird wasn't wearing a name tag!

Love this post! So much to learn about the fine details.

I maintain that as long as the bird knows what it is, then it doesn't matter what I think it is. I can show them all my fields guides but the birds just laugh - they know best. Me, I just like watching them.

Posted by j fischer January 21, 2015 at 7:31 AM

Thanks for keeping it real Julie! I have learned so much from your delightful writings. Bird identification keeps us humble, with two left feet firmly planted on the ground; I am sure the birds would have it no other way.

Thanks for making me feel better about all of my mis-identifications!Hawk Mountain holds such a special place in my heart. I can't believe all the years I drove by it before I "found" it. I always wondered what that sign with the funny logo was about. But it was my refuge from all the craziness in my life during those monthly 11-12hr. drives alone to be with my Mom during her battle with the big "C". I would make the short detour off I-78 and climb to the North Lookout and sit and soak in all the peace, beauty and near touches of hawks in "heaven". Only a half hour before I would drag my weary body back to my vehicle to finish my journey. It is definitely worth the trip during late summer and fall.You know you're somewhere special when you watch a glider soar by at eye level as it slowly descends to earth.

Posted by Lee Hermandorfer January 21, 2015 at 8:27 AM

'like paint thrown at a wall, the erroneous post has a beauty all its own'.........well put.

Are you in Florida right now? So, close, but so far. Alas, the paycheck bids me stay at work instead of jump in the car and stalk you which is what I want to do.

I love your posts and like you for so very many reasons and you've just added another one. Anyone who is so graceful about a misidentified bird is tops in my book.

Great post and so helpful to have all the points broken down and explained and pondered over like this. Also reassuring to not be the only one who gets confused about COHA and SSHA, even when looking at all those diagnostic details like that.

I mis-ID'd a sand piper on a walk with Pete Dunne once and I am still alive, but I am not a famous nature least it wasn't a first fall pine?/blackpoll?/bay breasted? warbler, over which you all might still be scrappin.

I wanted to share a quote under the Cooper's Hawk entry on page 156 from Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. "(Note: When threatened or when mantling prey, this hawk's hackles are often raised, making the head look very square. Sharp-shinned never raises its hackles.) The neck is short, but Cooper's does not appear neckless, and it also frequently cranes its neck (something Sharpies cannot do)."

I have observed this raising of the hackles when mantling prey in a juvenile Cooper's Hawk that was one of three offspring that hung out in and around my yard after they had fledged from a nearby nest. I think these two distinctions can help with future identifications.

Posted by Kathy Trevino February 21, 2015 at 8:41 PM
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