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Science & NatureWhat is That?What is That? ... A Cautionary Story

What is That? … A Cautionary Story


As we draft this article, we are nearing winter, the cottage is winterized, the leaves are raked, and cottage photography has ground to a halt.  It is time for us to review the 1000s of photographs that have accumulated over the past six months, to identify the beasties, to name and tag the files, and purge the less useful ones.  In doing so, we sometimes catch misidentifications of previous years or learn we have captured a new species of which we had not been previously aware.  A case in point concerns our file of hawk photographs.

For a few years now, we have been confident we have broad-winged hawks at the cottage.   We were very excited to see and photograph our first broad-winged hawk in the summer of 2015.  It took the entire rest of the summer to identify it.  We paged through our hawk field guides.  After much frustration we found the BirdWatchingBliss Facebook page and received some help, although the folks there do not want to make it easy.  First we had to figure out that our bird was a buteo.  Once we were able to tell the FB page expert enough to convince her we had done our own homework, she confirmed our identification.  Thank goodness.

After that, each time we came up with a small, brown hawk, we automatically considered the photograph to be that of a broad-winged hawk.  After all, how many species of hawk could we be lucky enough to have?  In 2016, we got the following great capture of  a juvenile broad-winged hawk.  We know this from its pale throat, sparse streaking and short tail.

In 2017, Bruce photographed this beautiful broad-winged hawk.  These photographs are especially satisfying because Sibley tells us this species is uncommon and inconspicuous, nesting, as it does, in tall trees and most of the time living a solitary life.  So, we consider ourselves fortunate to have seen broad-winged hawks at the cottage three summers in a row.

A few days ago, as Carolyn was reviewing and labelling this year’s set of broad-winged hawk photographs, she noted the following one which seemed a little ‘off’.   Clearly we had a different species.  Look at the longer tail with the three white bands visible, plus the thin white terminal band.  This next photograph is one of our great captures of 2017, the red-shouldered hawk.  Earley tells us the red-shouldered hawk is less common than it once was at least partly because of habitat degradation.  Also, they prefer wet forests.  Well, we had a wet forest in 2017, as Carolyn remarked every other day, “I think we are now living in a temperate rain forest.”

Bruce prefers the accuracy afforded by using scientific names for the beasties we identify; Carolyn not so much, but Carolyn concedes there is value to referring to the genus and/or species of a beast occasionally.  In the case of hawks, at a bare minimum knowing their genus may save you a great deal of time if you know enough to be able to turn to the right chapter of a field guide.  Since we now know that both the broad-winged hawk and the red-shouldered hawk are buteos, we can focus on the features that may help us differentiate between them from others.

Now that we have sorted out and identified our hawk photographs, we can turn to something simple like all those little brown birds.  By the way, as a final reassurance, we double-checked, and it would seem the predator we labelled as a broad-winged hawk in our previous article about predators of rodents is still a broad-winged hawk, albeit a juvenile.

Thanks to our friends at Ontario Birds and BirdWatchingBliss for their generous help with identifications and their lessons on the related details. is very helpful too.  We refer often to David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and to Chris Earley’s Hawks & Owls of Eastern North America.


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