It was my first visit to Hawk Mountain.The weather was perfect and there were lots of birds, but most were so far away that you could hardly tell they were birds.In fact it was hard to distinguish birds from the floaters in my eyes. But the official hawk watchers in the inner sanctum of the stone circle were calling them out – near and far – with irritating confidence.That was the day that I resolved to learn hawks.
A slim large format paperback published by Cape May Bird Observatory (Hawk Watch Guide: A Guide For Beginners, Pete Dunne, Debbie Keller, and Rene Kochenberger) was the first guide that helped build my identification skills. The simple black and white drawing emphasized shapes and those field marks you could distinguish from a distance against a bright sky. Then came the Clark and Wheeler guides.And finally there was Jerry Liguori’s Hawks From Every Angle (Princeton University Press, 2005).This volume, which shows raptors in a variety of plumages, mostly at mid-distances, has lived on my night stand for the duration of every hawk watch season since its publication.Study and lots of time at hawk watches has made me a better-than-average hawk aficionado. But it doesn’t address the problem of sorting through hawks which are a half-mile away in difficult light.
Anyone can quickly learn to identify hawks that are close enough to distinguish plumage and field marks. But raptors are frequently seen at challenging distances at which you can’t see them at all without binoculars.In these viewing conditions hawk watching is one of the toughest challenges in bird watching.Jerry Liguori’s newest book, Hawks At a Distance, is the first ID guide to focus on this challenge. When I first received the book the images looked a lot like the birds I saw on that first visit to Hawk Mountain so many years ago, and my reaction was pretty much the same as it was on that outing – total frustration. I have been living with it for about three weeks now, and I can report that it has already improved my skills at picking out distant raptors. Solving the problem of identifying hawks at extreme distance takes time afield and more time studying at home.If you love watching hawks, Liguori’s Hawks At A Distance is an essential aid which will help build your identification skills.