Insider Tips for Raptor Identification in Central America, Part Dos

By patrick on

As a follow up to our previous post about raptor identification, here are some more tips to help birders find and put names on more birds (especially thoss birds with sharp talons). Avoid some common pitfalls and see more raptors with these ideas:

The Double-toothed Kite Trick

While watching the skies over humid forest, a small raptor soars into view. Much to our birding chagrin, it’s backlit! A silhouette, we can’t see much in terms of detail, only a small but definite raptor shape against opaque tropical skies. As we wait and hope for the lighting to improve, it sort of looks like a Sharpie, like an Accipiter but only sort of. Something just isn’t right about it being an Accipiter, we know it’s not a Sharpie but that’s what comes to mind because the brain wants to stick with the familiar. As the sweat forms once again on our brows, a tinge of anxiety creeps in because we know it’s something different, something we have never seen before, a lifer and on its way to the bin of unidentified birds. After staring at the receding shape for ten minutes, our unknown lifer soars up and over a ridge and we wish it a silent, sad farewell as it leaves the birding life.

Then, as a final reminder that birds seen once might leave our leave for good, the heavens open, the rain pours down, and  any chance of the unknown bird coming back are deleted. Since we also have to reach the mountains before nightfall and most of all, before afternoon traffic, we step into the vehicle with frustrated steps and leave that new bird behind (ouch). But what was it? Wasn’t there anything we could have done to identify it? Better view desired but if it was a Double-toothed Kite (and it probably was), we may have seen a few field marks to clinch the ID.

Thinking about the bird, it seemed to have rather narrow wings and held the tail closed. It looked like an Accipiter but…not quite. There may have been a hint of white bands in the tail but it was just too backlit to say for sure. But, it did have these puffy undertail coverts and that seemed weird but is that a field mark?

Yes, for Double-toothed Kite the puffy undertail is a principal field mark and the description above is a classic recipe for this small rainforest raptor. Forget the colors and bands in the tail. If you see a small Accipiter-like bird in Central America with puffy undertail coverts, you got yourself a fine little  Double-toothed Kite! With better looks or playing with images of backlit birds in flight, you might also notice dark bands on the undersides of the primaries, another point for this pint-sized raptor.

Short-tailed Hawk, Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle, or Something Else?

A small raptor soars way up there with vultures over patchy forest. It’s a dark bird but since it’s so high up, we can’t see much else. It doesn’t seem to have bands in the tail although that’s hard to say. What we can see is that it is soaring high overhead, might even be using the same thermals as the vultures, and has a head that seems to project a bit. When it banks, we also catch this hint of the primaries being swept upwards, sort of like the tips of the wings of a modern-day jet.

We keep watching and then another bird flies into view, this one pale with dark flight feathers and some dark on the head. Yeah, that’s a pair of Short-tailed Hawks doing their aerial ambush thing. A regular raptor at many sites in both dry and wet forest and semi-open habitats, this is a good one to learn well. Luckily, since it also spends a lot of time airborne, this species gives us more chances to watch it than various other raptors.

Look at pictures and illustrations and a birder might wonder how it can be separated from a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle or maybe even White-tailed Hawk. Like the Short-tailed, both of those birds also do much of their hunting while soaring but, given a good look, can be readily separated. The hawk-eagle is a noticeably larger bird, has paler flight feathers and lacks that dark hood shown by the Short-tailed. When banking, it also shows diagnostic white on the leading edges of the wings. For the White-tailed Hawk, mostly watch for that white tail with a dark tip.

A couple of high flying Black-and-White Hawk-Eagles from Braulio Carrillo and Yorkin, Costa Rica.

Listening for and Looking at Hawk-Eagles

It’s mid-morning and the birding has slowed down in the rainforests of Costa Rica. A short break might be a good thing because we had an early start of an already exciting day and there’s more birding to be done! Thankfully, it hasn’t rained yet and as the drones of the cicadas reverberate from the lush humid forest, we can feel the heat of the tropical sun. Suddenly, our break is cut short by the distant whistled call we were hoping for; rising piping calls followed by a distinctive, short descending whistle. We have to search the bright skies but yes, there it is! That small thing way up there is actually not small at all. It’s a powerful Black Hawk-Eagle soaring so high above the forest as to appear insignificant. Even the call sounds distant, a reflection of the height at which this magnificent bird of prey soars.

The best way to find both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles is petty much just like the description above. At least, this is how I have detected and seen both of these species on many occasions. Not always, sometimes they are perched, sometimes suddenly passing through like monstrous goshawks, but usually, in flight high overhead. Sunny mid-mornings in the rainforest are a good time and place to listen for and scan the skies for these species. Don’t be surprised if the calls are faint and if the birds are way way up there because these royal raptors love to check out their hunting domains from high overhead. In flight, the shapes are pretty similar but the Ornate either looks all pale from below (in juveniles), or shows a white throat patch and paler, contrasting wings (in adults). The wings of both species are also a bit more paddle shaped than those of the Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle.

An Ornate Hawk-Eagle flying in the mist.

The other, least frequently seen species of hawk-eagle is Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle. Not that the previous two birds are common but in many areas, they do seem to be more regularly seen than the Black-and-white. The best way to find this bird in Central America is by constantly scanning the skies on sunny days in good areas of lowland and foothill rainforest. It doesn’t call as much and can go easily unnoticed as it soars high overhead. For this reason, you have a better chance of finding one if you use blue-blocking sunglasses while searching the air. It’s easier on the eyes and will also make it easier to notice a high flying raptor.

In Brief:

-The best way to identify Double-toothed Kite is by looking for an Accipiter- like bird with puffy undertail coverts.

-The best way to recognize Short-tailed Hawk is by noting a small raptor      with a projecting head, somewhat plain tail, and upswept wing tips.    Separate it from Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle by looking at the head and  wings, and from White-tailed Hawk by looking at the tail.

-The best way to find and identify Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles is by listening and scanning the skies for them in humid forest on a sunny, mid-morning.

As with every bird, these raptors are also easier to identify when we learn about them before the trip. Mark these and other birds as “target” species on our birding apps for Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama and get ready for seriously exciting birding in Central America. May I see you there!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *