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Insider Tips for Raptor Identification in Central America

Raptors hold a special place in the heart of many a bird enthusiast. Birders might love to look for tanagers, hummingbirds, and even flycatchers but for whatever reason, when a raptor makes an appearance, it typically takes center stage.

It’s hard not to keep the bins on svelte predators like the Bat Falcon.

Their common, constant fame (even among non-birders) probably has something to do with attributes that just make these special birds hard to ignore. Large, obvious, and with sharp claws and beaks; the general impression evokes descriptions and feelings of formidable, possibly dangerous beauty.

The Common Black Hawk isn’t your average everyday robin!

Hawks, eagles, and other birds of the sharp-taloned kind have inspired awe and respect throughout human history, they are also found just about everywhere. Central America in particular is home to a large number of raptor species, these are some insider tips to help with identification:

Focus on Shape

As with raptor species at hawk watches in the temperate zone and elsewhere, for raptors in flight, shape is the main key to identification. Even similar species like juvenile Gray Hawk and Broad-winged Hawks have different shapes that can clinch identification of near specks. When a bird is seen in flight, instead of trying to recognize the species, take mental notes on the shape of the wings, how far the head sticks out, and how long the tail is. Then, see what else you can notice about field marks and general impression. If you can, after you have watched it enough, make a sketch of the bird, especially the overall shape.

Go with Common Species as the Default Identification

Not sure which hawk is which? Before moving to another species, consider and eliminate these common ones first:

-Roadside Hawk

-Gray Hawk

-Gray-lined Hawk (in Panama)

-Short-tailed Hawk

-Broad-winged Hawk (during the winter)

-Common Black Hawk (in coastal areas)

-Double-toothed Kite

These are some of the more common raptor species and thus seen much more often than birds like Gray-headed Kite and Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Those birds can and do occur too but it’s best to eliminate any possibility of these common species first.

Raptors Mimic Other Raptors!

Just to make things more tricky, it’s no coincidence that various raptors look like each other. Some look similar because those plumages work best in similar habitats, others look similar because they evolved to look like each other to avoid depredation.

This is a juvenile Hook-billed Kite.

Although we might not think about it that much, it’s easy to see why inter-raptorial depredation (as well as depredation by felines) might be a strong agent for selection, especially in tropical forests where lots of species compete with each other for food. A raptor that kills and eats another hawk or kite has a double win; (1) it eliminates competition, and (2) it gets a large source of food. The main risk is attempting to hunt something that is likewise equipped with a natural set of weapons for self defense.

However, when there are inexperienced birds that don’t yet know how to use those weapons, “easy prey” becomes a valid part of the predatory equation. This is why so many juvenile raptors have plumages that look like other, larger species and why even adults of some large “weak” species have plumages that look like larger birds. If potential predators can be fooled into thinking that something is too large and dangerous to kill, even for a few seconds, that might be enough time for the bird to escape.

Similar plumages also stress the importance of focusing on the shape of a bird first before looking at other field marks.

This is a list of raptors from Central America that likely mimic plumages of larger, more formidable species, the mimic on the left:

Juvenile Bicolored Hawk = Collared Forest-Falcon

Juvenile Gray-bellied Hawk = Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Juvenile Barred Forest-Falcon = Collared Forest-Falcon

Juvenile Crane Hawk = possible mimic of Black Hawk-Eagle

Juvenile Gray-headed Kite = Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle

Adult Gray-headed Kite = Harpy and Crested Eagles

Juvenile Hook-billed Kite = Collared Forest-Falcon

Female Hook-billed Kite = Possible mimic of Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Dark morph Hook-billed Kite = Black Hawk-Eagle

Double-toothed Kite = Possible mimic of Roadside Hawk

Juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle = Possible mimic of juvenile Crested and Harpy Eagles, maybe even Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle

Take Habitat Into Account

Learn which species live where to know that you are probably seeing a Hook-billed Kite in dry forest and not an Ornate Hawk-Eagle, that a Roadside Hawk is more likely in open and edge habitats, and where to look for species like Barred and White Hawks.

Although the best way to learn raptors is certainly by watching them in the field, it’s just as important to learn about and study them beforehand. Our birding field guide apps can help by:

-Showing various plumages and birds in flight for most raptor species.

-Featuring vocalizations that can be listened to while looking at images.

-Using the similar species function to study birds that look like each other.

-Learning where raptors live via range maps and information about habitat and behavior.

-Studying raptors filtered by region and other attributes.

-Customizing your app by making notes and marking target species.

Learn more about the most comprehensive birding apps for Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama at this blog and our site. Have a fantastic trip!

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