Raptors in Flight

In response to a question about hawk identification on nextdoor.com (a neighborhood-based social media site), I posted a long discussion about the status of various raptors in our neighborhood. Someone posted a follow-up question about how to tell hawks from falcons in flight. I thought the easiest way to do that would be to post the response on my site and point them here. Since this will gather up folks that didn’t see the original post I made, I will include that post and alter it to include some photos showing raptors in flight. I want to be clear here that the status discussion is relative to raptors in Mt. Washington, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. I also want to be clear that I don’t claim all of these photos are great, but do serve their purpose for documentation.

The common resident ones in Mt. Washington are as stated: Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks (which are Buteos), and Cooper’s Hawk (which is an Accipiter). In the winter, there is usually at least one Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter) around. During migration, you may get lucky enough to see a Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo) as they pass through to/from their breeding grounds farther north and their wintering grounds in Argentina. Several Ospreys (it’s own family – also called a “Fish Eagle” by some) winter every year along the LA River nearby and frequently (perhaps daily) fly over Mt. Washington, calling. I have observed both Golden and Bald Eagles as flyovers, but that is a rarity. I have recorded a White-tailed Kite once, flying around Cliff Drive. I’ve also gotten them at Rio de Los Angeles a couple times. This is always during migration. Any other kite species observation would be a significant unexpected find.

To further explain the Buteo vs. Accipiter paradigm, those are two different hawk genera and – in general – Buteos are chunkier with shorter tails and mostly eat small mammals. Accipiters are skinnier with longer tails and mostly eat birds.

A Red-tailed Hawk soars over the Tehachapi Mountains, California on April 20, 2016. There is no more “typical” Buteo. Note the broad and rounded wings. Photo by Marcus C. England.
A Red-tailed Hawk soars over the Tehachapi Mountains, California on May 5, 2016. Photo by Marcus C. England.
A Red-tailed Hawk soars over Malibu Creek State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains, California on February 5, 2016. Photo by Marcus C. England.
IMG_7266_Coopers_Hawk (4)
A Cooper’s Hawk take flight along the Santa Clara River near Santa Clarita, California in July 2015. Note the narrower and more pointed wings than a Buteo (but less pointed than a falcon), more slender body, and longer tail. Photo by Marcus C. England.
IMG_7266_Coopers_Hawk (3)
Different frame of the same Cooper’s Hawk from above, showing the wings in a different position.


A very distant White-tailed Kite in hovering flight near Ontario, California on November 8, 2015. Note its pointed wings and slight build. While many kites are built like this, this isn’t always the case as shown in the next photo. Photo by Marcus C. England.
While this species would never occur within a thousand miles of Mt. Washington, this shows the flight shape of a Hook-billed Kite. Photo by Marcus C. England taken in 1999 at Las Cuevas Research Station, Chiquibul National Forest, Belize. 
For fun: a Red-tailed Hawk (below) and a Golden Eagle (above) in part of a series of way-distant shots of an aerial battle between the two over the Tehachapi Mountains, California on May 3, 2016. Note the size difference. Photo by Marcus C. England.

Falcons used to be considered close relatives to hawks. They are now, based on genetics work, considered close relatives of parrots. They are still raptors, though. Anyway, American Kestrels (the tiniest of our falcons) are around, but I don’t see them in Mt. Washington regularly. There is a nesting pair at Rio de Los Angeles. A few Peregrine Falcons winter along our nearby stretch of the LA River and hunt over Mt. Washington. This is a regular occurrence in the winter months. Merlins, which are a little bigger than kestrels, are sporadic but I do see them from time to time in the winter months. There is no other falcon that would be expected here.

An American Kestrel (our smallest falcon) in flight over Blue Ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains, California in July 2016. The shape is typical for a falcon with pointed wings and a long tail. Photo by Marcus C. England.
Another angle of an American Kestrel in flight, this time at Smith Rock State Park, Oregon in April 2017. Photo by Marcus C. England.
Another capture of the same kestrel from the prior image, with the wings bent.
Peregrine Falcon in flight over Elyria Canyon Park in our neighborhood of Mt. Washington on December 28, 2015. While the photo is blurred (they are fast!), you can see it’s just a heftier version of the kestrel’s shape. Photo by Marcus C. England.

The resident ones in Mt. Washington are Great Horned Owl (big) and Western Screech-Owl (little). Barn Owl (medium) is a species that I am unsure of the status of: they used to roost in the palm in our front yard. Now I see or hear them very rarely, but did hear one flying around and doing the horrid screech they do a few weeks back. No other owl species should show up here, however, I did have a Burrowing Owl once at Rio de Los Angeles park during migration.

While owls aren’t part of the flight discussion and I have no photos of owls in flight, I didn’t want to leave them out entirely. To make it pertinent to the original post, this Great Horned Owl was photographed from my front porch as it perched in a tree in my yard in 2015. 

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6 responses to “Raptors in Flight”

  1. Miriam Hartman Avatar
    Miriam Hartman

    Wow!! Thanks for sharing all this information and the amazing pictures you have taken! Regarding our neighborhood owls, I wanted to share with you something I experienced (I’m just next to the Southwest Museum): I woke up at around 3 or 4 am and noted a very strange bird call, almost digital-sounding (not sure how else to describe). It was a soft, repetitive and rhythmic single note. The next day I listened to many calls, and identified it as a Flammulated Owl. It was otherworldly to experience.

    1. That’s fantastic, Miriam! It’s too bad you couldn’t get a recording of it.

      1. Oh my goodness, I wish I had! Next time I hear something intriguing I will certainly do that. Any recommendations for good apps for recording bird calls? Or is it better to have specialized equipment (well, I’m sure it’s better; is it necessary)?

    2. Real quality recording equipment is expensive. I’ve only ever had access to that when I worked at a research station. If the call is loud enough, it’s sufficient to shoot a video with a cell phone. The main point is that records of rarities (if recorded somewhere, like eBird) are important, but will only be accepted as valid if there is some sort of documentation. I used my cell phone to document a singing Least Bell’s Vireo (an endangered species) at Rio de Los Angeles park last year. It probably wouldn’t be in the eBird records if I hadn’t done that (that said, I am an experienced surveyor for that species so it may have stood). Identifiable photos of something are always best, of course.

  2. Awesome post! love the pics.

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