Hawk Watch in Cape May

Anyone can be a naturalist. In this post, we guide you to a nearby state park where you’ll find some of the best fall birding in North America. You will learn to tell the difference between the Cooper’s Hawk and its look-alike, the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Though beach towns on the south Jersey Shore are packed during the warmest months, fall offers quieter opportunities for exploring nature. Located between the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May is on the Atlantic Flyway, a route traveled by millions of birds each year. Cape May’s location makes it a destination for people interested in spotting a variety of migrating birds.

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk, Rob Curtis/VIREO

October is an especially busy month for hawk migration and is a perfect time to check out the bird-watching scene from the Hawk Watch platform at Cape May Point State Park. From the platform, you will likely spot Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks, two similar-looking birds of prey that will challenge your eyes and your identification skills!

Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized birds often spotted flying rapidly through treetops or along forest edges, though you may find them harassing your feeder birds or hanging out in suburban backyards. Adult Cooper’s Hawks have blue-gray feathers with reddish bars underneath, while juveniles are brown and have distinct vertical streaks on their upper breasts. Their wings beat in a flap-flap-glide pattern, and their long tails have thick dark bands and are rounded at the ends.

Also a slate blue color with thin, reddish streaks on their breasts, Sharp-shinned Hawks often fly rapidly through the woods to catch songbirds and mice. They have long legs, short and rounded wings, and long, square-tipped tails that are notched at the tip. Juveniles are brown overall with vertically streaked white underparts. Their wings beat in a flap and glide pattern.

Sharp-shinned Hawk, Johann Schumacher/VIREO

One of the best strategies for telling the difference between Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks is to examine their proportions. Sharp-shinned Hawks have smaller heads and shorter “necks” than Cooper’s Hawks, which have larger heads that project further ahead of the “shoulder” of their wings in flight.

Although Cooper’s Hawks are often larger than Sharp-shinned Hawks, males of both species are smaller than females, which can create identification complications! If you’re not sure, check out their tails and markings. The tails of Cooper’s Hawks are rounded, compared with the square, notched tails of Sharp-shinned Hawks.

While the Cooper’s Hawk has a lighter nape and a darker cap, the Sharp-shinned Hawk features both a dark nape and cap. In juvenile Cooper’s Hawks, you will see brown chest streaks that are neat, defined, and less dense—unlike the less distinct, dense chest and belly streaks of juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks.

You’ll be most likely to spot the hawks on a gray day, one to two days after a cold front passes through the area. If you arrive early in the morning, you may witness hawks hunting for and capturing prey. Write down the characteristics of the hawks and other birds you see, and look them up in a field guide. Contribute your data to eBird.org, a real-time online checklist of birds launched in 2002 by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Academy Frontiers.

Post by Mary Alice Hartsock

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