Identifying Birds of Alberta based on Flight Patterns

By November 2, 2016Wildlife Blog

Stepping over the threshold from simply ‘liking birds’ to being a ‘birder’ comes with a compulsion to identify every bird you see. Once you become a birder, there’s no turning back – every feathered creature triggers a series of evaluative processes which result in either satisfying answers (house finch!) or frustrating uncertainty (uggg – I just don’t know!).

A clear view of the subject is generally the easiest way to get a positive ID – you see a large, white-headed raptor and there’s no doubt it’s a bald eagle. But birds are often not fully visible, forcing birders to identify subjects based on more subtle nuances of behaviour – like flight patterns, for example. What if that bald eagle is a mere speck gliding across the sky? What distinguishes it from a raven, hawk, osprey or other type of raptor?

West of Calgary, Order Number: EA001

I knew right away that this is a bald eagle 🙂

A couple of weeks ago I went for a drive NW of Calgary with my friends Jamie and Russell. Our goal was to find wild horses, but of course, my inner-birder is always on alert. As we were driving, I found myself identifying/thinking/saying two bird names over and over again – ‘raven, raven, magpie, raven, magpie, magpie, raven…’ Why? Because ravens (and crows, but I tend to clump them together) and magpies are among the most common birds in Alberta, therefore the most common bird sighting on a road trip. BUT, those vague shapes could be something more intersting, something worth investigating and maybe taking a picture of. You never know, so birders continually have to evaluate every flying/bird-like shape.

This trek out west got me thinking about how flight patterns help in bird identification, and what distinguishes one from another. I have noticed a few patterns…

The Hover

Swainsons hawks and rough-legged hawks (roughies) are masterful hoverers. Like the iconic image of a hovering UFO preparing to beam up a victim, these beautiful raptors have a mind-boggling ability to stroke their wings forward and back while remaining completely stationary to scan for prey.

Roughie Hover, West of Calgary

Roughie Hover, West of Calgary

In Alberta, if you see ‘the hover’ in the summer, there’s a good chance it’s a swainson’s hawk – in the winter, it’s likely a roughie.

The Circle

Red-tailed hawks tend to use the wide spread circle to scan for meals, giving photographers and observers a chance to anticipate their movements.

North of Calgary, AB

Red-tailed Hawk, North of Calgary, AB

Red-tails may hover as well, I just don’t recall ever seeing it myself. But I do know swainsons and roughies commonly circle AND hover. So seeing a circling hawk does not guarantee a red-tail, this flight pattern is just one many useful clues in hawk identification, especially considering swainsons, roughies and red-tails are similar sizes.

Ravens also like to circle, but if they are close enough to the ground, it’s relatively easy to see a raven’s sharp beak and slightly curved-out wing tips.

The Glide

Bald and golden eagles tend to glide in one direction, rather than circling or hovering, with minimal wing flapping. They also often fly higher than other raptors.

Southern Alberta

Golden Eagle, Southern Alberta

Challenge to readers – what makes this a golden eagle vs. an immature bald eagle? If you know the answer, please comment below 🙂 (I do know, I’m just testing you)

The Close-to-the-Ground

Often seen flying in and around swampy areas looking for water fowl, northern harriers hunt, and therefore fly, very close to the ground.

Northern Harrier, Frank Lake

Northern Harrier, Frank Lake

The Jay ‘S’ Curve

Magpies, grey jays, blue jays and steller jays have a distinctive up and down flight pattern. They tend to stay lower to the ground, flying from tree to tree in a sort of sharp, elongated, sideways ‘S’. I don’t have a good flight image of any of the jays, so just for fun, here is a stellar jay having a bath.

Steller Jay, Lake Louise

Steller Jay, Lake Louise

Maybe it is a compulsion, obsession, addiction – I don’t know – but I just love how the process of identifying birds has become ingrained in my consciousness. Sometimes I just ‘know’ what something is, even without a logical reason. I think the process of constant evaluation feeds my intuition and keeps me on my toes – if I am open to paying attention to the details, I learn something new every time I get out in nature. And as a photographer, this inner knowledge enables me to get better photographs. This works with mammals too, but that’s a whole other blog post 😉

I’ve just touched on a few patterns I’ve noticed over the years, but I’d love to collect more insights and information on either flight patterns or other nuances of bird identification. If you would like to add anything, please feel free to comment below.

Until next time, continue loving life and all things wild 🙂

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  • Reid Barclay says:

    To answer your question, Kerri, What makes this a Golden Eagle and not a juv. Bald Eagle is that this is a juvenile also and the white in the underwings is restricted to two patches in the primaries, not spread throughout the primaries and secondaries of a Bald Eagle. There is also white in the tail at the base, and the outer half is blackish, reminiscent of the Rough-legged pattern, where a juv. Baldie would have a thinner blackish edging to the tail with black speckles throughout. Your picture shows your bird to have a mostly golden head which would indicate the bird is at least 2 years old, so after its next molt cycle it should look all dark in the body, wings and tail, and then the smaller head and bill than a Bald Eagle, and slightly more curved profile to the trailing edge of the wings, compared to the straight-edged parallel plank like wings of a Baldie with an all dark body should help identify a Golden Eagle.
    Hope this helps!

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