Accipiters are small- to medium-sized hawks that make their livelihood chasing prey such as birds and small mammals through wooded areas. Their short wings and long tails provide extraordinary maneuverability through trees and around other obstacles in forests and woodlands. The largest genus of birds of prey, the word “accipiter” comes from the Latin word for “hawk.” In fact, some refer to accipiters as “true hawks.” Although around 50 species of accipiter exist in the world, the U.S. has only 3: Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Northern Goshawk.
In Coaldale, we primarily see Sharpies and Coops, although we have spotted a juvenile Gos during post-breeding dispersion a time or 2. We seem to be more likely to see a Sharpie in the winter and a Coop in the other seasons. In fact, when we were atlasing for the Breeding Bird Atlas in 2007, we spotted a female Coop reconstructing a large stick nest in one of our neighbor’s massive cottonwoods—draped with a lovely fresh drape of a green vine of some kind. We heard the male calling a few yards away. Unfortunately for us humans, it became very difficult to monitor the nest once the cottonwoods leafed out. So we left them alone. Just seeing the female revamping the nest with a male in the area was sufficient to confirm them as breeding for the BBA.
It can be challenging (if not downright impossible for us mere mortals) to differentiate a Sharpie from a Coop in the field. Some guides say one’s tail is notched; one has a larger cap; one’s tail is longer; one is more slender… Yeah, well—good luck with those field marks. Within species, these birds tend to be sexually dimorphic, size-wise; that is, males are often considerably smaller than females. Thus, the extremes are a bit easier to venture a guess about: A very small Sharpie (most likely a male) can be noticeably smaller than a very large Coop (most likely a female). Flying, a Coop tends to have stronger (Sibley says “stiff”) wingbeats than does a Sharpie, often described as having rather wimpy (Sibley more kindly says “quick, snappy” ) wingbeats—flap-flap-flap-glide, flap-flap-flap-glide. And a good observer can sometimes discern more of a flying Coop’s head extending in front of its wings than would be seen in a Sharpie. (Zell has a slightly off-color story about this characteristic from his hawk-watching days at the Dinosaur Ridge Hawk Watch in Morrison, CO. Many of you can probably fill in your own joke here.)
These photos were taken in December, 2008 on a dim, snowy day. The bird landed on a set of bare branches (which we call “the posing branch”) about 25′ beyond our living room windows. (Both were taken through the window. I’ve lightened them some, so you can see a bit of the coloration. You’ll need to click on each photo to see anything beyond the shape.) In both, the little hawk’s back is facing the camera. In the one on the left, it’s looking over its back in our direction; on the right, it’s looking down and to its right. Zell thought that this was probably a Sharpie, given its size—which of course, you can’t discern unless you know the distance, the size of the tree, etc.
Snapped in April, 2009, the accipiter below is most likely a Coop, taking brief shelter in a pinyon pine during in a wet spring snow squall. (The white streaks are the big snowflakes in transit. And again, the photo was taken through the window and brightened just a bit.) It had landed in the tree about 15′ outside our west windows. Here, you can get a sense of its size, thanks to the empty suet holder (which we stuff with dog hair for nest-building, when we can coax some off our dogs).
© 2009 Tina Mitchell