Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

(Today, I’ve asked a friend to guest blog for me about his recent experience in photographing a hawk.  Because of the extremely small size of the hawk, he determined it to be a Sharp-shinned rather than a Cooper’s Hawk.  Alex Savakinas uses a Canon 7D camera with a 500mm lens on a tripod.)

Sharp-shinned Hawk Identification

All About Birds  mentions the conundrum of differentiating the two hawks in the field.  There is an overlap in size which makes ID even more difficult.

Separating Sharp-shinned Hawks from Cooper’s Hawks is one of the classic birding challenges. The birds look very similar and can be similarly sized. Cooper’s Hawks have a larger head that juts farther out ahead of the wings compared with Sharp-shinned’s pinhead. Cooper’s have “hackles” that are sometimes raised, giving them a fierce look versus Sharp-shinned’s more timid, round head. Adults have a pale nape, making them look like they’re wearing a dark cap. Juvenile Cooper’s Hawks are more finely streaked below than Sharp-shinned. When perched, look for Cooper’s Hawk‘s thicker legs and big feet.


Sharp-shinned Hawk–The Story by Alex Savakinas

Or is it a Cooper’s Hawk?

While driving along the back roads of Limestoneville (there are only back roads there) looking for short-eared owls, on a branch overhanging the road I noticed an orange-breasted bird. My immediate thought was a Cooper’s Hawk since they are prevalent in the area and I had seen one just the day before. I parked the car about 50 yards from the tree, slowly got out, set up my camera equipment, and proceeded to take a few pictures.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Slowly, and with caution, I began moving closer. I would move a few feet, take a couple of pictures, move closer, take a couple of pictures, etc.  All the while the bird just sat there, watching. I finally got in a position about 50 feet from the tree, found a good angle where branches were not interfering with the view, and just stood there taking pictures and some video. Finally the bird bent down and resumed picking apart a bird that he had captured and had started to consume earlier before I showed up and interrupted him.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

It was poetry in motion as the bird would bend down, tear off a piece of meat, gulp it down, and then do it all again, often adjusting its grip on the prey to get a hold of a different part so the meat could be torn loose. Only then did I begin to take in the totality of the view. I was so wrapped up in the moment of seeing the bird, having him let me get this close, and then continue on with his meal, that I never really considered it to be anything other than a Cooper’s.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Then it dawned on me, this bird is really small, about the size of a jay or dove. It’s a male Sharp-shinned. It is so easy to lose sight of the particulars when your first goal is to get a good picture. Only after getting a few good shots did I take the time to view the subject in detail. Being a photographer more than a birder, I find myself doing that.

The Sharpy continued to devour the small bird that was his meal. When it got down to the last few scraps, he devoured the bones and all.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

When he was finished he wiped his beak a few times on the branch, much as we would use a napkin, and then flew off in search of another prey.

Sharp-shinned Hawk



Lauren Shaffer

Lauren Shaffer wrote 145 posts

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  • Brian

    Those photos are all of an adult Cooper’s Hawk. Note the dark cap and pale name, as well as the square head and forward-set eyes.

    • Lauren Shaffer

      Yes, I think you are probably right, Brian. These accipiters are a tough call. I may just delete the post.

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