Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton: Hawks in Flight
by Rick Wright
Hawks in Flight, second edition
by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
335 pages, $26–hardcover
Brian Sullivan reviews the new edition of a classic:
As a young hawk watcher at Cape May in the early 1990s, I thought the authors of Hawks in Flight were magicians. Pulling identifications out of thin air, they put names to raptors at the outermost limits of vision, recognizing patterns and keying in on subtleties of shape and flight style. At first I was incredulous: There was no way they could be getting every bird. But time after time, as distant hawks and falcons approached and finally showed their classic “field marks,” these guys were right. It wasn’t long before I was absorbing everything I could from them: It was the Cape May School of Bird Identification, and class was in session! I would never look at birds the same way again.
The first edition of Hawks in Flight was published in 1988. Modeled on Richard F. Porter and coauthors’ Flight Identification of European Raptors, this book for the first time showed North American raptors as birders could expect to see them in the field; even better, Hawks in Flight provided what was perhaps the first truly engaging writing on the topic, describing raptors in colorful and memorable phrases and boiling down field marks to their essential components. Hawks in Flight became my bible, and I went to church a lot, studying every word and line drawing. To this day, I still hear Pete Dunne’s words each time I see a Merlin dashing past like a Harley Davidson or an American Kestrel gliding by like a scooter.
It was with great excitement that I opened the long-awaited second edition of this masterly work, poring over the pages like a kid on Christmas morning. This new edition is a marked improvement visually, thanks to the addition of a suite of color photos illustrating each species (the original edition’s illustrations were all black and white). And by adding eleven range-restricted species to the twenty-three more widespread species treated in the first edition, the second now includes all the breeding raptors of North America north of Mexico, offering valuable information for the identification of a number of birds not often seen by most hawk watchers.
Digging deeper, I was happy to see that most of Pete Dunne’s witty and unique text has been retained. All of the species accounts have been edited and updated, sometimes at a slight cost to the original book’s distinctive style; though the revised accounts temper some of the original book’s more colorful statements—in some cases with good reason, in some cases probably not—the prose is still engaging, memorable, and informative, three qualities not often found together in bird books. Few writers can match Dunne’s cleverness in writing about birds, and I was glad to see that most of the lines that stuck with me twenty years ago are still there. I won’t be alone in that assessment: It’s common at hawk watches to hear observers reciting lines from the original Hawks in Flight.
David Sibley has contributed black and white line drawings to both editions; in another context, that medium might seem a bit dated, but in the case of hawk identification, colors and the intricacies of plumage are often less informative than are general patterns of dark and light or an unknown bird’s shape and flight style. Sibley’s drawings nearly always hit the mark, and I was glad to find that some that were slightly off in the first edition have been updated for this second: Compare, for example, his treatment of the upperparts of the juvenile Northern Goshawk, where the critical tawny mottling on the upperwing coverts, missing from the original edition, is now shown perfectly. Most species are illustrated in adult and juvenile plumages, and some are depicted in a range of morphs and geographic variations. Where these drawings excel is in communicating what the birds really look like in the field; with few exceptions, the shapes are right on, and Sibley’s rough vignettes showing species in direct comparison are certainly a highlight of the book.
The most obvious visual improvement in the new edition is the color photographs. A few full-frame portraits are interspersed throughout the book to add curb appeal, but the real contribution made by the new photo material is to the species accounts. Where the first edition tucked its black and white photos into the back of the book, the new edition ends each species account with a selection of color images depicting a goodly range of variation in shapes and flight postures. Each photo caption identifies the bird’s age, sex, and subspecies wherever possible and appropriate. This is a great upgrade overall, though the occasional off-center or oddly sized images and poor use of page space are perplexing.
Any book as full of information and detail as this will inevitably contain a few errors. There are a few typos throughout the text, and it’s not hard to find mistakes in the captions’ assignment of age and sex (the color photo of an adult Gyrfalcon on p. 147, for example, is erroneously labeled juvenile). Even the worst errors here are relatively minor, but they will lead the inexperienced reader to make mistakes.
Nonetheless, Hawks in Flight excels in teaching birders to identify raptors to the species level. While it understates some of the more complex challenges, the real key here is in any case getting the species right; across the entire range of the Red-tailed Hawk, to take a familiar example, 99% of birds of that species will be identifiable using the set of basic characters presented here to full satisfaction.
Where there is cause for significant complaint is in the book’s tendency to oversimplify complex topics such as geographic variation and aging. If we’ve learned anything in the twenty years since Hawks in Flight was first published, it’s that many birds don’t fit the mold. A simplified approach to complex matters can lead to misinformation and confusion. Taking as just one example the book’s discussion of a species I know well, the Red-tailed Hawk, we find misleading generalizations about subspecies; even though the reader is reminded that there are caveats, the treatment remains questionable. For instance, the subspecies Buteo jamaicensis “abietinus” is here designated the “Eastern Canadian Red-tailed Hawk,” even though this poorly understood population—currently lumped by most authors with B. j. borealis, the Eastern Red-tailed Hawk—was in fact described from the northern Canadian spruce-fir forest west to Alberta, not necessarily the eastern portion of it, and its scientific name is actually B. j. abieticola.
The mere mention of this population here is confusing, as are the statements justifying the book’s exclusion of two subspecies: “The Pacific Coast and Florida Red-tailed … share plumage characteristics that are fundamentally similar to the basic Eastern or light-morph Western Red-tailed Hawks.” In reality, these two subspecies are quite different from both Eastern and Western Red-tails, but little has been published about them, making them harder to deal with than the better-known subspecies.
The treatment of the Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, largely correct at its core, also introduces many inaccuracies. Our understanding of this taxon is still evolving, but statements such as “the back and upperparts are blackish (not brown)” are incorrect: Many are brown-backed, especially in summer. The barred outer primaries that are such a great field mark for juvenile Harlan’s are inaccurately described here as characteristic of adults—but all adult Red-tailed Hawks have similar variably patterned outer primaries. The book also mentions the “curious gray patterning on the flight feathers” of a light-morph adult Harlan’s (photo 21), but rather than pointing out that patterning as the excellent field mark that it is, the photo caption gives the impression that it is an anomaly. And oversimplified descriptions of tail patterns, such as “Westerns have banded tails and Easterns don’t,” are simply relics: We know today that many Westerns have plain tails that are identical to those of typical Easterns (as photo 7 plainly shows), and vice versa. Categorical statements to the contrary result in errors in the field, and tempt observers to assign birds to subspecies without a firm understanding of the complexity of the issue.
My concluding thoughts are simple. The second edition of Hawks in Flight stands alone in its ability to connect people with raptors. By boiling in-flight identification down to its essence, it helps birders learn to see field marks that lie beyond plumage details. It is not enough to say that every hawk watcher should have this book on his or her shelf; every birder should have this book at hand, as the skills and techniques found here can be applied to all types of birding, helping birders like me move toward more advanced levels of field identification.
Carmel Valley, California
- Brian Sullivan is eBird Project Leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Photo Editor for BNA Online and for the ABA’s North American Birds, and co-author of the forthcoming Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. His research interests include migration, conservation, and field identification, especially of seabirds and raptors.