HawkArtScience: Hawksaloft.com blog

(Archive: Axioms of ID)

30 October 2009, Friday
Golden Eagle aging, hasn't really changed

You can take that a number of ways! But seriously, in the Fall of 2009, observers still think that the amount of white at the base of the flight feathers is relevant, let alone key, to aging this species?! In 1987, the first edition of the Peterson Field Guide the Hawks of North America by Brian Wheeler and Bill Clark had a grainy black and white photo labeled,

variant with no white patch [arrow points into underwing on photo]

Wheeler and Clark's next book, A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors (1995) has a nice color image and accompanying text for juvenile Golden Eagle:

Amount of white in patches on underwings is variable from none to lots.

Brian Wheeler's two-voume series, Raptors of North America (2003) again reiterates this and fine tunes it with photographs, all on one page, showing this range in the amount of white ... "none to lots."

In 2004, Jerry Liguori had the definitive* article in Birding on aging Golden Eagles. Front and center — also to the right here — he made a composite image of three juvenile GEs. While it's a composite, it is not an illustration but a photo array of 3 actual juvenile Golden Eagles. Right here and now: you can use Google Docs Quick View to view and download Jerry's piece; the article is also archived at ABA.org: How to Age Golden Eagles, June 2004.
(*using "Liguori" and "definitive" in proximity is always redundant)

Final point on our timeline, in 2005, Lig's Hawks from Every Angle was published handling this issue again and providing his very unique and very detailed fieldnotes for flight ID of all the hawks of North America.

We'll be right back, and continue this discussion after you purchase these handy reference guides...

Welcome back. As you may recall I was beating you about the head and shoulders with a long brown juvenile Golden Eagle feather as a metaphor for the fact that little or no visible white along the base of the flight feathers does not an adult Golden Eagle make, or any age along the path to adulthood for that matter. With that said, it is still true that the amount of white diminishes over time with successive molts. Take another look at Jerry's composite, now, and project a year, or two years, hence for each of these same-aged birds. If you hear anyone in the field spinning out this bogus aging scenario using the amount of white primarily, well, run--run, I say. Maybe email them a Liguori PDF... if they even have a computer!

For the fine points, you should refresh using books and articles, as they are available (see above). But here are three points of reference one needs to see for comparison and conjecture on a GE in flight: the upper wing coverts, to tell juv from others; the trailing edge of the flight feathers, to look for variety or uniformity plus plain or the dark terminal band; a view of the spread tail, to see all the feathers. To do this aging responsibly, I think you can see that you need to have a bird fairly early in its approach and then in close and/or take a picture for later examination, it also works to follow the bird away and continue gathering data. This is how to improve your game!

Speaking of game, we are in the throes of the 2009 World Series of Poker right now, there are lessons from the pros in poker that the professional hawkwatchers know too (I've got a Law of Birding for this coming along). You need to take the odds into consideration. For example, in early September and through the Broadwing peak, the odds of a Golden Eagle, any age, is about as low as filling an inside straight. What are the odds that distant dark eagle is a Bald Eagle? I'd bet on it. And if you see a Golden Eagle well, and it has no white in the wings, go all in on it being one of those juveniles... focus in on the tail type and trailing edge of the wing for a clear tell. To get the best odds, bet on distant, badly lit, or just really and naturally dark juvenile Bald Eagle (see the Bald Eagle image in the set below).

No offense, but if you don't make a point of seeing at least 25 Golden Eagles a year, you have no business calling a September distant bird in the field a GE and/or asking online if a big, all dark eagle-like bird you saw at a bad angle is an adult GE. Hold your cellphone up to your binoculars and take a picture, then let's communicate, or better yet... bring some money to the hawkwatch and let's play poker.

To adapt the sage advice of Faber College's Dean Wormer, "Identifying your hawks and eagles ass-end going away is no way to go through life, son." Of course Faber — under Dr. Wormer's tenure — pioneered the academic policy known as double secret probation. And speaking of college, more precisely, for those with mathematical training:
Wb ≤ U
{Where Wb equals the amount and extent of white at the base of the flight feathers; and U represents the absolute integer of uselessness}

Here are a few of my recent eagle images:

Eagle1: image 1 0f 4 thumbEagle1: image 2 0f 4 thumbEagle1: image 3 0f 4 thumbEagle1: image 4 0f 4 thumb


4 November 2009, Wednesday
"The first rule of Flight Club is, you do not talk about Flight Club."

The second rule of Flight Club? You don't talk about Flight Club. Well before the book and the movie Fight Club (1996 & 1999 respectively), I used a similar rule with teen birders to teach judgment through restraint, with a little peer pressure tossed in. At first the rule was we'd need to complete and confirm the ID of a bird while it was in view in order to tell anyone outside the group. This cuts down on the incentive for bragging, irresponsibly. Good and detailed debate on an interesting bird could and would continue on the one that got away, but even if debate was resolved to the satisfaction of all, the bird's identity could never be disclosed beyond the company. Again, because it was gone before we closed on a name. As it turns out, this sort of training also ramps up the intensity to see this species the next time... or whatever it was.

Pouring over field guides, pre-Internet, was a practice I encouraged. Research with good tools/information always breeds informed debate. If you're guiding the learning as opposed to teaching, then the inmates are also the guards, to reference My Dinner with Andre (1981). The intensity of the search needs to know its bounds; find its balance. So I remind young birders and adults alike that a tipping point might occur when the amount of time looking up a bird exceeds the time spent looking at the bird. "More book that look," for short.

Today, with digital imagery, more state of the art field photo guides, images and forums online, the above guidelines can flex a bit, but I'll stand by this general advice. Sound practice here will help you avoid falling prey to the Fourth Law of Birding: "Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself."


12 November 2009, Thursday
Scan once, count twice

In carpentry, you are best advised to measure twice so that when you make a cut it is the right one. "Scan once, count twice" is offered here as a sort of law of birding, an underlying axiom, if you will, to what happens when you don't follow birds on their approach to your point of sampling.... the hawkwatch.

Following — truly following a bird — is a true pleasure, but it takes practice because it's hard to master. The easy thing is glancing at stuff, we can do that all day long. If your next pair of binoculars had a little chip installed that measured the amount of the time you actually spent looking through, would you be a serious follower of birds... or the wearer of a really big necklace?

Not following birds, causes confusion, creates surprises, and brings several of my Laws of Birding into play... not good. Scanning is employed to pick up hawks way out at hawkwatches, it's a common pastime: in case a bird takes a stealthy route and might not be seen a second time. So scanning is used to count them, but also to be the first to see an interesting species for the day. With a lot of birds on the move, following each and every bird on by would require a lot of observers and isn't done, even if it is a good idea. But keeping track of birds on successive scans is important. Unfortunately, most hawks don't get this secondary attention to detail, if they are not a rarity for the day and so they get to be the next best thing: two, or even three hawks! Oy, I could tell you such stories, but let's follow for a different reason...

I was asked at Cape May, what was the best way to see a kill? Peregrines and Merlin are relatively common there, the terrain is a dune front so there's a wide vista to observe, and these two species are well-known for overtaking, capturing and killing their prey on the wing. I said it was straightforward: follow the bird... the next Peregrine or Merlin picked up out front, you get on that bird and just follow it by (to the exclusion of everything else). Focus. If that doesn't pay off, do the next one, and do this until you see some of that heart-throbbing falcon hunger. Might have to follow a few different birds, but that's kind of like Twitter?!

Scanning for hawks is employed to counting them, to ID them at a distance, and to lose them, only to find them anew... if you're not careful. Following a hawk improves your identification skills, your overall enjoyment of the day and the birds. Plus, seeing into the lives of hawks,


27 November 2009, Friday
Black Friday: Color-option on sale!

Seeing color doesn't come cheap, but it's Black Friday and today, today only, have I got some bargains for you. Apparently and until very recently, hawks only came in black and white, so why would you have paid extra for binoculars with the color option. Why pony up the big bucks for the Coop421c model, when your old Sharpie-2021's worked just fine?! And if they're still providing enough viewing pleasure, and your black and white silhouette hawk handout still folds out, why change?

Fine. Don't change, but keep "the outlines and pencil sketches" to yourself because it's a colorful world out there and others should be introduced to it right up front, and on from there. Just like teaching kids to read using phonics, it was always my opinion (as someone with success teaching reading) that those who were drilled in phonics became better readers in spite of those lessons, not because of them. But I digress...

For some old binoculars, color wasn't an option. Then, with the advent of computer-aided design a small color chip was installed, but not always turned on at the factory. If your bins are over ten years old, you might look around the centerpost for a tiny switch to toggle from black and white to color.

On more recent models, the housing itself is pressure-sensitive. As designed for ergonomic efficiency by board certified clinical ornithologists, gripping the optics very tightly puts them in B&W mode, but a looser hold on the image gradually turns the internal sensors over to full color resolution. This approach was adapted from psychological work in the allied field of ideas. In the end resolving the identification of hawks in flight now has both — new ideas and the synergy of technology to match.

Using this newest technology, one binocular manufacturer utilizes a motion sensor, like the iPhone. As you hold their product horizontally and make a sweeping gesture, the microchip records the arc. As the user makes a predetermined number of these actions — 90 to 180 degrees in either direction from contact with the objective works best— color is gradually activated. Voice-assisted identification, similar to voice navigation in your car, is coming but it's still a ways off.

Now, with this background info in hand, you are ready to do some shopping! An educated buyer is an informed shopper, and according to studies by the retail marketing gurus... that's just someone who will extend their credit to new limits, and isn't that what this holiday season is all about. Before I get too sentimental, let's talk breaking in your new toys scientific instruments. Following birds was covered in the previous paragraph and I recommended following birds that popped into view in front of cloud, out of the cloud and into the blue where more detail was available last Friday ("Woolly Bear Science: The Broadwing-blue sky"). So there's that.

Try this: follow birds as they drop below the horizon. This is where birds are lost for eternity, but are reborn when the emerge above it, and get counted again (in the Old Testament of Hawkwatching, see also "Scan once, count twice" from a couple of weeks ago). I follow hawks through Hades and back to see detail and color, this background is much more forgiving on the eyes than the heavens above. It is difficult to stay on them, but that is why you invested in those new bins with the color option.


7 December 2009, Monday
"True Black"

Voice-over announcer: "Introducing the newest color for the Herman Miller Aeron® Chair, True Black, a Sit4Less.com Exclusive."

I heard this radio ad a while back and thought about the designer discussions we used to have back in the day when I taught Pagemaker, QuarkXPress, Photoshop, Illustrator, and scanning at the Boston Computer Society. Was placing any adjective in front of the color "black" a valid point... to what end: more black, less black, truer black. As it turns out it is an important point within the realm of manufacturing because it is difficult to get a rich, okay true, black when putting color onto different kinds of paper, wood, metal, glass, tyvek, and other materials. It is a printshop adventure and getting your document out, hard copy-wise, was afterall the point, back then.

As an aside here (skip to the next paragraph if you like), while RGB (red, green, blue) schemes are everywhere today on your computer, in your digital camera/phone and even some desktop printers, CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) is old school for printing/manufacturing, sort of life before the electron-infusion that is our e-world. Another (quick) digression: various high-end processes that come in between our eye and some output devices, other than online, still work in the ether between RGB and CMYK. All this is to point the person who is still reading, to a fun little tech page which points out that use CMYK 0-0-0-100, is not the best way to print true black. And now back to our regularly schedule programming.

In Nature, all this is not the case, and that's a really useful thing to know. With hawk-like birds, black is very rare. A lot of birds are dark, and some are really really dark, but not black black. In addition to the corvids — crows and ravens — only a few eastern raptors and species that move around like raptors, register as truly black: Black Vuture, the adult Bald Eagle, adult dark morph Roughlegs (the black form), and a couple of rarities (that most of us wouldn't expect flying around our everyday haunts). The adult Black-backed Gull and Double-crested Cormorants fit as well. So not many things are black, and big as a hawk.

With practice, peculiar as this exercise might seem at first, it is a professional Counter Culture™ trick-of-the-trade to recognize black when you see it! Readily. As with the "Rule of 100" (5th Law of Birding), work on black on overcast days to get a feel for when your observation needs extra time to call "black."

Suzuki-roshi says, "Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity."


17 December 2009, Thursday
Counter Culture: Brushstrokes

When art students finally get to see the originals they have admired in books... okay, via the online tour of the Louvre... they start their gaze from afar even as they enter into view of the great works. But then they rush forward, get as close as they can, and admire the brushstrokes. Therein lie the details, the depth of the work, of the artist too. Up close too, the style, the heritage and lineage of the master comes into focus. The passion is also in the details. Not the general details contained in books, online, or even in the gallery's own description, because there you are, seeing it for yourself.

The young bohemians, the beats of the buteos, wanted more than shadows on the wall, more than cave drawings even. They wanted detailed details and the passion of the beast. They're the ones who have added brushstrokes (fieldmarks), and color to your raptor field guide... otherwise we'd all still be doing it with silhouettes! And they did this through hawk banding operations. Once an act of numbers, became a place to examine and contemplate the brushstrokes. To see patterns, look for consistencies, catalog the variations, and through it all, better identify.

As a student, a connoisseur yourself, as you tour this art world, you needn't know all to appreciate the works. But a growing knowledge through the pursuit of the very specific details is a worthy act.

Make no mistake, the whole is not lost in the details. Anyone who would scoff at this is still talking in terms of big and small, light and dark, counting wingbeats and conjuring behaviors... VanGogh's Starry Night is just about drugs or dementia, because no one really sees that way.

Now to see these works of arts — these raptors — we start at the back of the room, as soon as the picture comes into view. The scan. For the backs, the upper/dorsal surface if you will, require you to start your observation farther out. For context. Artists, as well as curators, and us merelings all want to view the art/hawk at different angles and under various lighting. Something new might just jump out at us. A new point of appreciation... again, even if we have to ask what it means or does it have meaning to the expert's eye, just ours?

Select hawkwatches have banding operations that are either open to the public or regularly, in season, bring wild birds out for viewing prior to release. In the early 90s at Braddock Bay, I spent a sleety morning holed up with the banders and counters looking at good and bad slides of hawks in flight, for hours we did this and no one said much at all. So even the folks who handle the birds, like to look at (real) images... and this was a time when it cost real money to develop the slides! Nowadays, with digital imagery and the Internet, it takes only your time to see the brushstrokes. Now, we can have new and real conversations when the living works of art come into view.


They've got the urge for going, and
they've got the wings so they can go.

— Joni Mitchell

Hawk•art•science blog
Truth and beauty. Art and science. Entries here will be on that flightline, although I will stray from the hawk-part on occasion, or will I? I aiming this beast at hawkheads and/or the young seasonal revolutionary biologists. It's for the flexible and young-at-heart too.
Comments, questions, excited utterances, and/or exasperated afterthoughts from you, dear reader, are welcome and will receive a reply. — Tom Carrolan
(Image above: "Recent self-portrait No.3, 2009")

Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
The Hawksaloft.com website was launched in 1997, following three years of printed handbills, plus numerous emails, all voicing my alt.hawkwatching ideas in New England. If you've been here before, the original site is archived in all its old-timey graphic glory. To navigate the old way, just click on Psychedelia the Hawk Owl and be transported back in time... trippy. Any bookmarks or links found anywhere online still work.

Not everything that counts can be counted and
not everything that can be counted counts.

— Albert Einstein