Birds Seen in Flight

Identifying birds in flight has its own set of challenges. These include:
  • Bird may be seen for a short period of time
  • Colors not obvious
  • Shape can change depending on situation. For example, the tail feathers may or may not be spread.

Hawks, eagles and vultures are often observed soaring, and certain characteristics can help narrow down your choices. In soaring birds, shape and relative areas of light and dark are good clues. With experience, the way a bird flies will often reveal its identity.


Eagles: Very long, broad wings, relatively short tail.

  • Bald Eagle – white head and tail on adult, varying amount of widely distributed white feathers on sub-adults.
  • Golden Eagle – Dark, can look black. May see pale bands on tail.

Buteos: Have broad wings and broad tail. Species include:

  • Red-tailed Hawk – Red tail in adults, narrow bands on tail of juvenile. Dark band on breast. Coloration extremes common.
  • Swainson's Hawk – Two-toned under-wing pattern, darker on trailing section of wing.
  • Red-shouldered Hawk – Two-toned under wing pattern, watch for areas of white at base of the longest wing feathers.
  • Ferruginous Hawk – Pale underneath with dark "v" shape near legs.
  • Broad-winged Hawk –
  • Rough-legged Hawk – Contrasting light and dark wing and tail pattern, dark breast band.

Accipiters: Have short, broad wings and relative long tail.

  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – rapid, direct flight. Banded tail. squarish tip to tail.
  • Cooper's Hawk – Banded tail. Tip of tail rounded.


  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black vulture

Falcons: Narrow, pointed wings

Peregrine Falcon – Large falcon. Strong, deliberate flight.

American Kestrel – Small, light in the air. Often observed hovering.


Kites: Wings are long, narrow and pointed, falcon-like. Tail long and narrow, slightly notched.

White-tailed Kite – White underneath with black wing tips

Mississippi Kite – Gray with lighter gray head.


Flight patterns of some smaller birds are also very distinctive.

The Spotted Sandpiper flies with a rapid beat of stiff wings. When flushed, the seldom rise above 3 or 4 feet as they move to another location.

Meadowlarks also have a very distinctive flight pattern.

New World Vultures - Family Cathartidae 

turkey vulture
Turkey Vulture.  Note the shallow 'V' shape to bird on the left, typical of Turkey Vultures.  The right image clearly shows the dark and light under-wing pattern.



black vulture
This Black Vulture has a black head, compared to red on the Turkey Vulture. In flight, the Black Vulture has a shorter tail and shorter wings than the Turkey Vulture.  Wing tips are light in the Black Vulture.  


Hawks, Kites, Eagles – Family Accipitridae 

northern harrier
Northern Harrier, male.  White rump is key field mark, more obvious on browner females.  Flies low over ground with raised wings.   


bald eagle
Bald Eagle. Notice very long wings.


 sharp-shined hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk, juvenile. Small-headed appearance compared to Cooper's Hawk.


 cooper's hawk
Cooper's Hawk, juvenile.  Tip of tail more rounded than on Sharp-shinned Hawk. 


red-tailed hawk
Red-tailed Hawk.  This particular bird is darker than typical. 


rough-legged hawk
Rough-legged Hawk. This bird paler than most, but under-wing pattern and dark on belly typical. Rough-legged Hawks often hover while hunting.