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Jon Villasper makes the daunting task of identifying raptors in flight fun and easy  with illustrations and an identification matrix

by Jon Villasper

So, you’re going on a raptor watch trip.  Hmmm…feeling confident with your raptor id skills, eh?

How do you identify raptors in the sky?  How do the beer-guzzling guys do it?  Well, mope no further.  Let me try to help you out.  You do know what raptors are, right?  They’re birds of prey that hunt for food during the day.  That separates them from owls.

The Philippines has several migrant raptor species, somewhere around twelve or thirteen, but in a typical raptor watch trip, you could expect about three to five species.  Three to five doesn’t sound like a daunting task but the birds are high up and are sometimes in mixed flocks.  That’s where the problem lies not to mention it is quite hard to tell one perched raptor from another.  So, here’s a quick way of identifying them birds.

The trick to identifying migratory raptors is to know what to expect and to read up on them before the trip.  Now, if you’re the lazy type you can just stand behind the experienced guys and repeat what they say.  Why waste precious brain matter, right?  No!  There’s no fun in that.  Fine!  You can use these pointers as your quick guide to some of the migrating raptors of the Philippines.

The birds below are the usual suspects in a raptor watch trip.

  1. Osprey
  2. Oriental Honey-buzzard
  3. Japanese Sparrowhawk
  4. Chinese Goshawks
  5. Grey-faced Buzzards

Identifying them is quite easy.  Check the size, then the shape, then the plumage and try to look out for the diagnostic features.  What to look out for?  See the silhouettes below then check out the matrix.

Silhouettes of 4 raptors by Jon Villasper

Species Size Shape Plumage Things to look out for (Diagnostic features)
Osprey Large Wings bent like an M Generally white underparts; wing elbows dark; has black sideburns on head Bent wings and sideburns
Oriental Honey-buzzard Large Long neck and long, wide tail Generally brown; has translucent “windows” on wings which can be seen from a distance; has two large tail bars Translucent window and long neck
Grey-faced Buzzard Medium Stretched out wings longer than goshawk’s Generally brown, barred underparts and wings; three tail bars Straight wings and barred underparts; size is too small for a honey-buzzard and too large for a goshawk
Japanese Sparrowhawk Small Rounded wings Barred underparts and wings It’s a dirty-looking Chinese Goshawk
Chinese Goshawk Small Rounded wings Generally white underparts, sometimes flashes like tin foil when it hits the sun; black wing tips White underparts and black wing tips
Other raptors that might show up:
Serpent Eagle Large Wide, rounded wings Generally brown; has two distinctive bars on the wings and two tail bars Wing bars
Peregrine Falcon Medium Pointed wings Has white cheeks White cheeks
Brahminy Kite Medium Wings look like sickles White head and breast, red-brown body White head against white skies make it look like it has no head

Here’s a rough sketch of the birds for your enjoyment.

Ospery, Chinese Goshawk, Oriental Honey-buzzard and Grey-faced Buzzard by Jon Villasper

One more trick that you can use is to know which birds are in season at that point in time. Raptor migration happens twice a year for around two months at a time.  Fortunately, the bulk of these birds follow a more or less fixed schedule.  In autumn, Chinese Goshawks dominate the skies from mid-September until mid-October immediately followed by Grey-faced Buzzards until the end of October.  In spring, Grey-faced Buzzards leave first starting in March with Chinese Goshawks following suit by mid-April until May.  So if you are looking at a flock of raptors in the sky late in April, you’re most probably looking at Chinese Goshawks.

Then again, you can just wait for the older guys to shout out the ID.

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