At 65 mph, the car is zipping too quickly down Interstate 95 to observe much, and overcast skies obscure most color. The car passes beneath a light pole. At the top, a bird roughly the size and shape of a football perches, eyes fixed on the grass below.
There's a black line, a "belly band," across its middle. Nearby is an open patch of grass. Is it a pigeon? A hawk? A crow? If the driver had been at a recent workshop at the Seekonk Public Library, given by Ocean State Bird Club, the answer would have been easier.
Mike Tucker spent 14 years working as a refuge manager and naturalist for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and has guided birding trips throughout North America and Canada. Tucker spoke at the workshop, addressing a roomful of eager birders on how to tell the difference between a peregrine falcon and a northern goshawk.
"All hawks have strong, sharp talons, a hooked bill, powerful wings, relatively large eyes and great vision," Tucker told the gathering. "It's important to know both the physical and behavioral characteristics."
Elements like poor lighting or having a bird fly at an awkward angle can inhibit identification, he noted. Birders may spot one or two markings, but that may not be enough to secure the identification. That's where thinking about the way the bird flies, including the way it holds its wings, may be of service.
"The short, powerful wings and long tail of the accipiter (which include northern goshawks and sharp-shinned hawks) are designed like a jet fighter," Tucker said. "It can fly and chase down birds. A falcon is designed for speed in open country. It can generate tremendous speed as it comes upon its prey, sometimes chasing it across open fields."
Homeowners may have been startled by the sight of a larger animal swooping down on an unsuspecting bird happily feasting at their feeders. In all likelihood, said Tucker, they're seeing a sharp shinned hawk.
The "sharpie" is a common raider at bird feeders and makes small birds the prime component of its diet. It prefers large patches of conifers (pines and spruce) for nesting, which is why it rarely nests in this area. Still, that rather startling habit of snatching up small birds will likely enable even a quick glance to end in an identification.
"You don't rely on one clue for identification; you need to get as many as you can," Tucker said.
Sometimes a bird's "personality" can play a role in an ID. The sharpie, though small among accipiters, is virtually fearless.
"I've seen them chase eagles," Tucker said. "They'll chase anything. Sometimes people watching a migration of them will carry a stick with a picture of an owl on it, and here comes this sharp shinned and it will just dive bomb the picture like crazy. They have this little bully of personality."
Falcons, with their long narrow shape and long tail, are also often fearless. The American kestrel, merlin and peregrine are all designed for open country, Tucker said. The kestrel is a vividly colored falcon that is not much bigger than a starling. Its habit of bobbing its tail when perched helps in separating it from other falcons. Others, like the merlin, are more aggressive.
"I have seen them dive at shore birds and get them all riled up, despite the fact that they won't actually eat them. They just like to harass them," Tucker said.
The peregrine, which was in serious peril just a few decades ago, is doing very well these days. These, too, are fierce predators. Tucker recalled a time when he was invited by an ornithologist to check on a pair of fledglings (first-year birds that have only recently learned to fly) at what's become known as the "Superman building" in downtown Providence.
"I was looking down at a fledgling on a lower level when another landed on a railing just feet away from me. I have never seen a more fierce-looking bird in my life. It was like, 'um, I guess we'll go now.' A peregrine is not scared of you at all. I'll never forget that."
Peregrines are now nesting in Providence, on the Newport Bridge and in downtown Pawtucket.
Ultimately, the best way to identify is to practice. Join a birding group, attend a bird walk, and most of all, get out in the field often. There's a learning curve, but the more frequently a birder looks to the skies for winged predators, the better they will be able to use the tools provided at the workshop (and in field guides) for identification.
As for the mystery bird atop the light pole along the highway, the identification is indeed a combination of the visual and the behavioral. All of these birds have a "belly band" across their middles, though they are not always vivid. The overall shape of it puts it in the hawk family. Finally, its behavior, that habit of perching atop a light pole (or other high open places near grassy areas) provide the final clue, identifying it a red tailed hawk.
"Red tails are common, and they usually hunt rodents, such as squirrels," Tucker said. "They have a 50-inch wingspan and the key to identifying them is that the leading edge of wings (underwing) have a dark mark. This will show even if a red tail isn't viewable and if a belly band is faint."
Thus, the combination of markings and behaviors lead to a successful identification.
Hugh Markey is a freelance writer, naturalist, and teacher who lives in Richmond, R.I. For more stories about the outdoors, visit his blog, "Science and Nature for a Pie" at http://scienceandnatureforapie.com.