Although it takes time to be able to identify specific raptor species, you can tell which general group a bird belongs to by its size, silhouette in flight, and how it flies. The following groups are listed from largest to smallest.
Eagles are very large raptors with proportionally long, broad wings, a fan shaped tail that is twice as long as the head and neck. Eagles will soar on outstretched wings with few wing beats. They feed on small to medium sized mammals. The golden and bald eagles are the only two species seen in the NCA.
Another large soaring raptor commonly seen in the NCA during the spring and summer months is the turkey vulture.
Buteos (soaring hawks)
Buteos have broad, rounded wings, a robust body and a fan shaped tail. Buteos are medium to large soaring hawks. They may fly for long periods without flapping, riding on warm air currents. They feed on rodents, reptiles, and insects. Buteos commonly seen in the NCA include (largest to smallest): ferruginous hawk, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, and Swainson's hawk.
Accipiters (forest hawks)
Accipiters are forest hawks that have short, rounded wings, and a long tail. These small to medium sized birds make rapid wing beats and then glide. They prey mainly on birds and small mammals. The accipiters seen in the NCA, primarily during migrations to other areas, include Northern goshawk, Cooper's hawk, and sharp-shinned hawk.
Harriers and Osprey
Two species seen in the NCA that are in families all to themselves are the Northern harrier and osprey.
Falcons have long, narrow, pointed wings, large heads, and long tails. They are small to medium size and have rapid wing beats in flight. They are famous for their technique of high speed dives toward their prey. The largest, Gyrfalcon, is rarely seen in the NCA. Other falcons seen during various times of the year include: prairie falcon, peregrine falcon, merlin, and American kestrel.