How to Identify Birds of Prey While in Flight

There’s a bird, up in the sky, soaring, circling and gliding ever so effortlessly. Birds of prey or raptors are known for displaying this style, and showing off their long wingspan and speed ability. But how to identify birds of prey while in flight? Since these birds come in a variety of shapes and sizes it’s often difficult to pinpoint the bird family. Especially at a distance when their characteristics are not easily discernible. For example bird watchers often confuse vultures for eagles, since they have a similar flight shape. To distinguish birds of prey, a bird watcher can use body shape, size, color and flying style.




Cooper's Hawk [Image: www.]

Cooper’s Hawk [Image: www.]

Accipiters reside in forests and hunt in the ambush-style of dash and catch. These birds have the keen ability to move around thick forests and dart through trees. Their long nails and short, round wings allow for this lifestyle. Often confused with buteos’ style of soaring, Accipiters typically do several flaps followed by a glide. Some examples of Accipiters include the famous Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. Keep an eye out for the white under-tail coverts in adult plumage for these three species.


Red-shouldered Hawk [www.]

Red-shouldered Hawk [www.]

Unlike the Accipiters, Buteos are easily recognizable by their ability to soar for a long time without  the need to flap their wings. They have long, broad wings, and a wide, short, fanned out tail. They stay up in the sky lazily circling over open areas until they find a catch, or perch from an indiscreet tree branch then drop to the ground to capture their prey. Some examples of Buteos include Red-shouldered Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawk.



Merlin [Image:]

Falcons are of a smaller size than their counterparts. But size is nothing to these birds. They are the fastest birds of prey, and fittingly they display agile, long bodies with pointed wings. They are seen continuously flapping while in flight, or diving at a quick speed. The American kestrel, one of the smallest falcons, has a habit of hovering in one spot until a small rodent insect appears. Other falcons include the Peregrine and Merlin.


Northern Harrier [Image:]

Northern Harrier [Image:]

Harriers hold their wings in a soft “V,” and their faces comically resemble that of owls. They hunt near meadows, open fields, and marsh areas. One of the most famous ones is the Northern Harrier, a medium-sized bird with long, broad wings and a rounded tail. The best way to identify the Northern Harrier is by the white rump patch at the beginning of their long, narrow tail.


Turkey Vulture [Image:]

Turkey Vulture [Image:]

It’s the classic bird watching tale: confusing a turkey vulture for an eagle. Unlike Vultures, Eagles soar with leveled, flat wings, where as the former holds their wings in a “V” shape with a few flaps, and can be see rocking in flight while they soar in circles. Black vultures have white tips only on the ends of their wings, but Turkey Vultures have white throughout the lower half. Though vultures are usually grouped in with birds of prey, they are closely related to herons and storks.


Image: www.

Image: www.

Ospreys are large-raptors of 24 inches in length and 71 inches across. This fish-eating bird has long narrow wings, often crooked in the middle to make an “M” shape. Its plumage display is of contrasting light and dark colors, usually brown upper parts and grayish head and underparts. Osprey tend to have a close proximity to water, and are often seen gliding during migration.


Golden Eagle [Image:]

Golden Eagle [Image:]

These are the largest raptors with the exception of some vultures. Their median wingspan can range up to 7 feet, making for a powerful bird of prey. Within North America, the Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle are the largest. When soaring, eagles display mostly flat, leveled wings, sometimes with a slight shaped “V” when gliding, which is true for Golden Eagles who have small heads and beaks. The Bald Eagle is the most prominent with a white head and tail on a dark body. Their wide wings, large head and beak are easily recognizable.

To find more birds of prey in a state park near you, download our Pocket Ranger® mobile apps. And if you do spot a cool raptor, share it on our social media sites and with our Pocket Ranger® Bird Feed App!

Winter Events at the State Parks

Take a break from all that holiday shopping, and make merry at one of these winter events in the state parks. From fruitcake chucking to solstice night hiking, bundle up because we’ve got lots of great ways for you to get outdoors and make the most of this December!

New York

Men with muskets perform a Christmas tradition at night

The grand feu de joi [Image:]

The Castle by Candlelight
Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site
December 6, 2014

The windows and walkways of this beautiful, 288-year old French castle will be lit for the annual Castle by Candlelight night. Located within the Old Fort Niagara Historic Site, soldiers will perform a grand “feu de joi” (firing of joy) with musket- and cannon-fire in honor of the holidays. Fifes and drums will play historic tunes, and chefs will prepare a feast of traditional holiday fare. Characters in period dress will share tales about wintertime in the 18th century, and also demonstrate woodworking and hornsmithing. Head to the Fort’s Log Cabin for hot beverages and more live holiday music.


Mound Bottom landscape covered with snow

Wintertime at Mound Bottom [Image:]

Cold Moon Tour of Mound Bottom
Harpeth River State Park
December 6, 2014

Dating back to A.D. 1100 and 1300, Mound Bottom is one of the largest prehistoric mound groups built by early Native Americans. Guided by prehistoric archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf, hikers will learn about the historical significance of the site while watching the full moon rise. This two-hour tour at Harpeth River State Park will traverse moderately steep terrain, so make sure to wear comfortable hiking shoes and dress warmly. Use your Pocket Ranger® app to mark waypoints!


A person lights a bonfire outside in the wintertime

Learn how to light a survival fire [Image:]

Winter Survival Class
DeSoto State Park
December 6 – 7, 2014

This exciting, weekend-long Winter Survival Class at DeSoto State Park will help you get a handle on the ins and outs of weathering the winter in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Topics ranging from clothing, shelter, fire, and rescue will be covered. This class is provided by the non-profit One World Adventure Company, and requires registration and a fee to participate.


Troops collide at the Winter Muster in the woods

Troops collide at the Winter Muster [Image:]

150th Winter Muster
Fort McAllister State Park
December 13, 2014

150 years ago, General Sherman successfully took Fort McAllister from the Confederates. Volunteers will reenact this significant Civil War event that marked the end of Sherman’s March. Skirmishes, drills and other living history interpretive programs will take place around Fort McAllister State Park. The final battle reenactment will occur at the end of the day.


A trail winds through the snow woods

Pike Lake Trail [Image:]

Winter Solstice Night Hike
Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit
December 19, 2014

Celebrate the winter solstice with your family at Kettle Moraine State Forest! The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year. Before heading into the woods, cozy up by the fire where rangers will share the history of solstice traditions. While hiking through the dark woods of the Zillmer Trails Area, keep an eye out for wildlife!


A man tosses a fruitcake in a contest

Try your hand at the National Fruitcake Fling! [Image:]

Ponca State Park
December 27, 2014

With so many free winter activities at this year’s Winterfest, there’s no excuse for missing out! At Ponca State Park, get moving in the 3K Quest for the Yule Log. Afterwards, hitch a ride on one of the lighted hayrack rides. There will also be seasonal crafts, cookie decorating, good eats, and a bonfire. The National Fruitcake Fling is a favorite attraction at the festival. All fruitcakes are baked using ingredients that are safe for wildlife to eat, making them the perfect treat for the park’s furred and feathered residents.

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Exploration – Hiking Mount Minsi and Mount Tammany

Contributed by Katie Levy, Adventure-Inspired

When I moved to Pennsylvania in 2007, one of the first things I made sure to do was to find a collection of day hikes within two hours of Philadelphia, in addition to state parks and state forests. Those of us who live in the Philadelphia area are lucky enough to be within a two-hour drive of 70,000 acres of protected land across Pennsylvania and New Jersey – the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. It’s home to some of the best hiking in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and two of my favorite hikes in the Water Gap are perfect for late autumn.

Mount Tammany, New Jersey

If you’re looking to get your heart rate up as quickly as humanly possible, this is the perfect hike for you. It’s a classic Delaware Water Gap area hike, and there’s still plenty of time to get it in before the snow hits (fingers crossed). It’s just under four miles round trip, but once you’re on the trail, you’ll climb just over 1,500 feet in the first mile and a half. The climb is well worth it; you’re rewarded with two opportunities for incredible views of the Delaware River.

From the summit of a great Delaware Water Gap hike, a large blue river runs through the woods

On Top of Mt. Tammany [Image Credit: Katie Levy]

Park at the Dunnfield parking area off of I-80 immediately after the toll bridge if you’re coming from the Pennsylvania side. If you’re headed in from New Jersey and pass through the toll booth, you’ve gone too far. Plugging (40.971756, -75.125610) will get you right to the parking lot, which fills up quickly during popular hiking seasons; be sure to arrive early. Overflow parking is always an option at the Kittatinny Visitor Center, which is worth a stop regardless of your plan for the day if you’re there during the high season. Be sure to check the visitor center hours and pick up a trail map. The brochures available there have all the information you’ll need for your hike.

Beginning at the Dunnfield parking lot, follow the Red Dot Trail. It climbs steeply almost immediately; pace yourself, and know you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. The first overlook is a bit over a half mile into the hike, Once you’ve climbed the requisite 1,500+ feet, take in the view, then follow the Blue Dot Trail back down. There are no sweeping views of the Delaware River, but the woods are beautiful, especially in the summer and fall. You’ll know you’re nearing the end of the descent when the Blue Dot Trail meets Dunnfield Creek, a beautiful babbling brook that’s worth visiting even if you’re not up for the Red Dot Trail climb. Follow the white-blazed Appalachian Trail back to the parking lot to complete your hike. As an alternative, the Blue Dot Trail is less scenic on the way up, but it’s also less steep.

A small waterfall in the forest in late autumn

Dunnfield Creek [Image Credit: Katie Levy]

Visit the National Park Service website for additional information, including hours of operation for the Kittatinny Visitor Center. If the visitor center is closed for the season, you can print a trail map and brochure here. This version of the Mount Tammany hike covers trail numbers 6, 5 and 1 in that order.

Mount Minsi, Pennsylvania

If you’re looking for a scenic hike that’s a bit longer than Mount Tammany and a bit gentler, Mount Minsi is an excellent option. It’s one of my favorite hikes in the area with good reason. My favorite route up Mount Minsi is approximately five miles round trip and it takes you through lush forests (depending on the season), up steep, rocky terrain, and rewards you with expansive views of Mount Tammany across the Delaware River.

Park in the Mt. Minsi and Lake Lenape parking area, which is right along the Appalachian Trail (AT). Plugging (40.979847, -75.142103) will get you to the parking lot, as will directions from the NPS website, and like the Dunnfield parking area, it fills up quickly. Overflow parking is tough to find, so be sure to arrive early or carpool. Find the white-blazed AT just past an informational kiosk. You’ll see Lake Lenape shortly after the start of the hike. Keep following the AT up, and you’ll likely hear traffic noise from I-80 at the beginning. As the trail turns and begins to climb, the traffic fades and approximately a mile and a half in, you’ll find yourself at the first overlook. Keep heading up, cross a fire road, and you’ll find a second overlook.

Sweeping view of mountains from the summit of Mt. Minsi

On Mt. Minsi – View of Mt. Tammany [Image Credit: Katie Levy]

If I’m looking to keep the hike short, I’ll turn around here, but you can also continue up to the top of Mount Minsi and then follow the AT for as long as time allows. To return to the parking lot, turn around and retrace your steps back to a fire road you’d have crossed between the first and second overlooks. Follow the fire road down, or simply retrace your steps along the AT.

Visit the NPS website for more information, and be sure to print a map before you go. The Mount Minsi hike described here follows the AT, Trail 1, and then Trail 3 (Mt. Minsi Fire Road) back down.

Want a real challenge? Do both of these hikes in one day! (Author’s note: please be prepared if you’re taking on any of these hikes in the winter. Take crampons or a similar form of footwear, and I’d recommend steering clear of the Red Dot Trail when there’s snow and ice on the ground.)

If you’re a frequent visitor to the Delaware Water Gap or any land under National Park Service jurisdiction, share your photos with us for a chance to win a $250 gift card! Winning photos will also be featured in Pocket Ranger’s upcoming National Park App. Photos of national parks, trails and historic sites are eligible to win. Explore, document and send your original, preferably high-res photos to Remember to include your full name, location, and handle (if you have one).

10 Thanksgiving Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

thanksgiving facts


Thanksgiving is next week, which means unlimited turkey, cranberry sauce and gravy (and don’t forget the desserts!). While you’re sitting around shooting the breeze with your family between meals, you can shell out these interesting Thanksgiving facts:

  • Although the “First Thanksgiving” was in 1621 (it lasted three days!), it didn’t become a national holiday until 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.
  • Unlike on your family’s table, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pies, apples, pears, milk, corn on the cob, and cranberry sauce were not present at the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth.
  • The first Thanksgiving wasn’t really Thanksgiving as we now know it. Thanksgiving was a religious festival affair where Pilgrims would spend all day praying. Thanksgiving was also observed at different times of the year, not just on Thanksgiving. Also, if it were a true Thanksgiving, the Natives wouldn’t have been invited. The “First Thanksgiving” was actually a feast to celebrate a great harvest! A party, in a sense.
  • Contrary to how they’re depicted, Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving didn’t wear black and white with buckled shoes and hats. In fact, they wore very colorful dresses and suits.
  • The Pilgrims’ plan was to settle in the New York area via the Hudson River, but a series of storms caused the boat to sail off course and that’s how they ended up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
thanksgiving facts


  • Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with the push to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She devoted her entire life to campaigning for it. (Sarah Josepha Hale also wrote the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb.)
  • Roto-Rooter says the busiest day out of the year for plumbers is Black Friday. We’ll let you guess why.
  • Turkeys got their name from the country… sort of. There’s a bird indigenous to Africa called guineafowl that was introduced to Europe via Turkish merchants. Guineafowl were popular in Europe. When the Spaniards came to America, they saw a bird that tasted like and resembled those guineafowl, so they called the bird a turkey.
  • A 16-week-old turkey is called a fryer. A five to seven month old turkey is called a young roaster.

Wish you could have someone else do all the Thanksgiving cooking and cleaning this year? Some state parks are hosting delicious turkey dinners, so bring the whole family!

Your State’s Gemstone

Did you know there is a gemstone representative of each state? While hiking or camping in a state park, try to look for one of these fascinating gems that belong to your state.


Person hold a blue and white moonstone


Florida’s gemstone is the moonstone. The moonstone was designated the official state gem in Florida in 1970 to represent American astronauts landing on the moon in 1969. This stone is a form of the mineral feldspar.


Chunks go quartz gemstone on a table


The gem, quartz, belongs to this state. It became known as Georgia’s gem in 1976. It is common in this state and can be found in a wide variety of colors. The state legislation recognizes two forms of quartz. One is known as amethyst, which is used in jewelry, and clear quartz, which resembles a diamond when it is on a flat surface.


Colorful tourmaline gems on a white table


While not necessarily a gemstone, Tourmaline became this state’s mineral in 1971. It ranges in color from black, white, shades of red, green and blue. Individual crystals can be transparent and may be single or multi-colored.


Rhodonite black and pink raw gemstone in a person hand


Rhodonite became this state’s gemstone in 1979. This gem varies in colors from a light pink to a deep rose or reddish pink. It is also considered the most beautiful gem material found in Massachusetts.


Gray agate gemstones piled on top of each other

Agate [Image:]

Raw blue sapphire in a hand

Sapphire [Image:]

Since 1969, Montana has had two state gemstones: agate and sapphire. Agate is found in southern and eastern Montana. It is polished for jewelry and is usually white with swirls of grey and black spots. Montana’s sapphires are mostly found in western Montana. They are bright blue and cut like diamonds to make jewelry.

New York

Wine red garnet gem on a table with shadow


The wine red garnet was designated New York’s gem in 1969. Barton Mines in the Adirondack Mountains of New York is the world’s largest garnet mine. This mine focuses on industrial abrasive grade garnets, which are used for polishing glass and metal.


white, gold and beige river pearls in a hand


Tennessee river pearls became this state’s gem in 1979. They were created by mussels and are found in all colors as well as different shapes. Shapes include spherical, pear-shaped and even irregular.

Download your state’s Pocket Ranger® app to learn more geology facts about a state park nearest you. Our Pocket Ranger® apps also make it easy to find great hiking trails and overnight stays!

Suggested Gear:

  • Trekking Poles
  • Tick & Insect Repellent
  • Straw Cap Water Bottle

For your gemstone hike, check out Pocket Ranger® gear store for these supplies and much more.

Related articles

Bird Watching with the Pocket Ranger® Bird Feed App


Hummingbirds eating at a pretty bird feeder.

A lovely bird feeder. [Image: www.]

There’s a Pileated Woodpecker pecking a tree, Eastern Blue Jays flying around, and now a ruby red Cardinal! Ever find yourself losing track of bird sightings? All bird watchers have experienced this. Through years of bird watching, it’s hard to keep track of all the birds you’ve encountered. Most avid bird watchers document a bird’s location, characteristics (like shape and size), field marks, sounds, and lastly, a photo as proof.


Our new and free Pocket Ranger® Bird Feed App does all that and more! If you want to record bird findings and share them with a larger birding community, this a great addition to your birding toolbox.

Like previous Pocket Ranger® apps, Bird Feed™ has advanced GPS mapping features, and in addition a photo/video sharing community where you can post your findings instantly, view other users’ sightings on one map, record and share tracks of your favorite nature trails, mark waypoints of locations, and see them again when needed.

You also can create a profile and show off your birding skills by posting photos and adding descriptive notes, anything from location to field marks. Posts can be shared on Facebook and Twitter. Also use hashtags or notes to tag and search for species. Before you know it, you’ll be tracking migration patterns!

Within the app, you can leave comments, birding tips and award other users. Make sure to earn points and get your name on the leaderboard by uploading posts, receiving sighting awards, and commenting. And don’t forget to participate in upcoming challenges, including photo/video contests, which come with cool prizes!

Pine Warbler on a branch.

Pine Warbler [Image:]

Spring is gone and so are the songbirds, but there’s no excuse not to seek out the year-round bird residents. While you’re at it, pick up new birding skills to prepare for the coming busy spring migration.

Iron Peak Hiking in Washington

Contributed by Michael Restivo of Mike off the Map

Fall in Washington takes on a special quality: the openness of the trails, the snow drifting over the high peaks, and the promise of warm cider and even warmer company. As our group trudged the final ridge to the overlook on Iron Peak, everybody was reminiscing about the magnificent season and grandiose vistas, while already talking up objectives for next year. While others are fastening their snowshoes for winter jaunts, many will return to the high mountain hikes in the spring.

Larches in peak fall foliage

Image Credit: Michael Restivo

The extraordinary beauty of the Teanaway River Valley doesn’t enjoy the fame of the Enchantments or the Cascades on the other side of the Stuart Range. The landscape is one of towering larches, easily hikeable peaks, and summer wildflower fields, which turn into some of Washington’s most spectacular fall foliage. The trails ascend through wooded forests, rocky cliff faces, and, above the treeline, to a snowcapped vista of serrated mountain ranges and thin ridges with a multitude of peak-bagging opportunities.

Ridgewalking in the Teanaways

Image Credit: Michael Restivo

To outsiders, this stretch of Central Washington may go overlooked, as they opt for more famous volcanoes and National Parks. While there’s nothing wrong with that, the Teanaways are a gem for locals, who find a multitude of trails that are accessible year-round. The well-marked path doesn’t require much more than lots of water and a good pair of boots.

We chose to hike Iron Peak, a gently sloping massif with enormous views of the early winter landscape. This relatively easy jaunt is completed in just over half a day, with a final unforgettable ridgewalk that leaves hikers surrounded by glaciated peaks. Starting from a pothole-lined road, the rocky, in some places uneven, trail traverses waterfalls, rockslide zones, and lush meadows as it swiftly rises to the saddle under the Iron Peak Ridge.

Rocky cliff edges of the Teanaways en route to Iron Peak

Image Credit: Michael Restivo

As soon as the trail enters the saddle, it becomes apparent why this trail is revered. Between the pine trees to the south, Mt. Rainier looms above a fog and cloud covered valley, while the North Cascades beckon to the opposite side. The highlight of the hike, however, is the entire Stuart Range in piercing, snow-blasted glory, and the remarkable beauty of the South Face of Mt. Stuart. A short but exciting traverse takes hikers to the tip at the top of Iron Peak, where 360-degrees of uninterrupted mountain views are the reward.


Gorgeous summit views of mountain ranges in Washington

Image Credit: Michael Restivo

Beyond Iron Peak, the Teanaways have a number of technical climbs and scrambles, such as Ingalls Peak, a 5.4 to 5.7-rock climb over a fin of granite, and Class 2 and 3 scrambles on the Esmeralda Peaks. The interconnected trails allow for multiple loops around the range, and the option to traverse several peaks in one trip.

As we left the trailhead, we drove through the pastoral farmlands with a pink twilight hue streaming through the larches. Central Washington had been the perfect stage for closing this year’s high hiking season. As we were crossing the ridge on our return trip, my hiking partner turned back to me and said, “It’s over, ” but then we started discussing our plans for spring and knew that the next season had already begun.