Hawkwatching basics 3: Slang

19 09 2015

Peak Broad-winged Hawk season is almost upon us and many of you will be heading out to hawkwatches to catch the action. Are you up on hawkwatching slang and terms? Read on to make sure you know what to say and when, and avoid any unintentionally hilarious gaffs at your local hawkwatch.


ButtJam (Harlans) – Catherine Hamilton

The Birds:

Grey Ghost: (Adult male) Northern Harrier.  Weirdly I’ve heard people use Grey Ghost when talking about other grey raptors – WRONG!!!!!!!! If you want to suggest a slightly higher level of expertise, after seeing one, you might spend the next few minutes ruminating on why you see so few of them.

Buttjam: Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis. Weirdly I first heard this from someone who isn’t a hawkwatcher. If it isn’t in common use already it’s going to appeal to the puerile child in every hawkwatcher I know 😉 “Tail” is a more commonly used term among the knowing.

BDubs: Broad-winged Hawk. Not even sure where this came from, but all the cool kids use it. I’m guessing most hawkwatchers aren’t big fans of Dappy and North London rappers N-Dubz, so it can’t be that!

K-bird: Good old American Kestrel. Personally I like using AK – just cos it makes me think of that Da Lench Mob track – you know the one?!? Worth noting that hawkwatchers use the two letter codes from our data sheets not the four letter BBL codes – bird nerds and Richard Crossley you have been warned 😉

Blue Jack: (adult male) Merlin: after their top side coloration.

BDubs Kettle - Steve Beale

BDubs Kettle – Steve Beale

What’s happening/conditions:

Blue Skies of Death: My own little contribution to the vernacular – perhaps aging myself. Nicked from the description given to a crashed computer. This term describes those clear cyan blue skies that always seem to greet large movements of Broad-winged Hawks. Without contrasting pale clouds these skies make speck-watching hard work, frustrating and painful on the eyes. Ditto “Broad-wing Blue”.

Kettle/Kettling: When a bunch of birds get into a little thermal of activity and use it to soar to greater altitude. Why it’s called kettling I’m not sure – to me it looks nothing like a bubbling kettle (the explanation I’ve been given)? What constitutes a kettle is a whole different argument. Two birds is definitely not a kettle, three might be depending on your level of desperation, lack of birds and also on the species. Three Bald Eagles could be a kettle; three Bdubs (see above) not so much.

Chimping: Often used when referring to checking the screen of your camera on pelagics in order to arrive at an ID for a bird. This term seems to have gained some traction in the world of hawkwatching when it comes to going to get a better look at a difficult bird in your scope.


Chimping raptors

Conversely a couple of things you might not want to say:

Immature: Young raptors in fall are juveniles. In fact choosing to use the word immature when relating to describing raptors is rarely going to be a good choice. If you think you are seeing young birds, stick to using juvenile and you’ll rarely go wrong. I can envision experienced hawkwatchers eyes rolling whenever I hear this word.

Phase or Morph: The cool trend is now to just use “dark” or “light” when referring to the color of a specific bird that may come in a variety of colors, dropping the defining term. I must admit when I talking to or writing for intermediate hawkwatchers and birders I often use morph. I just think it makes things a bit clearer, cool or not!

There are plenty of other little bits of slang that get banded around at watches but often don’t more beyond the local watch. One of my favorites being Scamming: the act of scanning – but not very hard. Interestingly Jerry Liguori posted a slang term I hadn’t heard before on his recent blog post for HWI – check it out (here). feel free to share some of your favorites here in the comments!



2 responses

21 09 2015
Allen Fish

Great lit lesson, Luke – I’ve thought of trying the same thing, but the place differences are almost more fun. We use JRT for young Buttjams. (Veracruz counters scream Zopes! for the Black Vultures that appear frequently there (zopilotes) and Platos! for the Brodies). We say Broadies at GGRO, or more commonly one Broady. I cant say Grey Ghost or Blue Jack without feeling like a faker. And then there are all those hilarious place-names… BTW, KETTLE is a great story that I got from Keith Bildstein at Hawk Mountain. The Pennsylvania dutch word for a pile of rocks, like a talus area is kettle, and it’s used in english also (see Wikipedia). At Hawk Mountain, PA, they have a magnificent river of rocks running adjacent to the count site. As the Broadies would coalesce in a group over the “kettle” because the big rocks imparted thermals faster than the surrounding forest, gradually the counters went from saying “hawks over the kettle” to saying “a kettle of hawks”! The word kettle ascended!

Great to see you in Sonoma!

21 09 2015

Hey Allen,

Thanks for those awesome additions. I must admit I don’t like Blue Jack – but I am partial to Gray Ghost. I like the kettle explanation too. Likewise it was great to run into you (and many of the GGRO gang) up there. Next time I just have to make sure to schedule some more time to come hang out on Hawk Hill!

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