Long Distance Champ

Reminder:  You can enlarge any of the photos in this blog by clicking on it.  Click again for a full screen image.

Lots of raptors migrate.  Red-tailed Hawks, for example, show up in the Tucson area each winter from locations all over the western United States.  However, no raptor in this hemisphere migrates as far as does the Swainson’s Hawk.  These birds migrate annually from their summer homes in the western plains all the way down to Argentina and back.

Swainson’s Hawks are naturally at home on the prairies and flatlands.  A few pairs nest each summer in the agricultural lands in the vicinity of Tucson. Beginning in August thousands of them pass through the area as they gather for their annual trek.  It’s sometimes possible to see hundreds of them in giant flocks or “kettles,” circling above open fields as they search for grasshoppers, their favorite snack.  One can sometimes find Swainson’s Hawks during their fall migration simply by looking for fields in the process of being plowed.  The hawks often will walk the furrows behind the tractors, gobbling down grasshoppers that are turned up by the plowing.

I went hunting for Swainson’s Hawks this morning even though it’s a bit early in their migration season and I was pleased to find a small group of them patrolling a field under cultivation.


One of these birds was content to pose for me.   Well, relatively content.  It flew away the first time I attempted to photograph it.  I outsmarted it on the second try by lying on my stomach on the front seat of my car and shooting out of the passenger side window.

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Swainson’s Hawks superficially resemble Red Tails but there are differences aside from the fact that Swainson’s Hawks lack their cousins’ characteristic red tails.  Swainson’s Hawks are usually slightly smaller than Red-tailed Hawks, although a big Swainson’s Hawk can be larger than a small Red Tail.  Swainson’s Hawks have very long wings for buteos.  On a perching Swainson’s Hawk the wingtips will extend down to the end of the bird’s tail.  A Red Tail, by contrast, has shorter and wider wings.

Perhaps the easiest way to identify a Swainson’s Hawk is by looking at its beak.  Swainson’s Hawks’ beaks are invariably bright yellow at their base whereas Red Tails’ beaks are not.  In a day or two I’ll post some Red Tail photos and the difference in beak color will be apparent immediately.

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Swainson’s Hawks come in a big array of colors and color patterns, ranging from very pale to almost black.  This bird is relatively dark for a Swainson’s Hawk, but I’ve seen them even darker.  Clearly, a gorgeous bird.


Photos taken with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO, ISO 320, “M” setting, f9 @ 1/1250.

2 responses to “Long Distance Champ”

  1. Liesl Kii says :

    Have you showed us Swainson’s Hawks before? Yes, this is a gorgeous bird. I admire the yellow beak and feet.

    • stevenkessel says :

      I don’t know whether I’ve put Swainson’s Hawks on the blog before but I don’t think that I have. I’ve put photos of this species in a couple of my photo books, I know that.

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