Swainson’s Hawks — The Great Migration

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Before addressing today’s subject, a quick note: I’m going to be away for a few days.  This blog will resume on Friday, September 30, with what I hope are some really interesting new images.

This year’s annual great Swainson’s Hawk migration is in full swing.  Right now, there are thousands of these birds camped out in some of the valleys and flatlands in southern Arizona and they make for extraordinary images.

Swainson’s Hawks are buteos, cousins to the much more familiar Red-tailed Hawks.  They are a western species and, for the most part, they spend their summers on the western plains of the United States and Canada.  A few actually summer in Arizona although the vast majority of them spend their summers further north.  In the fall they gather in big flocks — sometimes containing several hundred birds — and migrate south, thousands of miles, to their winter home on the pampas of Argentina.  Every year they pass through southern Arizona and sojourn here for a few days or weeks before resuming their journey.  While they are here they cluster in great numbers in agricultural areas, where they fatten up on grasshoppers and occasional rodents before heading south.

Red-tails seem to prefer high perches, the better to be able to surveil the countryside, but Swainson’s Hawks often will perch at somewhat lower elevations.  It’s common, of course, to see them on utility poles when they are here, but they also perch on trees, like pecans, on low-growing shrubs, and even on the ground.  They make for a striking sight, particularly early in the morning, when they often perch in flocks.

A few days ago a friend and I went out early in the morning into agricultural country and we found great numbers of these hawks.

They are very beautiful.  Swainson’s Hawks come in innumerable color variations — they are more varied in appearance than other buteos, and no two of them are exactly alike in appearance.


These are large hawks, just a tiny bit smaller than Red Tails, but with longer wings.  As we drove around through the farmlands, we found them literally everywhere.


Hawks were perched on trees, of course, and on utility poles.  Frequently, we’d see them perched on low-hanging branches, sometimes almost at eye level.


And, there were many hawks, sometimes dozens of them in a group, perched on the ground.


It all made for exciting observation and even more exciting photography.  The migration is a fleeting moment in time.  Within a week or so, these beautiful birds will be gone, headed south.  For me, their annual passage is proof that our seemingly endless summer finally is ending.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4-5.6 ISII+1.4X telextender, M setting, ISO 640.  Images 1, 3, and 4, shot at f8, image 2 at f9.  Shutter speeds ranged from 1/1600 to 1/2000.

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