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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

Swainson's Hawk Migration Begins

A cool fall morning in northeast Potter County marked the early stages of very long journey for the dozens of Swainson's Hawks that I spotted. Fattening themselves up on our abundant grasshoppers, the hawks gathered on fence posts and power lines, ready to start their 4-6 week trip to the southern tip of South America.

Over the next couple of months, they'll fly 120+ miles per day in flocks as large as 5,000-10,000 individual Swainson's Hawks. They will complete one of the longest migrations in the bird world--as much as 7000 miles long, if they survive highways, storms, hail and being shot along the way. Sadly, a 1995 satellite telemetry study showed that after all that work to get to South America, thousands of Swainson's Hawks died in Argentina from pesticide poisoning.

But in Amarillo, Texas, they are thriving. They've bred, nested and hatched plenty of little hawks and are now gathering with those youngsters for the long trip. At this time of year, you can drive down a country road and see them lined up on fence posts like airline passengers queuing up at the ticket counter (safely socially distanced, of course).

I love that fact that these gregarious hawks choose to travel as a group. Vacations to sunnier climates are always more fun when you are with friends.

On September 15, 2020, I drove 10 miles around McGee Lake (a large, fenced off, stinky lake owned by Tyson Meats that nevertheless attracts numerous birds) and saw 27 Swainson's Hawks in less than two hours. Twice I encountered eight of them within a quarter-mile. Unfortunately, whenever I drove my car down the road, they all flew. So to get pictures of them, I tried sneaking up on them and using a long, telephoto lens. The result was a gallery from just one day of the many variations in plumages of these striking buteos.

Mature Swainson's Hawks typically have the rust-colored breast bib that you see on the first bird and the last bird in this gallery. That makes them easy to identify on a power pole as I speed by on the highway. You can see that many of the birds I photographed on that beautiful September day had not yet formed complete bibs, which can take 3 molts. So many of these are immature birds. I also saw one of the more unusual dark morph hawks, below, whose bib is obscured by his dark plumage.

Swainson's Hawks can live 8-10 years, so many of these birds will return in April to our area to start their next families. Some will travel on as far north as the prairies of Canada. But for the next six months, Swainson's Hawks will be enjoying the sunny summer weather in South America.

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