Coots and Cameras with Don and Elaine Cassidy

A sure sign of spring in Alberta is the migration of the wide variety of hawks from their winter residences, flying north to create the next generation. My fondest memories of this late April migration were seeing the raptors perched seemingly on every fence post along the highways in the Peace Country. My fishing partner Scott and I used the generic term “hawk,” sensing our limited knowledge about these majestic birds of prey.

Fortunately Elaine and I can identify one hawk—Swainson’s Hawk—and we can share what we have learned about hawks in general.  

One “aha!” moment for us was that hawks of the same species may be different colours, based on their genetics. The Swainson’s has two colour phases, “dark morph” and “light morph.”  In the dark morph phase the Swainson’s Hawk can range from reddish-brown to a uniform dark brown to almost black, accompanied by rufous shaded underwing coverts. 

In the light morph phase the head and upper breast are brown and the belly is a
nearly unmarked cream-white colour, and dark flight feathers that create a broad dark trailing
edge on the wing. The majority of Swainson’s
Hawks are coloured in the light morph

There is a key colour difference between the male and female. The males tend to have grey heads whereas the female’s head is brown.    

Regardless of colour, the wings of this hawk are long and slender, ending with pointed tips.  While soaring beautifully above, the wings are slightly raised or are dihedral.  

Migrating from as far away as Central and South America, the Swainson’s hawks travel as far north as Alaska.  Fortunately for us, they also have their young in Alberta.  When in mating mode, their diet switches to high-protein mammals including mice, voles, ground squirrels, gophers and rabbits.  Post-mating season, diets change to the unusual—dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets, moths and butterflies. 

Aside from soaring at great heights to spot food, Swainson’s hawks will also hunt on the ground for insects and mammals.  

It may be hard to get a close look at a Swainson’s hawk, as they often perch on posts, power pole tops, and in trees.  Last summer I developed a bit of a photographic relationship with one Swainson’s hawk who took care of the gopher population in a large farm field. Riding my bike, with my camera in the backpack, I came across this one hawk calmly sitting on a fence post.  I was able to stop my bike, get off, take out my camera, and very slowly approach this magnificent raptor. Over the course of the summer he seemed more relaxed with my digital intrusion.  

Any raptor is truly magnificent. When the air currents take the Swainson’s hawk to tremendous altitudes, the motivation is to appreciate and learn about all the hawk species.