Swainson’s Hawks are special. As special as any bird that is abundant… just not abundant in your neck of the woods. OK sure, it is only an hour drive before I reach Swainson’s paradise in the Central Valley of California… but where I live, any large brown Buteo has a higher probability of Red-tailed Hawkishness. It takes a special trip to see these special birds, and as such, the pointy-winged migrants are particularly cool to me. The one above is a portrait of a long lived captive bird at a local rehab center.

I was just up in Alberta (and missed my last 10,000 birds post as a result) and my Red-tailed-ready instincts fell apart as each big raptor I saw turned out to be a Swainie. So I thought it might be nice to share some encounters from previous outings. The first time I spent any quality time with them was in Klamath Basin on the border of California and Oregon. I quickly discovered they are vocal creatures, perhaps because it was summer time and the breeding season was just finishing up.

Vocal when perched, and vocal when aloft. This is a lovely dark morph.

With breading season waning, it made sense to find a pair of kids hanging out together.

Competing for food can have unintended consequences, like dropping it in the scuffle which ensues when a parent makes a delivery. The evidence was everywhere below the power poles.

Around this time the parents began to arrive and I mistook their vocalizations as normal.

This was the smaller male and his cries didn’t seem urgent. He set to preening and seemed comfortable with my presence, standing next to my car, parked on the roadside.

The female then showed up and flew by quickly but calmly, surveying the scene and showcasing those pointy wings which long distant migrants seem to favor.

She flew overhead glancing down from time to time as Buteos do when hunting.

But suddenly a switch was flipped and she decided something wasn’t right. She began vocalizing and wheeled upwards in a big wide arc.

She turned and headed right for me with a few powerful flaps of her wings, screaming the whole way.

Message received, at this point I was backing towards and into my open car door as she drove the point home.

I imagine this is the last thing many gophers in Klamath see. The landing gear came down and I ducked into my car and left the quartet in peace. I was surprised by the level of protectiveness given the advanced age of the kids, but I guess my main exposure to young hawks is in urban areas where people in proximity are generally tolerated. The story changes in the great wild expanses to the north.

Here’s to a very special bird getting ready to take flight. Argentina is calling and the fall migration will soon be underway.

Written by Walter
Walter Kitundu is an artist and designer, instrument builder and bird photographer. As an artist he has created hand built record players powered by the wind and rain, fire and earthquakes, birds, light, and the force of ocean waves. Walter has performed and been in residence at art centers and science museums internationally. He has performed with the renowned Kronos Quartet, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, the electronic music duo Matmos, and the legendary Marshall Allen - in venues from Carnegie Hall to a high school library in Egilstaadir, Iceland. In 2008 Walter became a MacArthur Fellow. Walter loves photographing birds and is an ongoing volunteer with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. He was hooked when a Red-tailed Hawk landed at his side, ate a caterpillar, then refused to leave. He is a Senior Design Developer for the Studio Gallery at the Exploratorium in San Francisco where he designs and builds environments for learning. You can see more of his work on his blog, Bird Light Wind.