Swainson's Hawks

NOTE: I apologize, once again, for the lengthy delay between posts these last few months. I am finding it a bit too much to keep up with two social mediums. Thus the Facebook page gets my attention and the blog gets the left-overs - or so it seems. So, for those of you who would enjoy a more 'regular' dose of Elk Lake, please 'like' our Facebook page.

A couple of good photo opportunities provided me with a stack of Swainson Hawk photos I cannot keep to myself. Thus, I decided to dedicate a full post to these beautiful birds.

However, as lovely as the photos may seem (and a few are at least decent), the post would not be nearly as interesting without some fascinating facts - and these birds are actually very intriguing!

Swainson's Hawks are really quite an amazing bird. One of their most fascinating facts is their nesting habits. While they do not nest exclusively in one type of location, the fact that I have seen the young in this same - mostly open prairie - location for several years in a row peaked my curiosity. Where exactly had they been raised?

Surely, I assumed, in the general area. But where? I wondered. As the tallest trees where a mere 20 feet or so this 'typical' raptor nesting location didn't seem likely. Besides, I could see the trees clearly and surely would have spotted a nest as large as these birds require.

A brief discussion with Refuge personnel only added to my confusion. The 'general' opinion seemed to be they nested in the forest at the edge of the prairie. If so, why did these young appear and then remain for several weeks in a location at least 1/2 a mile from the nearest forest boundary? It didn't make sense.

So, like any good modern researcher I turned to Google (that's the modern way, right?). Here I found some interesting facts - about nesting and more. First off, to answer my burining question: Swainson's Hawks nest "in a solitary tree" (allaboutbirds.org) - "in a tree or shrub or on a cliff edge. . .occasionally a pair will nest on the ground or on a bank or ledge" (wikipedia.org) - "usually placed low in a tree, bush, or shrub" (peregrinefund.org) - "nest occasionally in sagebrush plants 2.5 m. [8 feet] tall" (prbo.org) - "in a tree, shrub, on the ground, or on top of a utility pole" (whatbird.com).

One thing became crystal clear - these birds are not overly picky about their nesting location. Apparently if it feels safe, it is safe. So, assuming these birds nest near where the young are seen soon after fledging, I began to strike out the impossible locations. Not a tree unless it was more of a bush (willow); certainly not the tall stately (empahsis on large) tree typically associated with raptors' nests. Not a ledge as no rocky ledges existed in the area. Not a cliff edge as no cliff's existed in the area. And certainly not a utility pole as the nearest was about 10 miles away.

That left a shrub (there are willows in the area although not large ones), a bush (sagebrush is plentiful), a bank (there are swales nearby where, potentially, there might be a suitable bank), or on the ground. Now, considering this is a predator-rich environment, that created a truly amazing proposition.

Could it be? Could these birds actually have successfully fledged their young for several years in a nest which seems so vulnerable as to be sure to fail? Based on what I have seen, it seems possible. However, I admit to not tramping about the scene for concrete evidence. At first this was my plan. But, after further consideration I wondered if my presence (if it were to somehow be detected by the returning pair next year) would disturb what has obviously been a successful family home to date. So, I decided to forego this plan, at least for the time being.

This, of course, is not all the interesting information I learned about this beautiful raptor. (Note, all information was obtained from the sites listed above). Swainson's Hawks are a bird which, to my mind, defy the odds in more ways than one. Not only do they nest in 'vulnerable' locations, in America only the tundra breeding Peregrine Falcons endure a longer migration.

These young Swainson's Hawks had to be ready to join a massive migration within 3 - 4 months of birth. Imagine, two young birds raised in the Centennial Valley solitude joining several thousand who, as a group, cover an average of 200 miles per day! Talk about culture shock and an extreme exercise program. No wonder they were reluctant to move during our photo sessions!

These two photos could be taken as further 'proof' these youngsters were raised on the ground. After all, what bird do you know which would sit on the ground, next to the road, unmoved by vehicles and people? One could almost mistake this beautiful creature for a house pet!

But their mild nature does not last. This parent seemed anything but 'tame' as it screamed and dove and appeared ready to attack me as I photographed its young. A protective parent and a skilled hunter, these adults feed themselves and their young on immature ground squirrels and other small mammals, insects, various small birds, and an occasional reptile or amphibian.

A few weeks - that was all - before they flew off to join those thousands on their long treck to South America. Hopefully they will return next year to successfully nest and fledge more beautiful young who - with any luck - will perch on these same posts and trees for yet another amazing photo opportunity!

Lady of the Lake

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