The famous Holmes County Swainson's Hawk
October 4, 2015
On a summer day in 1827, naturalists John Richardson and Thomas Drummond were exploring uncharted territory near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Spying an unfamiliar raptor, Drummond drew a bead with his shotgun and fired. He had collected the first Swainson’s hawk specimen.
Named in honor of scientist/artist William Swainson, the Swainson’s hawk is an animal of great beauty. It’s about the same dimensions as the familiar red-tailed hawk, but it has a slimmer body and longer wings.
The plumage is variable, ranging from very dark forms to much paler types. Most are classified as “light morphs;” the “dark morphs” are scarcer.
The breeding range of Swainson’s hawk encompasses much of western North America, into the southern Canadian prairie provinces. A tiny population in northern Illinois represents the easternmost breeders.
Swainson’s hawks rarely appear in Ohio, and if one does, it will draw great interest.
Most have been fly-overs that didn’t linger. If you weren’t there when the bird winged by, you missed it. I was lucky indeed to be part of Ohio’s first record, on July 1, 1983. A gorgeous Swainson’s hawk flew low over Bruce Peterjohn, Don Tumblin and me as we stood awestruck on a dike near Lake Erie.
Thus, when a Swainson’s hawk appeared in a Holmes County field on Sept. 17, it was big news. This bird was no fly-by, either. It stuck tight for the next five days, spending much time in its favored 6-acre field.
The bird’s unusual site fidelity and lengthy stay made it easy for legions of birders to see.
Hundreds of binocular-toters from all corners of Ohio made the pilgrimage, as did others from surrounding states.
An unaffected celebrity, the hawk utterly ignored visitors. It was entertaining to watch as it raced about snapping up grasshoppers. Otherwise, it perched on a fence post and scanned for bugs.
Swainson’s hawks are notable for being highly insectivorous, except during breeding season when they seek rodent meat for the nestlings.
Adding to the interest was the hawk’s color. It was a dark form. I believe all six or so previous records have been of the more typical light form birds.
Swainson’s hawks are highly migratory, and virtually the entire population shifts to the Pampas region of Argentina for the winter.
That’s more than 6,000 miles — one way! By the time you read this, Holmes County’s avian star will be well on its way to the southern grasslands.
It will join legions of others on the migratory passage.
One of the great hawk-watching spots is Veracruz, Mexico. Up to 1 million Swainson’s hawks have been tallied there in fall migration. Individual flocks can number 10,000 birds.
Major thanks go to Ed Schlabach, the Amish bird-watcher who first confirmed the hawk’s identity. Ed has found many other rarities, including most of Ohio’s other Swainson’s hawk records.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month.