Photographing Raptors

Red-tailed Hawk_SEColorado_LAH_4705fAfter weeks of subfreezing weather, Saturday morning dawned with a promise of warm sunshine and blue skies. As the sun rose, we were already on our way, heading out onto the short-grass prairies. Pikes Peak receded into the rear view mirror. Our focus was on the trees and telephone poles along the road. Seven of us had piled into two cars, bristling with binos and telephoto lenses. It was time to photograph raptors!

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The Return of the Swainson’s Hawks

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It’s time for the changing of the guard. Rough-legged Hawks are on their way to the northern edge of the continent to breed and raise their young in the 24-hour summer sunshine. At the same time, Swainson’s Hawks are on their way back from Argentina in search of an endless summer.

Swainson’s Hawks were the first hawks I learned to identify as a fledgling birder. The dark-dark-light pattern of perched birds is easy to remember—dark head and chest, white belly. Plus, the russet cowl is distinctive. Smaller than other Colorado Buteos, their tiny feet allow them to perch on wires whereas other Buteos prefer trees and telephone poles. A friend described the white over their beak as their “searchlight” and the mnemonic stuck. And finally, no other American hawk has pale coverts with dark flight feathers. A soaring bird is instantly recognizable.

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Fieldtrip Re-run

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I’ve gone on this same field trip every year for the past five years. It’s always the first weekend in March. A dozen or so of us follow a series of barely-used back roads out onto the plains, searching for hawks, falcons, and other birds. Some years the snow falls, the wind howls, and the birds hunker on the ground. We see very little. Other years the weather is delightful, and the sky is full of soaring raptors.

The lead car gets the best view. Red-tails and Rough-legged Hawks perch on utility poles, kestrels balance on the wires, and Northern Harriers skim the short-grass prairie. The rest of us eat dust and catch glimpses of the back-ends of startled birds.

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