A Fine Kettle of… Hawks

May 17, 2020 ~ Enjoying the mornings and evenings in my backyard have given me new birding experiences. I was delighted when a hawk soared in lazy circles overhead one evening in early April.

Hawk soaring above my house
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/4000 sec f/5.6 ISO 640 at 500mm

I struggled to identify it, with its gleaming white underside and dark wing borders. All About Birds shows several color variations on a variety of hawks, which still didn’t pin this bird down. I turned to my favorite bird photographer, Linda Murdock, who advised: focus on the shape and behavior, not the color. How long is the tail, how wide and how rounded or pointed are the wings? What is the flight pattern?

Similar Hawks
Similar hawks compared, on All About Birds

The two most likely candidates were Swainson’s Hawk adult light-morph, and the Red-tailed Hawk adult light morph. The Swainson’s has the long pointed wings of my specimen, and the pale chin. But the Red-tailed Hawk is found year-round throughout Texas while the Swainson’s is typically only found in west Texas during the spring. The Swainson’s also flies in “kettles”, swirling groups of birds wheeling high in the sky together, feeding on insects.

Throughout that week, I would see one, and sometimes two hawks, circling at very high elevation, working their way down the road bordered by trees to the empty fields west of our house. And two weeks ago, I saw “my” two birds join with two others circling high above our yard. Was this a miniature kettle?

I decided to tentatively declare my birds the Swainson’s Hawk. As first one and then the other sailed both high overhead, and low along the tree-lined farm road behind our subdivision, I enjoyed their silent swoops, and occasional soft skree-ing calls.

And then I saw this:

Swainson’s Hawk with nesting material
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/5.6 ISO 800 at 500mm

He (or she) was carrying a nice substantial twig for a nest, and disappeared into a leafy tree directly behind our fence. And then he repeated the process. He was serious!

More twigs for the nest
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000 at 500mm

Through the following days, I watched and snapped photos, and tried to get a glimpse of the nest through the heavy foliage. Finally I found the sweet-spot for me and my tripod, right by the hose bib along the back of the house. Her nest is quite a bit below her in the thickest part of the foliage; here she is standing on her take-off-and-landing-platform. Through her picture window, I could see her, and she could see me!

Swainson’s Hawk surveys me from her nest
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000 at 500mm

And, lest anyone think that these regal birds might be honored and respected by their smaller avian neighbors, a word of caution. The scrappy Mockingbird, state bird of Texas, will harass the hawks, dive-bombing and screeching, until the hawk puts his foot down, and says “Enough!”

Being patient with noisy neighbors
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 2500 at 500mm


Or not!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 2500 at 500mm

Building a nest takes work. Both hawks forage, coming back with twigs and weaving them into the nest which is invisible behind the shaking tree foliage. The hawks pry off dried tree branches, or strip green ones with fresh leaves. As I watched, the branch snapped, releasing a shower of debris. The fresh stubs of other broken twigs testify to the amount of work they’ve done.

Hawk gathering twigs for the nest
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 2500 at 500mm

Watching them work on the mostly-dead tree on the other side of the road was interesting because of the force they had to apply, and how they leveraged their legs and beak to finally break off the twig.

Getting a grip on a stout twig
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 3200 at 500mm

All the photos in this post are one of the same pair of hawks. The apparent color differences are a result of my lack of expertise in getting exactly the right exposure for the back of the bird or stomach, clear skies or cloudy, sunrise or sunset and mid-day blazing sun. I should be exposing so perfectly that the colors would be captured correctly in each setting… but I’m definitely not there yet.

And I’m doing pretty radical crops to share these birds close up. The birds in the bare tree are about 160 feet away; the nest is about 88 feet away, and the bird below is only about 50 feet away.

Swainson’s Hawk begging for Photoshop
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000 at 500mm

It will be exciting to watch their progress. Who knows, I might have the opportunity to see the parents bring prey home for their young, and to see the young learn to fly. For now, I’m just warmed by the presence of this new family, so close to our home.

One thought on “A Fine Kettle of… Hawks”

  1. Wow, that’s super awesome! Good photos, a lot of fascinating information and a terrific, enviable story! I used to frequently see Swainson’s hawks when I went for drives in the eastern plains, but even though I recognize them by their shape and dark bib, I never realized they have a white throat, or that they normally fly in kettles, or that they can eat insects! I didn’t notice the result of varying light levels, until you mentioned it and I studied the photos for a while. I guess, to me, it’s perfectly normal for a subject to appear different in different lights, and in nature light is always likely to be variable. Thank you for a wonderful photo story- I feel lucky to get to see these photos. Examining them almost makes me feel like I am a part of the story. It’s wonderful that you have the knowledge, talent, time, curiosity and alertness to capture such awesome photos and write such an enlightening story.


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