The Summer of Swainson’s is nearing an end

Adult Swainson's in flight over Box Elder County, UtahAdult Swainson’s in flight over Box Elder County, Utah

It won’t be long before Swainson’s Hawks start to migrate to South America and some may already have started their journey south. Their breeding habitat is prairie and dry grasslands throughout western North America and they are named after William Swainson who was a British naturalist. Swainson’s will breed as far north as southwestern Yukon and east-central Alaska.

Adult Swainson's Hawk in the Centennial Valley, Montana

Adult Swainson’s Hawk in the Centennial Valley, Montana

Swainson’s Hawks are also known as Grasshopper Hawks or Locust Hawks because they are very fond of locusts and grasshoppers and will scarf them down whenever or wherever they are available. This past summer I have seen flocks of 70 or more Swainson’s in a single field gorging themselves on grasshoppers until they spotted us and lifted off to form a whirling kettle of raptors in the sky.

Adult Swainson's in flight over Fremont County, IdahoAdult Swainson’s in flight over Fremont County, Idaho

Swainson’s Hawks have three color morphs, light, intermediate and dark and I enjoy seeing and photographing them all. In Utah and Idaho I see a lot of Swainson’s in agricultural areas that are irrigated and not so many of them when fields are dry farmed. The bird above was perched in a fir tree near a small group of houses near Henry’s Lake in Idaho after about 5 minutes the bird lifted off and flew towards some grassy fields near the lake.

Sub-adult Swainson's Hawk in Beaverhead County, MontanaSub-adult Swainson’s Hawk in Beaverhead County, Montana

I enjoy seeing Swainson’s Hawks in juvenile, sub-adult and adult plumage, to me they are all beautiful no matter what phases of plumage they are in.

Adult Swainson's Hawk portrait on Antelope Island State Park, UtahAdult Swainson’s Hawk portrait on Antelope Island State Park, Utah

Swainson’s Hawks probably have the longest migration of any North American raptor, they can travel as far as 14,ooo miles and each migration may last as long as two months. The hawks ride on thermals as they make their way to Central America where almost the entire population travels through the Isthmus of Panama, I wish I had been in Panama City in September or October instead of in March so I could have witnessed the spectacular sight of hundreds or thousands of Swainson’s Hawks passing overhead.

Light Swainson's Hawk sub-adult in the Centennial Valley, MontanaLight Swainson’s Hawk sub-adult in the Centennial Valley, Montana

Yes, the Swainson’s Hawks will be leaving soon but I have had a great time with them this summer and it isn’t over yet!


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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.


  1. These are all amazing, Mia. I love the one in flight where you can see its incredibly long feathers and the curve of its wing beats. And the cropping on the portrait is so graceful.

  2. This Swainson summer might be drawing to a close, but you (and we thanks to you) have the images to hold in our hearts, memories (and computers). And yes the Panama plethora would be a heart-stirring sight to see.

  3. Love how you caught those primaries in the Fremont County, Idaho shot. And what a beautiful angle, it feels like you were up there at high elevations with ‘em.

  4. Love these images, Mia, and like the personality of this hawk.I remember when I spotted my first one and the excitement of ID-ing it. Sigh! So much less light now at both ends of the day, downright depressing.

    • Jane,

      I agree, it is getting dark sooner and staying dark longer and that reminds me that soon I’ll be photographing the winter raptors that come to this area. Just trying to look on the bright side.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. The first two images are my favorites and I’m wondering how you were able to get that aerial shot, as if you were soaring beside it. Both are beautiful. Nice work Mia.

  6. Such amazing raptors, I’ve got to keep my eye out more next year and see if I find any! You have fabulous images of them.

  7. Mia,
    The second image in this post is the finest portrait of this species I have ever seen. They are a very handsome raptor. Great work

    Glen Fox

  8. They are so beautiful. And your photos are stellar!!

  9. Beautiful hawk. I photographed my first one this year. I was so excited to have been able to capture it. Your images are an inspiration.

  10. Some lovely images. I’m sure they’ll be back next year for you to enjoy and photograph, and then share those with us.
    (It would be spectacular in Panama though!)

  11. Oh, a beautiful bird of prey, and the way it moves. Absolutely brilliant.

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