Sunday, 22 September 2013

Swainson's Hawk at Point Pelee

It looks like I made a pretty accurate prediction in my last post.

After birding in the park all morning yesterday, I noticed that the winds had started to shift a little more to the northwest, as opposed to the solid west winds they had been early in the morning. This time of year, thousands of hawks and other raptors are migrating south, and north winds push them to the shores of the Great Lakes. Raptors don't like flying over water - thermals only really form over land - and so they follow the coastlines south and west.

I headed to the Seacliff Hawkwatch around noon, located in Leamington and officially inside the Point Pelee Birding Area. I set up my scope, set up my cooler against the back of my car to act as a makeshift seat/wind break, put on my sunglasses, and sipped my coffee.

Eventually I started noticing a few raptors floating on by, fighting the winds that were still rather westerly. A few "kettles" of Broad-winged Hawks began to drift on by as the skies slowly cleared. After about an hour of watching, I got on one bird to the south of me, directly over the treeline along the edge of Seacliff Drive. Unfortunately the sun was making the bird backlit and I immediately guessed it was a Northern Harrier due to the wing shape and somewhat wobbly flight. I got on it with my scope and studied it for about 15 seconds. The bird seemed too Buteo-like and thoughts of Swainson's Hawks danced in my head. I ran to get my camera (I had left it inside my car, while I was standing with my scope about 10 meters away), and fired off a dozen shots or so. The bird was very distant for a 300 mm lens, but when cropped you can make out some details.

I continued watching the bird for another 10 or 20 seconds before it drifted farther south and became hidden by the treeline.

Looking at the photos on my computer after, the bird appeared to be a Swainson's Hawk. I sent a few emails out with a cell phone shot of the photo on my computer screen, and everyone agreed that it was likely a Swainson's. Here they are!

This first photo is the original file straight out of the camera. Even at that distance, the long-winged look is evident.

Here is a crop of the same photo that has also been brightened...

It appeared to be a light morph adult Swainson's Hawk. The hooded effect can be seen in the above photo.

The next two photos are the same image with the second version lightened by a few stops. The dark flight feathers (primaries and secondaries) are one ID feature of a Swainson's Hawk. One issue with the bird is that the wingtips aren't pointed like what is usually seen with Swainson's Hawk, but I don't have much first-hand experience with the species...

You can also see the relatively long tail in the next photo - a feature which makes Swainson's Hawks look more like Northern Harriers. Most Buteos have short tails. Undoubtedly more than a few Northern Harriers have been called Swainson's Hawks before in Ontario. This image shows that the bird may have broader wings than what it seems like in the previous images. I'm not sure if it is the angle or if my initial impressions of the bird are off...

Swainson's Hawk is an exciting find for me. It was a new Ontario bird, only the 3rd species I've added to my Ontario list this year despite a considerable amount of time birding. I have some doubts about the bird though, such as the lack of pointed wingtips, plus the fact that my ID was based off of analyzing the photos more so than what I saw with my eyes, since the lighting was so poor. I sent the photo off to a few other birders, and some thought it looked good while others were not sure. At any rate I'll do more looking into this bird to determine if it actually is a Swainson's Hawk.

Swainson's Hawks show up every year in Ontario, usually at hawk watches flying by. As of the end of the 2011 report, there were 52 accepted records for Ontario. However, their status as a rarity is somewhat skewed. There are hawk watching stations set up in about 5 places in Ontario that are manned nearly every day during migration for most of the day. With such a large amount of time spent every day dedicated to hawk-watching, Swainson's Hawks appear more common than what is actually the case compared to other rarities. Just think - if there were manned bird observatories in 5 or 6 places along the north shore of Ontario in Hudson's/James Bay that scanned the ocean for 8 hours a day every day during the spring and autumn, how many shearwaters would be found in Ontario! I would imagine that a lot of species would prove to be quite regular; species which may only currently have one or two records in Ontario.

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