The first time we happened upon a dark cyclone of 50 or more hawks swirling together up from the ground into the early evening sky we were hooked. So hooked and wanting more that we now spend many late August and early September afternoons driving dusty dirt roads in the Colorado grassland hoping to have the sight of hundreds of Swainson’s hawks take our breath away once again.
Swainson’s hawks arrive in Colorado in the spring – after spending our winters in Argentina. Read that again, please. These hawks fly (by flapping their wings – not in coach class) from Argentina in very South America all the way to mid North America. And they do that in a few months. It boggles my mind to think of traveling such a distance by your own power in such a short time. I’m in awe of these birds just knowing this.
Once they get to my part of the world they hastily build or squat on existing nests and get serious about the business of reproducing. My bird watching partner (my honey) and I frequently laugh at Swainson’s hawk nests. You can tell there is no time to paint and decorate before the babies arrive. They set up house in whatever jumble of sticks and leaves they can find, in nests frequently way too close to roads or looking like a good wind will blow them over, which unfortunately sometimes does happen. One year a nest we were watching blew down yet the determined parents hastily built another one and had time to successfully raise one baby.
These new young birds have to hatch, survive summer storms (with no basement to run to when the wild weather of the plains is in full splendor), and then make it through the fledgling stage of learning how to leave the nest and fly. And they have to do all of this in about 4 months. That’s because at the end of the summer the whole family is flying back to Argentina. Think about that – as a young Swainson’s hawk you’ve just learned to fly and catch your own food (grasshoppers being one of your favorite dishes) and now you’re off on an unimaginable marathon. At least you’ll be traveling with thousands of your peeps.
That’s because these hawks get really friendly and gather in huge groups, called kettles, to make the long trek together. Bird brains, I mean wildlife specialists who know these things, say that the young aren’t born knowing their way to Argentina so they have to be taught by the adults. I’m thinking that as a human I would have to be taught the way to Argentina a bunch of times before I could remember the whole route (that means remembering it all with no MapQuest). More mind boggling happening here.
Maybe that’s another reason why they travel in large groups: it’s their version of “it takes a village”. Maybe it takes a kettle to remember the way up and back. Or maybe they cheer each other on when they are exhausted and still have thousands of miles to go. Or maybe it’s to ensure some of the young make it even if their parents don’t.
Whatever the reason for kettles they are pure magic to behold. And a bit tricky to find because the hawks generally don’t send word to humans as to where the secret gathering place is each year. My honey and I have spent the last 8 years scouring the plains in late summer to find them. Some years we have seen hundreds. Most years we get excited if we see 30 to 40 in one field together. Every year we enjoy the quiet vastness, the excitement of the hunt and the possibility of crashing the pre-game party.
What makes it even more thrilling is that when we find the kettles we call the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (www.rmrp.org) so that the injured or sick orphans the RMRP staff and volunteers have cared for can now be returned to the wild. When the kettles are being formed is perfect timing for the release of the immature birds. They are welcomed into the village, reunited with their peeps and ready for the journey south.
These magnificent birds have taught me tons: Things don’t always have to be perfect (especially in the house keeping department), because often good enough for now will do just fine. The impossible to imagine really can be accomplished, every year, over and over again. It’s always more fun to do really hard things in the company of your peeps. If a good storm trashes your plans, try again, quickly. When you feel the inner timing is ripe, listen to it and go. Whenever you can on a long journey, ride the thermals and conserve your energy. (I’m still hoping that some day they’ll teach me how to fly.)
Hunting hawks, taking care of wounded birds of prey and then releasing them back into the wild are priority passions of mine. Exquisite joy and bone deep satisfaction come from living one’s passion and from being connected with the natural world! I highly recommend both.
How about you? What do you do just for the sheer joy of it? What “hawks” are you hunting?