Sep 21, 2022

The Rufous Family Album

A couple weeks ago I shared a series of photographs I took of a trusting Swainson’s Hawk, not just any hawk, but a feisty adult female rufous morph Swainson’s Hawk that I have monitored since April 2017, my first spring after returning from California. After sharing the eventful photo series and associated article with you, I have appreciated some excellent opportunities to photograph the rufous female and other family members, including her normally colored mate – an equally vocal adult male – plus each of their 3 fledglings, 2 of which are typically colored slightly smaller males, along with the large standout “amber-colored” female nestmate that I consider to be among the prettiest fledglings of this species of Great Plains raptor.

The family provided an enjoyable opportunity to monitor and photograph each of the hawks during the post-fledging period – the approximately month-long period after nestlings fledge from the nest to simultaneously learn to fly and hunt. During this period the adults protect the vulnerable fledglings, and feed them, eventually reducing their supplemental feeding as the fledglings begin to catch their own prey. During the post-fledging period, the hawks stayed in an open expanse of grass-covered hills with an adjacent wheat field where it was fairly easy to locate the hawks – when they were in the area.

This amber-colored fledgling is a most impressive-looking Swainson’s fledgling, so to get a photo of it in flight was especially rewarding. The lighting was excellent, but the position of the tail and one wing below the angle of the sun created shadowed areas (photo info: zoom 600mm, aperture f7, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 400.)

It’s fun to remind you that the rufous adult female and I actually have a history: I took my first photo series of this uniquely colored hawk in April 2017, and she has returned to her nesting territory 6 miles south of my office each of the past 6 springs with a normally colored adult male. The male is possibly the same each year, although it’s impossible to tell because all normally colored Swainson’s in the area are quite indistinguishable, unlike the rufous female that is essentially a “marked” bird. Each spring I watch for her, and each summer I follow her nesting progress with a level of special personal interest.

After taking the series of flight photos of the rufous female that illustrated the “Bird Photography” feature in the September 7th issue of The Birding Wire, I continued to photograph the Swainson’s Hawk family when it was possible during prime sunlight periods. The resulting photos were so inspiring that I thought it would be appropriate to introduce the other individuals of the “Rufous Family” while providing insights that will help you when photographing birds of prey, and any other birds.

This impressive amber-colored fledgling’s large size indicate it is a female. Although the background was not uniformly blurred using an f8 aperture, it is out of focus enough to emphasize the outline of the standing hawk. An f6 aperture would probably have been a better choice in this case to make the background color more uniform.

The Amber Fledgling

About 10 days ago, after completing a birding drive about 6:30pm, the sunlight was so nice that I thought I’d see if I could muster a photo opportunity south of my office. As I approached the Swainson’s Hawk territory where the rufous morph female and her mate were attending their 3 fledglings I saw a hawk fly low from a good photo vantage point, which suggested I was moments too late. But wait, there was a second hawk perched on a grass bale fairly close to the road – a fledgling, but not just any fledgling – one of the most beautiful Swainson’s fledglings I’ve ever seen.

The big fledgling hawk was facing in my direction, showing its light amber-colored underside and face, bejeweled with some dark brown spotting on each side of its neck. I took a few photos of her before she turned to the side, showing her lighter than normal dorsal side, along with the medium-brown covert wing feathers showing buffy outlines – all in all a really impressive and beautiful raptor! I took photos as she repositioned and turned her head, and after some time she took flight, flying directly away into the wind to gain elevation. But wait, then she turned back to glide in my direction, following the updraft on the hillside to my right. As I photographed her advance, she flew toward the low sun that radiated the young raptor’s colors perfectly – how lucky, how exciting.

The Adult Pair

Last week Monday, before I headed for Duluth, I took a short drive to get out of the office a bit and to take a look at the birds in the area before my migration trip. I also wanted to check back on the rufous Swainson’s family, and as I approached their territory I saw the rufous female and her normally colored mate each perched on straw bales in a recently harvested wheat field a distance from the road. Because they were beyond good photo range, I didn’t want to bother them and continued a short distance farther. There I found a young Northern Harrier flying low and closer to the road. I followed it back in the direction of the Swainson’s pair, but it veered far out of my photo range, so I continued down the road, past the 3 hawks. But as I passed, I noticed the rufous hawk took flight toward the road, followed by the male. The female landed on bale positioned on a hillside adjacent to the road, and the male perched on a grass bale near the rufous female was standing on.

The matriarch of the Swainson’s Hawk family is the vocal rufous adult female that conveys its strength and vocal personality in this image. Luck plays a role in getting a photo like this, but it’s also important to recognize a potential photo opportunity and to position yourself so you have the best chance of a success when the action begins.

I couldn’t ask for a better photo situation, considering there was excellent sunlight in just the right direction, while both the adult hawks were perched next to the road. Would they hold their position as I drove by them and stopped? Yes! So I focused on the closer rufous female and photographed her standing against the clear blue sky, photographed the male, then refocused on the female. In a few moments she took flight, and as she banked downward toward my position she emitted her characteristic Swainson’s scream, which I documented in a photo that shows her mouth opened wide.

I photographed her flight until she passed by, which was about the same time the male initiated his screaming flight. I zeroed in on the male as he flew perpendicular to my position, which provided photos of him from the side, fully illuminated by the low bright sun – perfecto! I really never had the chance to photograph the male in close quarters before, so to photograph both the hawks one after another was especially exciting, and the photos were as good as I could hope for. Both hawks landed on the next hillside, and I bid them well.

The extended crop in the neck of the adult male shows it has eaten recently, and you can see its 2 outer primary feathers were still growing last week. Excellent late afternoon sunlighting as the hawk flew in front of the camera lens shows almost no shadowing.

Hunting Flights

Just a couple days ago, Monday afternoon to be exact, I checked back on the rufous family, and found one of the male fledglings perched on a grass bale, so drove a couple more miles, thinking I would check back on the young hawk and the family in about 20 minutes upon my return. That’s when I found the fledgling soaring over the grassland, on the hunt, using the updraft off a big hill to aid its aerial search. I was able to take a number of photos as the fledgling male circled the hillside time and again. At one point the adult male came to search the area, or was it checking on the fledgling’s progress? And the rufous female did the same, it seemed, as the fledgling showed it was an able flier as it managed the strong south wind and made a couple diving, flaring strikes on ground-based prey, perhaps voles.

Checking back again Tuesday – yesterday – I found all 5 Swainson’s family members soaring on updrafts above the same hill, but on the opposite side of it to utilize updrafts from the shifted north wind. As I watched and photographed the hawks in flight, I couldn’t help but think their time was limited as most Swainson’s Hawks leave the area before the end of September. It was nice to see the fledglings were all able fliers and that the family group was still united. Soon they will begin the long migration to the grasslands of northern Argentina, sooo many miles away!

Photography Techniques

This photo documented the impressive banking flight of one of the male fledglings while hunting Monday afternoon during a strong south wind. Although the 2 male fledglings were indistinguishable in the field, note the markings and coloration on the underside of this fledgling compared to the amber-colored female fledgling in the first photo.

Persistence and improved patience have made a big difference in the quality of the photos opportunities I get. Practice and experience have helped to improve my reaction speed and anticipation with my camera in hand. I encourage you to try to keep these qualities in mind and use them to your advantage in the field. The simple photo techniques I use regularly can also be helpful for you:

– Position yourself between the sun and your subject for the best lighting.

– When possible, use your vehicle as a mobile blind.

– Turn off the vehicle while photographing.

– Brace your camera lens against the window frame of the vehicle.

– Hold your breath as you touch the shutter button to take photos.

Hawks are wary birds, so getting out of a vehicle is rarely productive unless the bird flies overhead and your only means of seeing and photographing it is to get your feet on the ground and follow the hawk in flight with your camera.

Part of my photo success comes from covering a lot of ground, almost daily when there is sunshine. I regularly search for hawk nests in the spring, monitor nesting progress through the summer, and study young hawks during the post-fledging period after they leave the nest. I learn the habits of the adults and fledglings, where they hang out, what perches they use, where they hunt.

Then, keeping the optimum sunlight periods of early morning and late afternoon in mind, I check back on the birds on sunny days when I’m in the area to see if I can find one or more hawks in a position that will give me a photo opportunity when the sunlight is best – at an angle as the sun rises or sets.

My patience has improved during recent years as I’ve learned how fulfilling it is to spend time with a bird. It can be most rewarding to have a raptor accept your presence, and to learn more about the species’ behavior while waiting to take a classic portrait while it is perched, or a series of images when the bird eventually takes flight.

When approaching a hawk in a vehicle, I slow down gradually, approach the bird with a bit of apprehension, watching to see how it is reacting to my approach and trying to gauge if the hawk might flush prematurely if I continue to advance. If necessary, I stop, wait, and photograph from a distance before considering a closer approach if it seems the bird becomes comfortable enough for that option. Or I wait to see if the bird might fly on its own accord, hopefully in my direction for some pleasing photos – like the images I took of the Swainson’s Hawks.

When we photograph, it’s important to keep each bird’s welfare in mind. How will our approach affect the birds? The welfare of wild birds comes first. At the same time, birds are constantly relocating, taking flight, and adjusting to current conditions; and even when they take flight, many times they circle back to their original perch, or simply fly to the next tree, post, or pole to resume their activities, which may just be loafing – they do a fair amount of that. Overall, we try to be aware, and considerate; and we appreciate that the most rewarding part of bird photography can be when you don’t affect the activities of your subject – when you can leave the bird just as you found it, with or without photos.

Of course, all the techniques and suggestions provided here for photographing hawks can be used for any birds. In fact, raptors may be the most wary, so many other species can provide even better opportunities to take quality photos of them. Photographing birds will make you a better birder; and a better photographer with the practice and improvements that follow. As a wealth of birds migrate through your area week after week this fall, enjoy seeing them in the landscapes around you, and enjoy the photo opportunities they may provide during fall migration too.

The rufous Swainson’s Hawk family will likely begin their migration south within the next 10 days, but they are still providing me with an opportunity to get to know them better as individuals and as a group, and I’m thankful for all the photo ops they provided and the photographs I managed to take during the post-fledging period of 2022. As you enjoy the first calendar days of fall, watch for local birds that you can locate repeatedly, and appreciate all the migrants that merely zoom by too, all with your camera ready to document them and memorialize them in some of your best photos of the season. Good Luck!

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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