Dateline – July and August 2023 – Dallas, Texas
This is the kind of special discovery that really makes me feel privileged to keep this website. Findings of this nature only come around every blue moon or so, and its a real honor to get to be a part of them.
In this case, I was recently contacted by a kind and generous nature lover who works in far north Dallas. This engaged individual had used Google to lookup an article I had written about hawks, falcons, and eagles found in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. In particular, this person was interested in the section where I addressed the beautiful Swainson’s Hawk and discussed what can be expected from them when they are in North Texas.
ARTICLE : DFW Raptors – Hawks, Falcons, and Eagles
Our friendly naturalist took gentle issue with an assertion I made in the article stating that Swainson’s Hawks breed well west of the Metroplex, and were not generally known to nest in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In their email to me, this person described how they had just spent the month of July watching a mated pair of Swainson’s Hawks raise an eyas to fledgling, in a nest located in a tree line just behind their place of business.
I was intrigued, but I was also skeptical. I had never heard of a Swainson’s Hawk nesting in our neck of the woods, and the pictures attached to the email correspondence were not able to convince me of the ID. The cell phone photographs were just not clear enough to work the diagnostics.
Still, I felt like this report had the potential to be an important finding, so I thought it prudent to follow up. I made arrangements to stop by and investigate later that morning.
Once on site, it took me only a moment to locate the nest. It was large and constructed mostly of sticks–clearly the nest of a buteo (hawks with broad rounded wings, relatively short tails, and soaring flight). I was beginning to wonder maybe there was more to this report than I had first allowed!
A short time later my contact stepped outside to chat, and they told me more about what they had witnessed over the last several weeks. They described for me how they had first noticed the unusual hawks beginning to hang around in mid-April. They watched as the two hawks built a nest and then incubated and hatched a pair of eggs. My contact had become despondent when something unfortunate happened to one of the offspring, but they were again uplifted by the antics of the remaining juvenile as it began to branch away from the nest in July.
My contact also had taken the opportunity to search through their cell phone pictures as they waited for me to arrive that morning. They had found another, better, photograph of one of the adult hawks. This time there was no room for uncertainty–the vivid chestnut bib on this bird clearly identified it as a Swainson’s Hawk!
So, now I had confirmation of a sizeable hawk’s nest and an adult Swainson’s Hawk on a clearly identifiable on-site landmark! I made plans to return early the next morning when I was assured that the hawks were very likely to be present.
In the meanwhile, back at home, I got on the internet and started doing a little research. Every range map I found showed Swainson’s Hawk breeding range beginning well over 100 miles to the west of Dallas/Fort Worth. And most of the articles I read suggested that Swains’ Hawks were reluctant to nest in urbanized areas. All of this jived well with my current understanding of the habits of this bird of prey, though I did find some indications that Swainson’s Hawks had begun nesting in urban areas around Houston in recent years. See the range map and quoted excerpts below…
Breeding Habitat: In California, Swainson’s hawks typically nest at the edge of narrow bands of riparian vegetation, in isolated oak woodland and in lone trees, roadside trees, or farmyard trees, as well as in adjacent urban residential areas.East Contra Costa County Habitat Conservancy
Swainson’s Hawk seems to tolerate human activity and frequently nests in farmsteads, shelterbelts, and the outskirts of urban areas where trees planted by people can offer nesting structures otherwise limited or absent in the surrounding landscape. The species will occasionally nest on telephone poles and on the ground when trees are absent.Wyoming Game and Fish Department
Swainson’s Hawks breed in the grasslands and farmlands of the western United States including West Texas primarily, but increasingly they are making inroads eastward. Swainson’s now regularly nest in urban Houston and southeast Texas.Houston Audubon
Mid-morning the next day I was back out on site for my second visit. My contact was there to meet me again, but this time somewhat apprehensively–it seems that the hawks had not shown on their favorite perches that morning as expected. They had been present every day for weeks, but not today. It figures right?
I suggested that we take a brief walk around to see if maybe we could turn them up somewhere close by. And as it happened, we soon spotted a speedy brown hawk zooming by us just above the tree tops. As I urgently lifted my camera to attempt pictures, the accommodating hawk winged over and began circling directly overhead. I couldn’t have asked for a better picture taking opportunity! I snapped photo after photo.
Eventually, the bird alighted on the top of a nearby tree, creating another great chance to take more photographs–this time with the hawk perched right out in the open. At this point it became clear that we had found the juvenile Swainson’s Hawk. Only recently out of the nest, the young bird was already flying strongly and competently!
From his station at the top of the nearby tree, the young Swainson’s began to call out, and it sure sounded as it–on occasion–he was being answered. It seemed that there was another hawk somewhere in close proximity!
After a bit more searching we finally found her–the adult female Swainson’s Hawk perched in a tree just a short distance from the juvenile. I managed a few pictures of her before calling it a day. It quickly became clear that our unexpected intrusion was upsetting her, and I didn’t want to stress her any further.
So, now we had a hawk’s nest, and adult female Swainson’s Hawk, and a newly fledged juvenile Swainson’s Hawk. I felt confident that my contact’s account had been completely corroborated–a very special and unique finding for sure! But this situation was doubly odd–not only was this nest some distance to the east of the Swainson’s Hawk’s expected breeding range, but it was also located in a highly urbanized area. Both occurrences very unusual for Swainson’s Hawks in my experience!
At my first opportunity I was back to the internet to research further. This time I stopped by eBird and iNaturalist. In both cases I found a number of July and August Swainson’s Hawks sightings in the DFW Area. On iNaturalist, I uncovered even more compelling evidence that the conventional wisdom about these birds is becoming outdated. iNaturalist had reports–with photographs–of apparent mated pairs, adult birds carrying nesting materials, and the most compelling of all–an account of an orphaned nestling Swainson’s Hawk found near White Rock Lake (see the screen grabs below).
Evidently, things are changing and Swainson’s Hawks are expanding their range! It is exciting to witness changes like this taking place! Nature is always in flux, and this is almost certainly a positive development for this species. Birders and naturalists, if you happen to spot a July Swainson’s Hawk in the DFW metroplex, it is possible that the bird is breeding here. A little extra investigation may be warranted!
I stopped by to see our North Dallas Birds two more times over the course of the week that followed my initial visit. Below are few pictures from those excursions…
And finally… I visited the nest site briefly just one more time, a little over a week later, and this time I caught the adult male present on site. Perched on a utility pole on the edge of a very busy parking lot, the Swainson’s Hawk was very tolerant of observation from a respectful distance. So, that’s the whole family… male, female, and juvenile, right here in North Dallas! See below for a few shot of this handsome fellow!