Swainson’s (Hawks) Southern Sojourn
It is time to head south. You can feel it in the air.
If you were a Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainson) you would be flexing your wings a little more than just for the jaunt around the prairie parklands every day seeking out grasshoppers and crickets, supplemented by ground squirrels and snakes during nesting season. These latter delectable delights are brought back to the nestlings for a special treat thus tying hawk nest selection to the availability of small mammals. You would have spent the spring and summer hunting primarily from a perch. You were the feathered one on the fence posts keeping watch over a territorial patch, waiting to pounce on, or swoop for, that sizeable but succulent dragonfly specimen. Sometimes you can be confused with another well-known buteo (that’s the entire group of broad-winged hawks) competing for similar nesting habitat, the Red-Tailed Hawk. They tend to wait for their prey on higher locations, Red-Tails prefer telephone poles more likely than fence posts.
Swainson’s Hawks are the longest migrants of any North American raptor (about 22,000 km over two months) and the ones keeping watch over the north American prairies will be heading out for the pampas of Argentina until the last leaves in October. Each clear day with a wind in the right direction of travel these birds gain altitude soaring in circles on a rising thermal. They can be seen in groups and by the time they reach the Isthmus of Panamá everyone reacquaints for a hawk party. Not really, but you get the picture, concentrations of Swainson’s Hawks making their way through the narrowest of passageways on to South America.
The final chapter to this story was almost written in the 1970’s when scientists realized the sharp population decline in these magnificent birds was directly related to use of the insecticide DDT by Argentine farmers. Luckily, thanks to better agricultural practices today, we can enjoy their presence in the fall migrating skies.
Swans A Trumpeting
Forget “Swans a Singing”, how about “Swans a Trumpeting”? Trumpeter Swans are the rarest swan in the world. They are also the biggest and it is probably those extra large breasts that got them into trouble. Abundant in North America until the early 1900s, they became nearly extinct due to down, feathers and meat demands. Lead poisoning from shot didn’t help either. Who knew, as folks tucked themselves into cozy swan bedding after dining on swan drumstick that the largest extant waterfowl in the world was fighting for survival? Indeed, In most of the United States the last trumpet had been played when only pockets of swans survived in Alaska and northern Canada.
Retired U of Calgary professor Dr Len Hills knows how to conduct research and has been studying, following and collecting local swan data (that’s Trumpeters and their smaller, more common relatives, Tundra Swans) since the early 1990’s. According to Dr Hills (he had another life besides swan lover, holding a Phd in Geology) the Bow Valley corridor of Alberta is a primary stop for hundreds of swans during spring and fall migration (local swan fall migration just ended a few weeks ago). Some arrive exhausted and spend days recovering at the same wetland year over year. Hill’s labour of love has him familiar with many returning birds along with fascinating stories to tell about survival. Dr Hills data provides ardent insight into this conservation success story from behaviour, recruitment, flock sizes, entrance to and from wetlands, migration patterns, development and agricultural impacts.
So, when you hear the familiar carol this season, think of our local Trumpeters and Tundras, stopping in the spring and fall on their way to northern and southern destinations. Being the 747’s of waterfowl species requires a long runway for takeoff. They select large, pristine bodies of water, usually located between the foothills and Rocky Mountains of Alberta and increasingly more difficult to find Hills research suggests. Before these majestic birds liftoff it is not unusual to hear “Swans a Trumpeting”. See you next year, birdie, and bring your friends.
Chasing Studs at Glenbow Provincial Park
Argh! Hunting deer has its hazards. Click Click! Click! A striking White-tailed Stag has just crossed an open ravine at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park. There is nothing like a chase on the cusp of the winter solstice and, except for just stepping into a sticky patch, my plan is working. Earlier, meeting a truck stuffed with obvious “boundary hunters” all frocked up in “camo” on my way into the park made me grimace. You know the type! They linger on the edge of wildlife reserves hoping for a wandering soul in the form of a trophy rack. There are plenty of them (racks, not gun toters) at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park and the word has spread to the hunters. Luckily, shortly after dawn they return to their day jobs, and, these winter mornings, there aren’t many other people to share this bounty with. Dog walkers and ear plugged
I check my togs. Note to self: wear slippery outerwear when chasing deer. A hit by the raspy Hounds Tongue will be time consuming. Growl! How can something be so exotic at bloom and a scourge as it licks and sticks with our favourite pet’s tongue-like qualities? I have almost the same distaste for Hounds Tongue as for boundary hunters; they both get under your skin. http://www.invasiveplants.ab.ca/Downloads/FS-HoundsTongue.pdf
The studs will disperse soon after the solstice, racks not seconded by the hunters will fall, females (does) will smile and the hunt will dissipate for another season. There is a lot to be said for satisfying a plan – capturing White-tailed males in the prairie environment. Clambering up the hill with trophies in the box, I will be picking burrs off for a good hour. But for now the Buck stops here.