Swainson’s hawks in Illinois? Now I’m a believer
(published 6-1-06)

Is this Colorado? No, it’s Huntley, and that’s a Swainson’s hawk up there.

I had to say this to myself, because the sight I’d driven 40 miles to see was still a bit unbelievable. Along with a dozen other birders, I was watching one of this region’s true avian specialties from our position in the northeast corner of the Huntley Outlet Mall parking lot. The location seemed almost disrespectful of the bird’s majesty, but nobody was complaining.

I’d seen a Swainson’s hawk once before, on a visit to Pawnee National Grassland northeast of Denver. You’d expect to see one there—Swainson’s are fairly common on the Western plains and prairies. Their breeding range is vast, stretching from Alaska to Mexico, and California to central Iowa. But there is one exception. For reasons not fully understood, a few Swainson’s hawks make their spring and summer home in parts of Kane and McHenry counties. They are the only Swainson’s known to nest east of the Mississippi River, and they’ve been doing it since at least 1973.

This spring, an important research project was initiated with the goal of learning more about the lives and needs of our “local” Swainson’s hawks. Vic Berardi, a veteran hawk watcher from Gurnee, is the project’s coordinator.

“In a broad sense, the project is very important for gaining knowledge of how and possibly why these hawks are living 400 miles east of their usual range,” Berardi told me. “We don’t know if this population is a remnant population or an accidental population. We’re hoping to get a better idea in the coming years.”

The study area spans more than 1,000 square miles—as far south as Sugar Grove, Huntley and I-88, and north to Harvard, near the Wisconsin border. About 30 volunteers are conducting the field surveys. (To learn more, visit the project website, http://bcnbirds.org/shp.)

There are probably 10 or fewer Swainson’s hawks living in northern Illinois. No surprise, then, that the species is on the state’s endangered list. But while further land development poses a constant threat to habitat, Berardi has a positive outlook.

“I believe the Kane/McHenry Swainson’s hawks and humans can live side by side,” he says. “We just have to make sure we approach it correctly and avoid disasters. I’ve been watching the hawks for 11 years now and I can’t imagine driving over to the Huntley area and not being able to see them.”

Luck was with me the morning I joined Berardi and the others for some “hawk shopping” at the outlet mall. I was on the scene less than 30 minutes when a beautiful Swainson’s appeared overhead against a clear blue sky. The soaring bird was unmistakable from below with its long pointed wings with light-colored linings and dark flight feathers.

It was a fabulous morning for raptors of all kinds. Along with expected species like red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks and turkey vultures, we saw two kinds of falcons—American kestrel and merlin—plus an osprey. Two sandhill cranes also flew by.

But the main attraction was the Swainson’s hawk. We only saw one, but we saw it well. In Huntley, not Colorado. It was a great day to be a birder.

Jeff Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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