Swainson’s Hawk. Photograph by Andrew Hrycyna.
On December 20, 2015, during the Greater Boston Christmas Bird Count, I was part of the field party charged with counting birds at Bear Creek Sanctuary in Saugus. Bear Creek is a wildlife sanctuary integrated with an active landfill, managed by Wheelabrator Saugus, Inc. Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, and Northern Harriers are regularly observed there. The day of the CBC, we saw no raptors other than a couple of Red-tails until we rounded a corner of the property and made our way toward the yard waste compost heaps on the other side. There we found a kestrel on one of the wires, and we got spectacular views of an adult male Northern Harrier as he coursed low over the ground. Things were looking up.
One of our party spotted a lump on top of one of the compost piles as we approached. The lighting was less than ideal, but the bird was clearly a Buteo, about the size of a Red-tailed Hawk. Something was off about this bird, though. The wings on the perched raptor extended all the way to the tip of its tail, whereas the wings on a perched Red-tail fall noticeably short of the tail tip. Furthermore, our bird had a pale face, with especially pale cheek patches, and a dark brown body. No red tail was visible, and the bird had creamy patches on a chocolate brown back, rather than the well-defined white V shape that we would have expected on the back of a Red-tail. Everyone’s next guess was Rough-legged Hawk, which certainly would have been an exciting addition to our CBC checklist.
Then, the hawk took off, and we stared. Now we could be certain that our bird was not a Red-tail: we saw no belly band and no patagial bars, and the wings were too narrow. The long-winged, lanky shape of the bird felt right for a Rough-leg, but—
“There are no carpal patches!” I called out. Instead, I saw a clear two-toned underwing pattern. The dark outer flight feathers contrasted strongly with the white belly and underwing coverts. This was no Rough-leg.
It is one of the best feelings in the world when you find yourself face to face with a bird, and you don’t know yet what it is, but you know that it’s rare, or a lifer, or both. Cameras clicked furiously, and I ran to get a better look from below as the bird circled higher and higher. I stared at the pointy-winged silhouette above me in the sky and had a crazy thought: Swainson’s Hawk. Before that day, I had never seen a Swainson’s Hawk at any distance less than a mile. As a trainee at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory this fall, I saw maybe two or three Swainson’s Hawks mixed in with enormous Broad- wing kettles. I had no idea what a Swainson’s looked like up close, but I remembered the other counters helping me pick out the Swainson’s silhouettes by the pointy shape of their wings.
It was ridiculous, impossible. Swainson’s Hawks are birds of western North America, so to find one as far east as Massachusetts is already notable. But to find one in Massachusetts in late December? The hawks all should have been on their wintering grounds in South America, not up north in freezing Saugus. Mark Resendes, another team member, texted one of his photos to Paul Roberts, a friend who founded the Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch forty years ago, for ID help. Paul wrote back immediately that the bird was a Swainson’s Hawk, no doubt. But when Mark told him where and when the bird had been seen, Paul replied, “What????? … U r bs ing me.” Paul later explained that when he looked at the text message, his first thought was that during one of those typically slow periods in the afternoon of a Christmas count, the team had decided to play a joke on him and text him an image that somebody had looked up online.
But nobody was joking. After the bird flew out of sight, we rejoined the rest of our party, who had been birding the perimeter of the property. Luckily, they had seen the hawk well as it circled overhead, and they had captured some beautiful photos. A look at the field guide left no doubt in our minds that we had found a real rarity.
Interestingly, when we lost sight of our hawk, it was headed north along the coast. Despite a specially scheduled walk at Bear Creek the day after the CBC, no one has succeeded in finding this bird again. A different juvenile Swainson’s Hawk was reported in New York City a week before our sighting, and reports of that bird continued through December 30. Overall, a small but steady number of Swainson’s Hawks is reported each year on the East Coast, but two in one week seems especially unusual. The weather patterns created by this year’s El Niño, including especially strong winds from the southwest and a relative scarcity of cold fronts from the north, may help account for the presence of these birds. Many other western vagrants, including two Western Kingbirds, a Mountain Bluebird, and several Ash-throated Flycatchers, also have been reported in the area this year.
As for Massachusetts, our Swainson’s Hawk is at least the 11th confirmed state record for the species since 1955, but only the third state record for the period from December through February, according to Veit and Petersen’s Birds of Massachusetts (Veit, R., and Petersen, W.R. 1993. Lincoln, MA: Massachusetts Audubon Society).
On the way to the CBC countdown that evening, we argued over who would be the one to break the news to Soheil Zendeh, our sector leader; and Bob Stymeist, the Greater Boston CBC compiler. We had the satisfaction of seeing the incredulous looks on the faces of everyone in the room when we announced our find, and we all felt proud of having found the best bird of the day. But the feeling that has stuck with me from that day is not pride or triumph; it is simply happiness at having witnessed the presence of such an amazing bird.
The author thanks Geoff Wilson, Paul Roberts, Janet Kovner, and Nancy Given for their edits and additions to this report, as well as the rest of the Bear Creek CBC team, Mark Resendes, Paul Bain, and Andy Hrycyna.