A Stunning Dark Morph Swainson’s Hawk

I believe this bird to be the darkest dark morph Swainson’s Hawk I’ve ever encountered.

There are three color morphs in Swainson’s Hawks – light, intermediate and dark. However, individuals in each group don’t look exactly alike as there are significant variations. So first, here’s a quick look at a fairly typical bird in each category.


This hawk is a light morph – by far the most common of the three color phases. I believe this bird has a bloody lower belly which isn’t part of the normal color down there.



And here’s an intermediate morph.



Another look at the same bird – this time in flight so we can see more of its ventral surface.



And this is a fairly typical dark morph Swainson’s. Dark morphs are the rarest of the three color phases so I very seldom see or photograph them. In fact I believe I’ve only seen a handful of truly dark morphs in the last ten years. I encountered this one a few years ago in dark and stormy conditions in Montana’s Centennial Valley. Most dark morphs have at least some white on their face just as this bird does. Many have more white than this.



1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

But two days ago I photographed this striking dark morph in northern Utah. It’s colors were slight variations of a deep chocolate-brown. I was very excited to see this bird and I was afraid that it would fly off before I could pop off a few shots but in the end it turned out to be one of the “tamest” adult buteos I’ve ever photographed. The only complaint I have is that it gave me very little pose variety but here I caught it giving me the best coy look it could muster.

As stated in the ABA Blog about a different dark morph Swainson’s – “the lack of even a little white on the face points to a truly dark-morph Swainson’s Hawk, as opposed to a rufous/intermediate or dark intermediate morph“.



1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

I wanted to get a little better look at the breast color of this bird so I began to creep forward in my pickup very slowly on the road, fully expecting the hawk to spook but it didn’t even twitch or look the least bit nervous. Here I’m nearly directly across from it on the road and this image was shot vertically in order to get the entire bird in the frame. This photo has been cropped very little.



1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 227mm, not baited, set up or called in

Here I’m slightly past the hawk and even with me this close (now I’ve switched to my smaller zoom lens) it was comfortable enough to preen and scratch its face. After quite a while it flew off, not because it was nervous in my presence but just because it apparently felt the urge to do so.



1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 200mm, not baited, set up or called in

It didn’t fly far and I was able to get off a few shots with the hawk on its new perch.

There are dark morphs of several other North American buteo species but the only other one I ever see is the dark morph Ferruginous Hawk. The darkest birds of all species are in a strong minority so I was absolutely delighted to be able to spend some quality time with this stunning and unusual bird.




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