Swainson's Hawk in flight over Beaverhead County, MontanaSwainson’s Hawk in flight over Beaverhead County, Montana – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 640, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 328mm, natural light, not baited

I’m home from my latest trip to Montana which was wonderful. Birds were harder to find & photograph this trip which might be caused by drought. I traveled into some new areas like the Big Hole National Battlefield and in Deer Lodge County I spotted a Black Bear along the edge of the Big Hole River. I have lots of stories to tell and images to post in the upcoming weeks.

Everyday of this past journey to Montana I saw large kettles of Swainson’s Hawks, the one afternoon there were more than 70 of them soaring. It was truly amazing to see those kettles. The first time I saw them kettle form as the Swainson’s Hawks lifted off from the grasslands where they had been feeding on grasshoppers, their preferred prey. This year the grasshoppers are so thick in some areas that they appear to be low lying clouds! You can’t drive with the windows open or you end up with grasshoppers in the pickup. I wondered if these large kettles of Swainson’s Hawks roosted communally at night like Turkey Vultures do and this morning I found the answer to my question on Birds of North America:

Degree Of Sociality
Most gregarious of North American raptors. Premigratory foraging flocks of >100 birds in breeding areas are common. Migratory flocks, foraging aggregations, and nocturnal roosts in South America may include thousands of individuals (see Migration). During breeding season in central California, nonbreeding birds may form flocks of >100 birds that forage together and use communal nocturnal roosts (J. A. Estep pers. comm.). Breeding pairs are usually monogamous and solitary, but frequently forage with other individuals near or away from active nests, usually in response to farming activities.

I would love to find a roost of Swainson’s Hawks to photograph! It must be a fantastic sight to see. I guess that is something to add to my bucket list. I also texted my friend and raptor expert Jerry Liguori while I was in Montana to ask about the large kettles of Swainson’s and he explained that nonbreeding birds group together throughout the summer. Be sure to check out Jerry’s blog if you are into raptors!

I photographed the adult Swainson’s Hawk above after it had lifted off from a power pole in Beaverhead County and loved that I had thin clouds in the background which is far more pleasing to my eye than plain blue sky. It was a bit later in the day than I normally like to photograph because of contrasty light but we had thin clouds which helped to diffuse the light and I was also able to get a catchlight in the eye. This intermediate adult and a light adult on a nearby pole seemed to be a mated pair.

It was another spectacular journey, stay tuned for the images and stories to come!

Mia