Swainson’s Hawk in flight over Beaverhead County, Montana

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!


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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.


  1. Super amazing shot. Your inflight shots make me oh so jealous! I have to say I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one of these hawks. We are overrun with rough legs and red tails tho.

    • Sherry, I would be surprised if you didn’t have Swainson’s in your area, they like open fields with grasshoppers in them. Grasshoppers are their favorite prey item. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Beautiful shot Mia – look forward to more photos from your trip.

  3. Mia, awesome shot of the Swainson’s Hawk! It would be a thrill to a kettle of these hawks. I also can not imagine driving down the road with grasshoppers on your lap. LOL! Great post, happy weekend to you!

  4. Great photograph, Mia! And I’m also a fan of that pastel-looking sky and the softening effect it has. Beautiful raptor!

  5. Beautiful photo. We have Swainson’s Hawks where I live, and it’s really great getting to watch them. But I will never get a photo like yours, with my point and shoot camera…

    • Susan, I have seen wonderful bird photos taken with point & shoot cameras that have some optical zoom, canon has the SX50 (something like that) and my friends that have them take lovely images of birds.

  6. What an absolutely beautiful sight! Very interesting information. I had no idea these hawks roosted together. I knew eagle did, but didn’t know any other birds of prey did. I like the soft cloud streaks, too. Sometimes plain skies look like backdrops.

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