Since my first visit to the Centennial Valley of Montana on June 18, 2010 I have wanted to photograph a bird; preferably a raptor, on the reddish orange lichen covered rocks found throughout the valley. On this last trip that finally happened!
On Wednesday morning as we headed west through the valley I spotted this juvenile Red-tailed Hawk resting on a lichen covered rock close to the road, we had nearly passed it and needed to back up to get a good angle and light. The problem was that another vehicle was coming towards us and we thought the bird would fly away before we got the chance to photograph it. Once the pickup passed the young hawk we were ready to move slowly into position and wouldn’t you know it another pick up hauling a trailer crested the hill to the east and we sat there holding our breath as it passed the very tolerant Red-tailed. It didn’t fly even with all that traffic near it!!
The immature Red-tailed Hawk didn’t show a single sign of alarm as we moved into a good location to photograph it although there were a few cows close by that had gotten out of the fences pastures and were moving towards us grazing on the roadside grasses and mooing very loudly, I guess they thought we had some food for them. Our focus though was on this handsome young raptor. You can see a bit of left over food on the hawk’s bill.
The bellowing cows drowned out any chance we had of hearing Elk trumpeting in the Centennial Mountains to the south but the young Buteo calmly surveyed the area around it as our camera shutter buttons clicked away. I bumped my ISO down to capture more fine detail in the plumage and the rock. I don’t think I have been close to many Red-tailed Hawks that were as tolerant of humans than this one was.
Then I realized that the hawk’s crop was full (you can just make that out in this frame) and it was sitting on the rock digesting its food which may have accounted for some of its tolerance. It must have caught its breakfast not long after the sun came up because it was still early when I photographed it.
Even as the cows came closer the young Buteo just stayed perched on the rock although one time it fluttered its wings as if it were going to lift off and then settled back down again. In this frame you can see one of the cows in the background that had walked within less than 20 feet past the Red-tailed Hawk. I don’t think I have ever seen a Red-tailed so at ease around cattle.
The plumage on this Red-tailed was so lovely, crisp and clean, unlike some of the adult Red-tailed Hawks I saw that were in the process of molting. In this frame the cattle were getting what may have been a little too close to the young Red-tailed, it fluffed up and showed signs that it might lift off. Mind you at this point the bellowing cattle were loud and very annoying even to us.
When the hawk lifted off it had its back to us and oddly enough one of the calves took off and started to chase the hawk, it was a very strange sight. The hawk landed on another lichen covered rock just briefly before the cattle annoyed it once again…
And flew up to the top of a fence post and watched the cattle pass by. It felt magical to be in this young raptors presence and to finally create the images I had formed in my mind years before. I hope it doesn’t take another 4 summers to get more of them!
It was a wonderful trip up to Montana but it was cut short because of bad weather moving in and with bad weather comes poor light so reluctantly we decided to leave. The last trip to Montana each year is bittersweet because it will be months before I see the Centennial Valley, the Centennial and Beaverhead Mountains and the amazing nature that the area contains again. Still, we had two full days of shooting and as always Montana delighted and enchanted me.