Ferruginous Hawk With Chicks

We put in a lot of time and I drove many miles looking for birds (and mammals) on this latest Montana trip.   In the five full days we were there (not counting the drive to and from Montana) I put almost 900 miles on my pickup cruising the dirt roads of several counties and two different states as I scouted out opportunities in natural and remote locations.

If you know what to look for the nests of Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks and even the occasional Golden Eagle aren’t too hard to find but they’re usually either high up in large trees or in shorter trees far off on the top of inaccessible hills or on cliffs.  And that’s as it should be – given the thoughtlessness of too many gawkers and photographers out there who have no regard for the sensitivities of nesting birds and try to get close enough to them for good looks and good shots with short lenses (I know, I’m editorializing.  I can’t help myself sometimes but if you’d seen what I’ve seen…)

Anyway, at the end of one of those very long, rough and dusty drives we came upon this Ferrug on a nest.  We’d spotted the nest on a previous day but could only see the top of the bird’s head as it hunkered down so at the time we didn’t know what species the occupant was.  The nest was close to the dirt road and on top of a stunted tree at almost eye level.  It was early afternoon and the light was harsh but I was confident that with our long lenses we could get reasonably good photos from the road (shooting from inside my pickup) without unduly disturbing the hawk.


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I’ve cropped this image as I have to emphasize the massiveness of the nest.  As you can see they use large sagebrush branches for the bulk of the nest and it is truly huge.  Prior to 1900 these birds often used bison and pronghorn bones (particularly ribs) for nest construction.  I’ll bet such a nest was a sight to see!



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Soon one cute little white head came into view.



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And a while later when the adult apparently decided it was time for a break from parental duties, its liftoff revealed yet another youngster in the nest.



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The adult passed in front of me before it apparently went off hunting or just off for some exercise.  We watched it soaring high over the hill behind the nest for approximately 10 minutes but it never went too far away, probably because there were other potential chick dangers (ravens, harriers and red-tails) in the area.

I do wish for light in the eye here but it’s just too much to expect for the time of day.  With the sun high in the sky and the overhanging brow ridge of the hawk it’s just not going to happen in level flight.



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After the adult lifted off a third chick revealed itself.



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Almost immediately after a raven landed on a fence post perhaps 150 yards from the nest the adult swooped in and landed on top of the flower-covered hill behind and to the right of the nest.  I suspect it was vigilantly standing guard over the chicks.



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I thought I’d include this image to give you more perspective on the situation.  This shot was taken at only 100mm, compared to the 700mm using my 500 + tc.  You can see the nest at the top of the small tree/large bush at lower left (including one of the white chicks) with the adult standing guard at the top of the hill in the upper right hand corner.  For some reason it looks like we were above the nest in this view but we were actually slightly below it.

My journeys back to Montana are enormously rejuvenating for me.  Having grown up there it still seems like home and I love going back.

I’m sure there’ll be several more of these trips before the snow flies…


19 comments to Ferruginous Hawk With Chicks

  • Mike’s comment from above: “Although Ferruginous are Buteos, they seem so different from their close relatives. ” No doubt, even more so up close and personal. In the early 20th Century some falconers and ornithologists were arguing that the ferrug was actually the smallest of the booted eagles and related to golden eagles! One has only to see a ferruginous hawk in high dudgeon with it’s crest erect and it’s beak gaping to make you think “EAGLE!” Sadly, due to changes in the intensity of grazing and the out and out consumption of their natural habitat, ferruginous hawks are in decline in the west.

    As usual, Ron, you leave me breathless with your amazing candid photography of these master predators. Thank you for sharing these images and the inspiring conservation messages they contain!

  • Mike

    Although Ferruginous are Buteos, they seem so different from their close relatives. It’s more, I think, than their stunning plumage. The heavy timbered structures they build are so visually arresting compared to a utilitarian Red-tail or frivolous Swainson’s nest. It’s impossible to come upon one in the middle of nowhere, top heavy and close to the ground, without wondering how and why. Those last 2 shots of the ferruge standing guard (literally) from a distance on the wildflower and sage covered ground perfectly capture the essence of the species. Awesome clicks!

  • Ron this is just amazing. And thank you and Mia, always, for the ethics commentary. We need that type of editorializing. I am enthralled with the structure of the nest … and I love Susan’s Gaudi allusion. I wouldn’t have thought of that! I’ve never seen a Ferruginous Hawk in the wild and I think I’d be too excited to see straight if I was photographing this scene. Beautiful series.

  • Oh. Sitting at my desk with a huge smile. This is yet another WONDERFUL series. I am also very happy to hear that there are two nests in clse vicinity with three chicks. I am so grateful that your ethical behaviour in the field pays such excellent dividends. Thank you.

  • Tana Hunter

    Thank you, thank you for this fantastic visual story!

  • Wonderful photos! I love that you were able to get a photo with all the chicks. I went back and looked again at the nest architecture, and it reminds me of something that, if designed by a human, would have been designed by Antoni Gaudi, whose architecture is full of curves.

    Not sure why, but this morning I was not able to load your photos at all. It took several tries to get the print, but I couldn’t get the photos until after I restarted my computer. It was definitely worth the effort, though. 🙂

    • Susan, For much of the day my service provider, the ironically named Network Solutions, has been stuttering or outright down. It’s become a problem that happens much too often with them and I’m quite unhappy about it. Sorry for the inconvenience, for you and everyone else.

  • Wow Ron, your pictures amaze me everyday! I’m surprised mother hawk didn’t attack you protecting its family. The nest is a fantastic work of architecture. Thanks again for sharing and for the inspiration too.

    • Kim, This bird didn’t see me as a threat because I didn’t get close and I stayed in my vehicle. And since the nest is next to a road the adults have been acclimated (at least to some degree) to vehicles or they wouldn’t nest there in the first place. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos.

  • Great shots of an elusive bird – they are typically so easily spooked! Looks like a good prey year if the pair is successfully raising three. How very exciting, Ron!

  • Charlotte NOrton

    Thanks for sharing these fantastic shots of a sight I will probably never be able to see in person. They are all just amazing! I can’t believe you got the chicks with their mouths open! Thanks so much for your dedicated talented work!
    Charlotte Norton

  • Patty Chadwick

    Looking at the sizes, thicknesses, and twisted shapes of the sticks that make up the nests of birds like hawks, osprey and eagles, then realizing that the inside of the nests are round with no pointy ends sticking out to poke their tender babies…that these nests are usually lined with something soft and smooth…and then to think this is done without hands or tools..but mainly just with beaks and bottoms! It almost seems impossible.

  • Patty Chadwick

    The natural world is so beautiful it takes my breath away…one amazing shot after another…in one of my favorite states at a favorite time of the year. Interesting how birds will accept the presence of a vehicle almost like a blind, allowing for some great shots.the chicks’ fuzzy heads remind me of dandelions. The nest, like a mini eagle’s nest, is a engineering marvel, no less impressive than the Eiffel Tower (and more pleasing to look at). No Botanical Garden or wealthy estate has more beautiful gardens than Montana”s wildflowers…or those of any other state’s undisturbed areas. I’ve actually had to fight our town to keep my little wildflower patch, but now my neighbor has started one of her own. Thanks for including the last frame, providing the context, showing the scope of the whole scene. I always treasure the comments…yours and your appreciators.

    • Patty, Shooting from my vehicle is the only thing that made this possible. If I’d been on foot the bird would have been spooked before I got within a half mile of it (something I wouldn’t even attempt). My pickup truly does serve as a blind on wheels.

  • Dick Harlow

    Beautiful setting, beautiful country, beautiful scenery, gorgeous hawk!
    Very nice images!! Many thanks for sharing.