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.
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!
Soon one cute little white head came into view.
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.
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.
After the adult lifted off a third chick revealed itself.
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.
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…