Swainson’s Hawk In Full Flight

In Montana (and elsewhere I presume) orange paint on fence posts is used to mark private property and prevent trespass and hunting without permission on private lands.  Apparently some land owners are color blind and use red paint instead of orange but the universally understood message is still the same – stay out!

Not all of the posts are so-marked (perhaps 10%?) but the birds I photograph sure have a nasty habit of choosing those ugly painted posts to perch on when I’m  trying to photograph them.  Such was the case with this Swainson’s Hawk a few days ago in western Montana.


swainson's hawk 8281 ron dudley

 1/2500, f/5.6, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

My only chance for an acceptable image or two of this bird was during or soon after take-off so I took a few shots while it was perched and waited to see what would happen.  I only waited for a few seconds before a huge (and I do mean huge) logging truck came lumbering (pun intended) down the narrow dirt road toward me.

This was a moment of semi-panic for both me and the bird.  In this shot the hawk is watching the truck coming toward me from my right and probably trying to decide when to take off and in what direction.  I’m parked with my pickup straddled across the road (had to, in order to get a line of sight on the bird while shooting out my window) so I know I have to move for the truck, and soon.  I quickly removed my tc in order to have a better chance of not clipping the bird when it took off.  I focused on the bird but had to look away from my viewfinder to see where the truck was.

That’s the moment the bird took off to my left and I missed it completely.



swainson's hawk 8291 ron dudley

 1/2500, f/5.6, ISO 640, 500 f/4, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

Typically with a background like this that would be all she wrote because I’d never be able to lock onto the bird again with the background so close to the subject but I instinctively tried anyway and was amazed that I grabbed focus almost immediately and got four sharp shots as the hawk flew by.   If I’d had my tc attached I don’t believe I’d have been able to lock on to the bird.



swainson's hawk 8292 ron dudley

1/2500, f/5.6, ISO 640, 500 f/4, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

None of the four images had the wings in the completely up or completely down position but at least they weren’t parallel to the viewer.

One more note that only photographers may be interested in.  During this sequence I mistakenly had my lens “limiter” turned off (the limiter prevents the focusing mechanism from having to search the entire depth of field from infinity to the closest focusing ability of the lens, which takes time).  So the fact that these shots turned out sharp was mostly pure, dumb luck.

But I’ll take it.  I have very few images of Swainson’s Hawks in full flight (not take-off, with legs and feet tucked and at full speed), especially with a background other than sky.


15 comments to Swainson’s Hawk In Full Flight

  • Lane

    I am happy to read that I’m not the only person who shoots from a vehicle (for me, it’s a Camry), and thinks nothing of straddling the street, u-turning and “standing” the car pointed in the wrong direction, etc., just to get a chance of a good bird image. If I’m trolling for a bird, I just don’t care that I’m doing 15 mph down some back road; dude behind me can wait (else he wouldn’t be on a back road, right?). Nice images.

  • They are all amazing, but seeing the blues and the greens in the last shot blew me away. Spectacular.

  • Mike

    Cannot believe your camera locked on so perfectly to the flight shots, although of course, we make our own luck. I agree with you about the red being jarring. However, I think the contrast between the too loud red and the subtle browns and greens makes a statement about the intersection of wildlife and Man. And all that aside, it’s another frikkin’ gorgeous light morph SWHA!

  • Great pics! The first photo especially of the Swainson’s on the post is stunning.

  • Color me green, Ron! I wish I could get such amazing shots of that beautiful bird. I especially like the catch light that really enhanced each of these photos. (And it appears to me that both the land owner and the bird painted that post.)

  • Beautiful shots. I have to agree about the red post – it is rather jarring. But I’d rather have the red on the post than no photo of this beautiful bird.

  • Harmony

    Dear Ron, As always, I am thrilled to see your magnificent pictures, and so appreciate seeing birds that we don’t get here in the San Francisco Bay area. I have to say, though, I think sometimes you are too critical of your work. That red post may not be strictly speaking “natural” but on purely aesthetic grounds I love it: the funky weathered colors somehow add to the composition, especially the way the post fades at the bottom of the frame. Wonderful seeing the blue and green on the upper and lower sides of the wings in the third shot – something I could never hope to see with binocs. Thanks!

    • Harmony, I’m sure any appeal the red on the post may have is in the eye of the beholder. For me it’s just too bright and distracts my eye from the bird but we all have differing tastes and that’s a good thing.

  • Charlotte Norton

    Well, I see your survived and got some amazing shots! I doubt this was as much luck as it was skill! I just don’t know how you do it! Amazing shots! Thanks so much for sharing them Ron!

  • That’s the sort of luck some folk spend big money looking for at Vegas!Love the last shot, of the wing lift.