My Kind Of Raptor Country

Birds aren’t the only itch of mine to be scratched by my addiction to bird photography.

By nature I’m a bit of a recluse (one of my dear old friends has playfully suggested for years that I’m “antisocial”). I’m uncomfortable in crowds of people, traffic and most of the hustle and bustle of modern life. Give me wide-open country with birds and nature in it and I’m in my element – that’s probably a leftover from my growing up years in northwest Montana.

For me living in Utah is a mixed blessing. I’m uncomfortable with the dominant political climate of the state, many of its social and religious mores and the urban congestion of the Wasatch Front where I live but within a relatively short drive in multiple directions I can escape it all and be out in the “middle of nowhere”. That ability keeps me (relatively) sane.


1/1250, f/9, ISO 800 @ 61mm

Basin and Range country like this of western and northwestern Utah keeps me grounded. I took this photo two days ago and it exemplifies what I love about the  area – open country, sagebrush, mountains, vistas that are expansive and often beautiful, few people and lots of birds – raptors especially. I typically spend three early morning hours slowly cruising for birds in my pickup and in that time the only vehicles/people I encounter are the occasional local rancher or sheepherder. It’s my nirvana…

These two Swainson’s Hawks seemed to be buddies as they perched closely together and tried to warm up in the rising sun with a cool north breeze blowing. This species is particularly abundant lately and on this morning I saw scores of them. I’ve photographed over a dozen species of buteos, eagles and owls in this general area alone and it’s only a tiny portion of the Basin and Range region of Utah that I routinely haunt – some of it much more remote than this.

Prehistoric Lake Bonneville covered much of the state (and parts of Idaho and Nevada) starting about 32,000 years ago. It was nearly as large and significantly deeper (over 1,000 ft) than today’s Lake Michigan and it left its geological mark on the entire region. Sharp eyes will notice about six horizontal “benches” carved into the mountains in the background by the waves of the ancient lake (easiest to see at center right in the photo). In addition to everything else I love the spectacular geology of the entire state.

Geez, I’d better quit babbling and get back to birds…



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II US, not baited, set up or called in

This is the light morph Swainson’s Hawk on the left in the previous photo. I’m a little confused by its plumage but I believe it to be a relatively young bird.



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 349mm, not baited, set up or called in 

And this is the Swainson’s on the right in that photo.

Both birds were incredibly “tame” and didn’t even flinch when another vehicle zoomed noisily by within just a few feet of them. I had to pass by so close to them that I was forced to use my “baby lens” for this image to give me any chance at all for take-off shots without clipping any body parts. And the hawks had a choice to perch on ugly metal posts or old wooden posts with more character and both chose the latter. Good birds!

I’m stuck at home this morning with rain and even snow in the forecast in the middle of May but images like these remind me of what’s in store for me if and when we ever get light again.

Bring it on!


PS – I just looked outside in the dark (5:50 AM) and there’s now at least an inch of snow on the ground. And it’s still coming down. My poor vegetable garden will be (frozen) toast…


64 comments to My Kind Of Raptor Country

  • Joanne OBrien

    Beautiful Post! Spent a little while tonight catching up on your blog. Loving the beautiful owl photos and the portraits of the Swainsons. I also enjoyed l that landscape – it is truly awesome country. Thanks for sharing it in your photos.

  • Nicole

    This is the view and land that the rest of the world dreams about (I hope), when they think of the wide open spaces of the American West… I hope that everyone fights for this land to remain as it is – untouched (mostly) by fracking and mining and all human development…

  • April Olson

    Beautiful, it makes me restless. I have not been out and about for a couple of weeks. School is almost over and my summer job is only 3 days a week. I hoping to spend my free time exploring the outdoors.

  • You are so not alone. People are ok(ish) in their place. So long as I don’t have to spend much time with them. And definitely not with crowds of them.
    Looking at the gorgeous vistas you gave us, I could breathe. Deep.
    And the raptors are icing on the very generously iced cake.
    Nature gives me solace, healing and delight. In equal measure.

    • EC, Occasionally I need a people fix myself but preferably only in small groups and over a short period of time.

    • Laura Culley

      And don’t forget joy and serenity…overall, just peace of mind. I suspect that’s one of the reason we’re all here. Ron brings that for breakfast every day and then we can go outside and get our local joy, solace, serenity, healing and all that wonderfulness!

  • Becky

    Your commentary and first photo had me sitting back imagining that I was there. Why did you have to wake me up, lol! Seriously, I love hearing about the land and wildlife out there. I’m a native Georgia girl and have only been out west once. I did not get to spend enough time in Utah. Thanks for taking me back for a short moment. Wonderful photography.

  • Stephen Clayson


    I agree, Utah is a beautiful state with a lot of outdoor opportunities. I admit to being more in line with the local political and religious climates and hope you can feel more welcome here. Again, I thank you for encouraging me to get out an enjoy this state and discovering some of these areas you “frequent.” Until I started following your blog I thought robins and sparrows were the only birds around because they flew into my back yard! Since following your blog I have discovered what an amazing collection we have here. I have really enjoyed that opportunity. Thanks again.


    • What a nice comment, Stephen. I really enjoy knowing that your presence here at Feathered Photography has encouraged your enjoyment of and appreciation for the natural world, including all those birds we have around here.

  • Laura Culley

    Gorgeous shots!
    I’m with you Ron! Humans are cute and all, but they get annoying in herds (cities). I’m good with Kingman about 15 miles away and Bullhead City about 25. I’m surrounded by mountains and there is open (un”improved” land) all around. Kingman and Bullhead City are about the only part of cities I can handle. The time I spent in Mesa/Phoenix about killed me! I’m NOT a big city kind of gal :-)The only real downside (aside from medical availability) is that I have to drive a little bit to get to sagebrush. Think I’ll plant some!

    • Laura, Phoenix/Mesa was too big for me almost 60 years ago when I was a kid and they’ve grown exponentially since then. Don’t think I’ll be back…

  • Chris Sanborn

    Such a beautiful escape from the relentless, ridiculous news coming from DC, many thanks for the this and the geology lesson! And, of course, for the beautiful Swainson’s. They remind me of the pair of Goldens that you shared with us awhile back, perched apart and then together on a single pole. You thought they were probably siblings (which made perfect sense). Perhaps these two hawks are sibs as well, with their equally calm demeanors? Whatever the case, they are quite beautiful. To me, their faces have a “sweet” look, which is a crazy anthropomorphism, I know!

    • Thanks, Chris. I think the first bird is a young light morph but the other one is an adult intermediate morph. I doubt they’re siblings but I’m definitely not sure of that.

      I’m glad you remembered those Goldens. This post made me think of them too.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Love the sage brush sea…can almost smell dew dampened, morning sun warmed sage…wonderful!

  • Patty Chadwick

    AND…BIG SKY!!!!!!!!! Boy! How I miss it!!! Especially this time of year when our trees are all leafed out and claustrophobia sets in. I just want to lift my arms, sweep those overhanging, fully leafed trees back and bare the sky. I eventually adjust, but it takes a while….

    • You and I feel the same about the Big Sky, Patty. I have it bad but my cousin Ken Dudley (the one who gave me the gift that allowed me to buy my expensive lens and become a serious bird photographer) had it worse. He lived on the open spaces of the farm too but he lived there for his entire life.

      The two of us once went on an extended road trip together to northern British Columbia. After days of being continually enveloped by all of those tall, thick trees and never being able to see the horizon or even much of the sky I thought Ken was going to go completely bonkers.

      • Patty Chadwick

        Poor guy!!! Probably had trouble breathing!!!

      • Laura Culley

        I know that feeling. Living in New York, I couldn’t see the sky unless I went out for a drive, but then the trees blocked most of it. My creativity (writing) went down the toilet. I couldn’t see the sky so I couldn’t write! I can’t explain it, but all I know is that I see vistas, open spaces and mountains out of every window in this house. My creativity is back, but my hands aren’t cooperating. Can’t wait for the June 1 appointment with the rheumatologist. Hopefully, s/he will be able to recover my fingers (typing/writing) quickly.

      • Judy Gusick

        Getting claustrophobic with trees is interesting. I have a sister in Eastern Texas that hadn’t been home in close to 20 years and she got half dizzy with the open space when she came! 🙂

  • Barby Anderson

    Well you know I love the Swainson’s Hawks Ron, so thank you for the great pics! I was in the yard getting ready to cover flowers for the snow coming and the female hawk skimmed by me again, shoulder height. She is quite acrobatic! Her underside is VERY creamy white and to see her glide by me many times daily, well it is spectacular. They really hug the ground.

    I think you and I are similar in that I feel like you do in crowds, busy places etc. I like to be in nature daily, alone. My tiny yard with the 8 acre field behind me is my sanctuary. Nature abounds there. I often wonder why people rarely come out of their homes to be outside in nature. I would surely die if I did that. If I can’t be outside in nature I don’t want to be here at all.

    • Those Swainson’s of yours must really be something, Barby. I’m delighted for you to have such an opportunity with them.

      • Barby Anderson

        It’s seem unusual that the female comes near me so much. The Red-Tailed hawks stay up higher. Other than the one who let me walk to him/her that day with the squirrel. This Swainson’s loves to show her agility to me. And I always say helloooooo to her as she brushes by. I think she knows my voice now, as I say that every time. How grand she is. The male flies over too but he does not come by my shoulder. She does. She is a lot bigger than he is. Sometimes she is so quiet that I don’t know when she is by me until she glides past my shoulder. I wish I had a fast pic of that glide, as it is amazing. I love the hawks here, they are my kind of “company.”

    • Patty Chadwick

      I feel the same way, Barby….actually used to have nightmares that I was living in “the city” and couldn’t get out…the idea still scares me….

      • Barby Anderson

        Oh Patty, I have too, only I was in prison with NO window in my dream. Being in a nursing home is the other bad dream for me. If I cannot breathe fresh air, hear birds sing, watch hawks glide by….. well then that is not life to me.

  • Dick Ashford

    Hi Ron,
    Wonderful! Now you’ve got me thinking about my annual road trip, which takes me from my home in the beautiful mountains of southern OR, to (and through) some of those wide open spaces. Love ’em. Last summer: Eastern OR, UT, WY, Pawnee National Grasslands in eastern CO, MT (including the Highline, Fort Benton and Centennial Valley). On my road trip playlist is this one, from a group I suspect you know very well: ” put me on a highway and show me a sign – take it to the limit one more time…” Thanks!

    • You’re damned right I know them, Dick! I ALWAYS have at least one Eagles CD with me on my camping trips. You and I are kindred spirits in more ways than one…

      IF you took the Highline (Highway 2) you probably went through my old home town of Cut Bank, MT just east of Glacier NP. If so I’ll bet the wind was blowing…

  • Marty K

    Count another kindred spirit here! What a beautiful, beautiful picture to start my morning. Scenes like this one make me realize that I all to often forget to breathe fully. I also noticed the perch choices of the two hawks and smiled. 🙂

    I think our great-grandfathers might be related — mine went out exploring the Yukon and northward as a young man. My dad’s undergraduate major was environmental/outdoor ed and he studied with LB Sharp, the guru at the time. When I was little, he was a trail teacher in our district’s outdoor ed program and we lived on site up in the mountains. I spent a lot of time out on the trails with him and the 6th graders who rotated through every week and often went exploring on my own (which drove my mom crazy, which was a bonus!). Interesting geological formations often leave me awestruck and a huge part of my classroom storage was dedicated to rocks and minerals (many of which I gathered with my dad or later, as an adult from different places in CA) long after I stopped teaching Coordinated Science and went back to biology/anatomy. All those rocks are in our garage right now; can’t park a car, but my mineral samples and fossils are protected from the elements. 😉

    Everyone’s comments about being out in nature really resonate with me — something about the power of those big expanses. These days, my nature fix is the Pacific Ocean (another big expanse) and I’m fortunate to live a short drive from the water.

    • Marty, Our great-grandfathers may not have been related but it sure sounds like both of them had adventuresome spirits and shared other things in common.

      I was bitten by the geology bug early in my career when I was teaching the Junior Science Academy at the Utah Museum of Natural History. I was the biologist but there was also an anthropologist and a geologist with me as we taught interdisciplinary science on our extended field trips in several western states with the students. I became fascinated with both anthropology and geology because of the influence of those excellent teachers. I think I learned more than the students did!

  • Kris Eberhard

    I say “ditto” for your second 2 paragraphs today, and the first image inspired me ( quite literally ! ) to draw a deep breath . Probably lowered my heart-rate and blood pressure several points each
    just to see it—wish I could have smelled it and heard the wind and critter-sounds that accompanied that beautiful spread of wide-open space………

    • Kris, that sagebrush smell is divine, especially when experienced with a view like we see in that first image. Throw in all the bird song and the rustling breeze and it can’t be beat!

  • Susan Stone

    I’am another one who loves and needs the solitude of nature. As I’ve gotten older it’s become ever more important, so I’m grateful that I now live in a place where I can get away and enjoy nature. It also doesn’t hurt when nature invades our back yard – we got home from our trip to discover that “our” American Kestrels are once again nesting in the neighbor’s palm tree. That brings us great joy without ever leaving home.

    • I envy you your kestrels, Susan. I once built a kestrel nest box and hung it near a huge tree in my yard but the only birds who ever nested in it were House Sparrows and European Starlings. There’s kestrel habitat nearby but apparently it isn’t quite close enough to my house.

      I finally took that nest box down this winter when I had new siding and windows installed.

  • Dick Harlow

    Thank you for the first shot (the two Swainson’s are excellent) and the description of the lake. My minor in college was Geology and would have moved west, except my love of the ocean and the north woods overcame any wanderlust. I don’t know why I’m saying this, but probably because I feel alike, but as a kid I had an old White Oak that I would sit under to overlook a local pond and be there for some time watching the wildlife around me. I do the same now alone, motionless, becoming part of the scenery which is how I stay sane. The only difference is that now I either have bins or a camera or both in my hands or close by. I understand absolutely! Nature, wildlife, especially birds have captivated me all my life. I am very thankful and feel very fortunate that I have a partner a wife that understands, probably why we have been married for 59 years. At any rate I feel many of your readers are similar to you in thought and actions.

    • Yes, I suspect that many of us here share those same tendencies, Dick. I feel so utterly sorry for those who don’t appreciate what we do and all they’re missing in life.

      But…., on the other hand, since they’re not “out there” with me I don’t have to share it with so many others which would diminish the experience for me. Yes, I have a selfish streak in me at times. 🙂

      • Dick Harlow

        Yes, I agree about having less “out there”, BUT there is a downside that intellectually scares the hell out of me. The lack of appreciation for the Natural History we share! At times I feel we as a people and as a Nation are on a very troublesome trend.

  • Robert (RJ) Davis

    In early childhood I grew up practically feral. As a 10 year old foster kid, I used to escape to the brooks and green spaces running through the suburban sprawl that was beginning to encroach on the countryside of my earliest memories. For many reasons, I felt like a displaced person looking for a way back home, but I never felt lost exploring those “wild” spaces. It is deeply significant that 45 years later, I live surrounded by a nature reserve only footsteps from my door. I will be forever grateful for whatever internal compass lead me here.

    • Sounds like you made a wise decision for you in where you live, Robert. After I retired from teaching it was always my intention to move out of the city but complications (health insurance woes among other things) prevented it.

  • Art

    Empathy x2 for your hermit tendencies, Ron. And that is exactly why I live here in the mountains above SLC too – the wide open spaces and all the public land that belongs to us.

  • Judy Gusick

    Know what you mean, Ron. I’m blessed to live in a mostly rural environment here in North Central Montana. Nature always refreshes my soul. 🙂
    Beautiful birds and beautiful country particularly this time of year when there is lots of green. Here even the sage brush country/bluffs heading down into Ft. Benton are green this spring – pretty rare! 🙂 Rainy here with snow predicted for the high country which we’ll take given our meager snow pack this year. 🙂

    • Judy, I actually thought of you up there in MT when I was writing this post – wondering what you were experiencing this morning.

      And your mention of Ft Benton reminded me of yet another connection I have to your area. Back in the 1870’s my great-grandfather and his brothers were freighters, hauling mining supplies and food staples from Utah to the Montana gold fields in large horse-drawn wagons. He often hauled those supplies to Helena (Last Chance Gulch) and Ft. Benton. There’s lots of wild stories about his adventures with desperados, Indians, weather and the like…

      • Judy Gusick

        Rough way to make a living for sure! Ft. Benton was quite the hub back then – a pretty town that has declined over the years even being unable to field a Foot Ball team a couple of years ago and now combining with another school for some sports – not sure if it’s Geraldine which also combines with Highwood for Foot Ball now. 🙁

    • Judy, your mention of Fort Benton brought back some great memories. In 1964 I had just graduated from High School and worked for a custom cutter crew. We began in Texas and followed the wheat harvest north as the grain ripened later in the season. We spent several weeks camped in a cow pasture in Virgelle where we cut wheat and barley. The fields were on the opposite side of the Missouri River from the grain elevator, so I made many trips on the ferry, operated by August Otto. A few years ago I revisited Fort Benton, then took the back road to Virgelle just so I could take one more trip across the Missouri river on that ferry now operated by Augie’s daughter.

      • Very interesting story, John.

        Custom cutters came through Cut Bank every fall – usually the last stop on their long tour north because we were so close to the Canadian Border. We usually couldn’t afford them so we cut our grain with our own very old combines.

        The arrival of the custom cutters always reminded me of what it must have been like in Dodge City or Abilene when the cow herds from Texas arrived to be shipped east on the railroad. When the cutters were in town and they were rained out and couldn’t work all hell would break loose in the bars in Cut Bank – much like the cowboys used to do in Kansas (I’m reading a history of Dodge City right now about the Earps, Bat Masterson, Doc Holladay and their cronies trying to keep those cowboys under control).

        • Laura Culley

          Ron, and you read history, too. What a guy!! 🙂

          • Laura, can’t even remember the last time I read fiction (perhaps it was Clan of the Cave Bear, can’t remember for sure though). Give me “real” almost every time!

          • Laura Culley

            I’m reading a new book (just started it), “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann. My grandmother was Osage and I’m just beginning to explore her history. I have several other books about that time that I haven’t yet read, but they’re unpacked now 🙂

        • Ron,
          Our next, and last stop after Virgelle, was the Shelby/Cut Bank area. We cut for a family named Fransens, who I believe lived near Shelby.

          Custom Cutters had a bad rep, but I was a naive farm boy from Indiana, away from home for the first time, and I had connected with the owner, who lived in Kansas, through a church newspaper, so there was no drinking and not much hell to be raised by our crew.

          • I shouldn’t have implied that all custom cutters were wild and crazy. They weren’t. But enough of them were that they did get that reputation.

      • Judy Gusick

        Cool! 🙂 The ferry ride is “neat” 🙂

      • Judy Gusick

        P.S. They still take grain across the ferry and we, too cut with our old equipment! 🙂

  • Having places like this to “escape to” are an important part of good health in my opinion. You are smart to utilize them Ron. Even as a little kid I had my local places in nature to visit and clear my mind and explore. Being out in the quiet of nature is medicinal. Thanks for the great post and reminding me of this.

    • “Even as a little kid I had my local places in nature to visit and clear my mind and explore”

      That sounds exactly like me at that age, Ed.

      There was an area very near our Montana farm we called the “Crystal Hills” (lots of quartz in the rocks there) and I loved exploring it back then. It was close enough to walk to and I literally spent thousands of hours peeking into all of its nooks and crannies as a kid. A creek ran through it, there are dinosaur bone fragments in the rocks, tipi rings nearby, lots of birds and small mammals like “gophers”, badgers, skunks and weasels and even the occasional coyote, fox, pronghorn and deer. A couple of times there’s even been grizzlies seen not too far away (though none of us ever saw one there).

      As close to heaven as I’ll ever come, that’s for sure…

      • Patty Chadwick

        Sounds like absolute, PURE HEAVEN to me! Rocks, crystals, stream, tipi rings, fossils, the animals you saw (and those whose presence you felt)…Even the name is magical…what more could anyone want! As a kid, I spent my happiest hours playing in the woods, a swamp, a field, a small pond and, best of all, a stream! All of which I roamed freely! NO kid EVER had better “toys”!!! I seldom even see kids outside anymore…SAD!!!

      • Wow, what a place to grow up Ron. That does sound like heaven.