Rough-legged Hawk – A Successful Hunting Trip Documented From Beginning To End

Plus….. a milestone.

In a recent post I reported on an unsuccessful hunting trip this immature Rough-legged Hawk made from a kestrel nest box at Farmington Bay WMA last week. Shortly after that fruitless foray the hawk had better luck and today’s post is my attempt to document it. Some of the images are only of documentary quality but I think they help to tell the story. For the sake of convenience I’ll once again refer to this bird as a male even though I don’t really know its sex.

Sorry, no image techs today. I ran out of time.



Eight minutes after the hawk returned to the box without prey (the hunting trip I reported on a few days ago) he went hunting again but this time he took off away from me. And this time he wasn’t going after a specific vole he’d spotted from the perch.



Instead he hunted from the air – far away from me. He would fly around for a while and then hover over a specific spot, which he did repeatedly. The breeze was from the north so he always had his back to me as he hovered but there was good light on him and I like the Wasatch Mountains in the background. He hunted unsuccessfully this way for quite a while.

But eventually he dived (there’s that awkward past tense again, dived or dove?…) on prey and a very impressive stoop it was, from a great height and at a very steep angle.



This hawk was serious about catching that vole! He came in so fast and steep that I was actually concerned for his safety. Just look how fast he’s still going while he’s only about 6 – 8′ off of the ground. Splat?

He disappeared in the long grass for a few moments….



but soon he emerged with a vole in his talons…



and headed my way again with the obvious intention of returning to the nest box with the prey.



At this point I had a decision to make. How long do I keep my lens on the hawk as he approached? I wanted frame-filling photos of the bird in flight but as greedy as I am I also lusted after shots of the bird landing on the nest box. It takes time for the photographer to transition between the two types of shots (I have to pre-focus on the box at some point and wait for the hawk to enter the frame). If I didn’t time it right I’d miss good flight shots that I didn’t need to miss or I’d miss the landing (or both). And to complicate matters, when you’re looking through a high-powered lens your sense of distance is seriously distorted so proper timing is very tricky.

And yup, I screwed it up by waiting just a little too long to pre-focus on the box.



This is the first shot I got as the hawk landed that was relatively sharp and didn’t clip any body parts – his wings were still up but he was already on the box. I sure wish I had another chance at this missed opportunity!



I’m quite certain the vole was still alive at this point…



as evidenced by its open eyes, bright catch light and its head still being held up in this huge crop of the previous photo. I have several other shots that include the same evidence that the vole was still alive and conscious.


Then the hawk hopped off the ledge of the nest box with the obvious intention of using its flat roof as a dining table but at that point a noisy hunter pickup came by and made the bird very nervous. It hopped back onto the ledge facing away from me in case it had to make its escape from that threatening truck.



But eventually he settled down on the ledge and enjoyed his meal. I’ll spare you most of the gory details but the hawk was mostly facing away from me as he dined so many of those shots aren’t very good anyway.



After he’d gobbled down the last delectable morsel he cleaned his beak on the ledge. At this point I’d removed my teleconverter in case he took off again but he didn’t so I left the area soon after this shot was taken.

All in all I took 413 shots of this bird over 43 minutes and I enjoyed the hell out of the experience. Good bird!



PS – I can’t resist reporting on a personal milestone that occurred yesterday even though it will likely have very little meaning for my readers if any at all. I invested six hours of driving on a birding trip to Box Elder county and came home bird-skunked. The only photos of birds I got were of the “ears” of a Great Horned Owl sticking up out of its hidden hideaway and a few shots of a Prairie Falcon perched too far away on a power pole.

But it was still a notable trip for me because… 



my 2014 Ford Ecoboost pickup turned over 100,000 miles while I was on the Promontory Peninsula. It was very near where I had to cut the barbed wire to remove the entangled young Short-eared Owl about 18 months ago so that had meaning for me too – that fence still hasn’t been repaired and there are now lots of cattle in the pasture!

I believe I’ve had 12 new Ford pickups over the years and this is the first time I’ve ever kept one of them this long or even approached 100,000 miles. And I estimate that almost 90,000 of those miles are “bird miles” – I do very little driving that isn’t bird related.

I guess there’s no denying that I’m addicted to bird photography…




48 comments to Rough-legged Hawk – A Successful Hunting Trip Documented From Beginning To End

  • Elmer Deloso

    Pre-focus for the transition scene – thanks for this tip!

  • Great series on the bird, but I’m most impressed with the shot of your dashboard…that’s one great dashboard…all kinds of important driving information on it…..and nice looking…Congratulations on the bird miles….

  • Beautiful and exciting series. That dive is amazing!

  • Carol Vavra

    Ron, I loved these pictures so much, and all for different reasons. I’m not a photographer, just enjoy birds, and all of your pictures are beautiful. I look forward to this blog everyday.

  • What an incredible dive. And glorious bird. I am sad for the vole though. Its last moments must have been terror and pain-filled.

    • EC, I think anyone with any heart at all would have sympathy for that vole. I know I do but that’s just the way it is and I’m glad it turned out as it did. As you well know, raptors have to eat too…

  • Laura Culley

    What a splendid series! I absolutely love the dive shot. I saw Mariah do that spectacular dive many times, and I, too, expected to hear SPLAT. However, some time in those dives, she lowered her landing gear at the appropriate time so that splat thing didn’t happen. Instead, she caught her target for dinner. I never EVER saw when that lowering thing happen–it happened far too rapidly for my substandard eyesight to see/record/send to my comparatively slow brain. Thankfully, you’re out there with your camera that can freeze the action for us lowly humans to catch up with the action.
    The rest of the shots are also spectacular–the head ons are wonderful.
    As for the vole, most raptors will pop the head off first. Reduces the struggling 🙂
    Your truck gets about the same gas mileage as my Jeep. But as far as mileage is concerned, you’ve been a lot of places a lot of times and that’s a very good thing! And for that, we thank you!
    Now, I could use a redtail fix. Got any redtails hanging around? 😉

    • They flare out of those dives so spectacularly and skillfully my jaw actually drops (literally) at times, Laura. I envy the number of times you’ve probably seen it but I love being able to capture it in photos.

      Yes, we have quite a few redtails around but it’s been a while since I got any nice shots of them. I’ll work on it…

      • Laura Culley

        Ron, they do so many spectacular things–wingovers or chasing a squirrel down a tree trunk in a spiral, catching the squirrel on the ground. So many spectacular sights I’ve got stored in my mind’s camera. At the time, I’m usually standing there, jaw dropped to the ground.
        On the bright side, Jack caught a duck yesterday. Never mind that it was a stuffed duck dog toy that had been out in the desert for a while. SIGH! Sometimes, that majestic/spectacular thing just doesn’t work for them in the heat of the moment 🙂 A couple of days ago, he caught a brown plastic bottle! DARGH! Then, there was the surprisingly-correct bunny-shaped rock earlier in the season.

  • Marty K

    Phenomenal series, Ron! I love the pose in the second shot — like a marionette — and the intensity of those head-on shots. I do feel for the vole, especially as it looks like the Roughie interrupted its meal too (or maybe just picked up some extra grass in its talons). I was surprised that the vole was still so perky after that “ride.” Plus, it looked like Mr. Roughie held it close enough to the head the it couldn’t bite the bird. Sticking the landing on that tiny ledge with “vole-in-foot” was a bonus!

    Congrats on catching the 100K milestone and thank you so much for going the “extra 90K” for us! 🙂 I’m impressed by the mileage from that big truck — even with the eco boost, although I feel pretty guilty when I do the math. I also hope that’s only a reflection of the check engine light in the lower right corner! 0.o

    • Love Marty K’s comment about gong the extra 90 thousand miles for us. And indeed it does seem like that.

    • Thank you, Marty (and for the nice surprise I got in the mail today!).

      Actually my gas mileage is usually better than that – typically about 19 mpg. That 17.8 mpg was just for this trip (since I’d filled up with gas at the beginning of the trip that morning) where I got worse mileage than usual. The ecoboost actually gets better mileage than traditional engines, even with the turbo.

      And no, my check engine light was only on because I’d turned the engine off (so no vibration for the photo) but had the key on so the dash lights would come on.

  • April Olson

    Wonderful series. The dive shot is incredible. The steepness of the angle shows the versatility of the birds. I wish FBWM would put up a few more tall posts and nest boxes, all the birds like the tall advantage roosts.

    Your truck is still a baby in my perspective! My 2001 Infinity, we replaced this past June, had 265,000. Its engine was still in great working order other parts were failing making it to expensive to repair. My “good” car 2007 Avalon has 135,000. And as you say many of the miles on both my cars is “bird” related. Every time my daughter or I make a trip to the WRC in Ogden it puts a bit over 100 miles on the cars. In the past we made 4 trips a week to the rehab. Then there is the bird photography trips and the chasing down injured bird trips. Considering I walk or ride my bike to work most days, that is a lot of bird mileage.

    • I agree about more perches at Farmington, April. But if I had my druthers they’d be trees instead of artificial perches of some sort.

      Yup, “bird miles” are a big deal for both of us.

  • Alice Beckcom

    Ron, just an amazing series of shots and narrative. To be able to see the actions of this hawk in a series is quite a treat. I applaud you for your talent and perseverance and that you share this experience with us through your photos.

    My father had a pickup back on the farm and how I loved driving it. He cried the day we delivered the pickup to they buyer in a nearby town. I don’t know the mileage, but he sure kept it ‘spiffed up’!! Good memories.

    Thanks, Ron

    • Some of us get attached to our pickups, especially “on the farm”. I know I did. And yes, that one was also a Ford. Fords are a long-standing tradition with my family 🙂

      • Alice Beckcom

        I was an adult visiting my parents when this sale took place due to my Father’s illness. The next day we even drove back to the little town where we left it on the street for the new buyer to see if we could find the pickup. My Father was such a terrific and loving person. Thanks for listening to my story.

  • Susan Stone

    The ability of raptors to hunt, find prey and actually catch it amazes me. Especially with as steep a dive as this guy took. And then there’s the being able to land on a small surface, like the back of that nest box, with one’s feet full. I love that you are able to document behaviors like that, because it’s unlikely that I’ll ever observe it in person. As for your milestone, that’s the kind of thing I observe also, and it goes with your attention to detail. Glad this truck is good enough to keep that long.

  • Ron, I don’t know if you’ve tried one, but I can recommend the Sony A9 with continuous focus lock for this kind of situation, in which you want that frame-filling bird, no wing clipping, and you want to see the landing details too. 20 frames per second…

  • Dick Harlow

    Awesome, Excellent shots, Phenomenal Behavior shots of one of my favorite hawks!
    Out birding (CBC) yesterday, had over 7 Roughies and 12 Red-tails, 2 Snowy’s, but not a single Harrier. It was an absolutely beautiful windless day, cold, very cold, but with no wind it was delightful. Every time we saw a Roughy I’d think of the past shots you had posted and wished l could get close enough to crank off a few bursts. But, here in the East that is tough and when you are out with a group as nice as they are with giving me the space to take shots when I can the Roughies would say, not today.
    Great job with post Ron, thanks for sharing.

  • Zaphir Shamma

    What fun Ron – great post. That stoop pic is crazy!!! The photo of the hawk coming straight at you is great too…often times, I struggle getting AF to lock on such head on shots, but you nailed it good. I sorta felt sorry for that vole…looked very cute and innocent. Understand the cycle of life thing yes, but it’s a smidge bitter-sweet when the meal looks cute. Feel your pain as you know about putting in hours and hours and coming back with zip. It’s a coin-toss to be sure on most days, but the chase…the chase and the thrill of making a good photo…that’s part of why you do what you do 🙂

    • I keep going back to look at that stoop shot too, Zaph. To say that dive was impressive is an understatement!

      I often have trouble keeping focus locked on the bird in head-on approach shots too, especially when the background’s close to the bird, but this time I got about a half dozen sharp shots as the hawk approached me. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t…

      And I know you understand about the pain of putting in long, uncomfortable hours attempting to photograph birds and coming home with zip – especially from your recent FB video as you were trying for Snowy Owls on that pier. “Bird photography ain’t easy!) 🙂

  • Marina schultz

    Wow !!!!! That is incredible!!! And a beautiful bird !!! I know the sense of satisfaction you must be feeling…great series !!

    • Yes, it probably takes another bird photographer to fully understand the satisfaction of getting some interesting shots of this behavior, Marina. Thank you.

  • Diane Bricmont

    Beautiful series, Ron! Must have been thrilling to watch it play out in real time. Thanks for going the extra mile for your readers! 😆

  • Joel H

    Brilliant work Ron. Outstanding post!

  • Judy Gusick

    Wonderful series, Ron! 🙂 That changing out lenses/removing the teleconverter DOES take time.:( At least it was a successful hunt and you got most of it. 🙂 Must be a good truck so serve you to 100,000 miles mostly doing bird photography. Christmas present to you coming? 🙂

  • Ron: Your passion is our pleasure in seeing your photos and reading your commentary. Educational, fun, beautiful. Thanks.