A Prairie Falcon Bonanza

Last week in Montana’s Centennial Valley I witnessed a Prairie Falcon phenomenon that was completely unexpected. In fact I’d go as far as to say it blew me away – to the jaw-dropping point.

Sadly I wasn’t able to get any great photos of any of the falcons, at least in part because I was having focusing issues with my camera but I did get a few documentary shots of individual birds and I hope to vividly describe my experience with them. This post is more about that experience than it is the images.

During my week in the valley and vicinity I drove parts of the North Road three times. That dirt road is very long, very remote and birds are usually scarce there but because of its remoteness Golden Eagles are always a possibility and they were a big part of the draw for me.


prairie falcon 7353b ron dudley1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, canvas added for composition, not baited, set up or called in

But it was Prairie Falcons that stole the show.

The first time I drove the road we saw about ten of them. But when I did it again a couple of days later their numbers in the same area had literally exploded – they seemed to be almost everywhere. They were usually in small groups of 2-5 birds, typically perched on fence posts in front of me as I approached. They always lifted off just before I got within camera range and then they would play-fight in the air or circle around behind me and land on the fences again. Occasionally one or more of them would fly in close as they apparently investigated my pickup. They were a mix of adult and juvenile birds but most seemed to be juveniles.



prairie falcon 7296b ron dudley1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, canvas added for composition, not baited, set up or called in

It’s difficult to accurately estimate the total number of falcons we saw because we obviously experienced some of them more than once as they hopscotched around us. But when it was all over we guessed that we had seen between 40 and 50 individual Prairie Falcons! (maybe even more) within about an hour along that approximately 7-8 mile section of the dirt road. I hesitate to report numbers like that because Prairie Falcons are usually uncommon, solitary birds and folks might wonder what I was smoking that morning. But I saw what I saw.

We were so fascinated by what we experienced and so intrigued by the possibilities of getting better images of the falcons that the following morning we decided to visit what I was now calling “Prairie Falcon Alley” a third time. What a difference 24 hours can make! This time we only saw a handful of falcons along the same stretch of road.

When I arrived home I was determined to research this incredible Prairie Falcon numbers phenomenon and see if I could find an explanation. All I was able to come up with was the following from Birds of North America Online:

  •  “Young disperse at approximately 65 d of age. Nest mates usually disperse within the same week; some associate with siblings and unrelated young during the first 2 wk after leaving the natal territories

So perhaps this part of the valley was akin to a “Prairie Falcon nursery” with many nesting pairs in the area producing offspring (broods average 4-5 young) and the mostly young birds were “associating with siblings and unrelated young” just after dispersal.

I’d be interested in any other theories that might explain the phenomenon…




A Resurgence Of Short-eared Owls In The West?

In my experience Short-eared Owls have been few and far between in several western states for the entire nine years I’ve been photographing birds. Not so this year!


short-eared owl 8183 ron dudley

1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this one last week on my camping trip to Montana and Idaho. I had good luck with a family of SEO’s six years ago in Montana’s Centennial Valley but since that time they’ve been almost nonexistent in that area. Occasionally I’d spot a single bird in the distance but usually on my trips to the region I didn’t see a single one. But last year I began to see a few more of them in that area of Montana and Idaho and this summer, over two trips and a total of about 12 days, their numbers have obviously increased dramatically in the region.

The same seems to be true for northern Utah. Short-eared Owls are super-abundant in Box Elder County where it used to be unusual for me to see them.



short-eared owl 8350 ron dudley

1/4000, f/7.1, ISO 640, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

And they’re apparently reproducing like rabbits in both areas. I’ve photographed many SEO fledglings in Utah this summer (I’ve posted several of them here) and reproduction in Montana and Idaho seems to be almost as successful. This young fledgling was one of three siblings we found in Montana’s Centennial valley last week but we saw others too (I enjoy the erect ear tufts in this youngster – something I seldom see in SEO’s this young).

I’m trying to avoid jumping to unwarranted conclusions. After all, Short-eared Owls are known to be nomadic and to have considerable local variation in numbers and reproductive success because of the naturally fluctuating populations of their primary prey – voles.

But I’m definitely encouraged by my anecdotal observations, partly because the apparent resurgence of this species seems to be spread over large regions of several states.