Even in Montana, the 4th largest state (after California) with the 44th largest population (nestled between Rhode Island and Delaware), humans have replaced or chased away many of our most interesting species. We replaced grouse with chickens, bison with cows, and wolves, foxes, and coyotes with huskies, Chihuahuas, and schnauzers. We chased the grizzlies, cougars, and moose so far into our densest forests that despite being renowned for them they are rarely seen in the state. How far must one travel, then, to catch even a glimpse of true wildlife in all its primeval glory?
Well, not that far as it turns out. In fact, all we really have to do is look skyward as we drive along the dusty dirt roads and two-lane highways we travel every day. And what will we see? Natural-born killers whose grace and savagery harkens back to the days of Lewis and Clark’s adventures in the Pacific Northwest, or at least to the days of Marlin Perkins. I write not of the velociraptors of Jurassic Park, but of the avian raptors (a.k.a., birds of prey). My guess is that the main reason that we have so many raptors living among us is that they don’t taste very good—not much like chicken. Lord knows that if they tasted good or attacked our sheep we would have chased them into the hills long ago.
As beautiful as they are, raptors are remorseless assassins. The term “raptor” comes from that Latin term rapere meaning to seize or to take by force (Brown, 1997). These are no nut-nibbling, seed-sucking songbirds. Youtube videos of bald and golden eagles attacking deer, bears, and even the occasional small child are popular. The emergence of the raptor species coincided with the development of the Rocky Mountains themselves around 45-55 million years ago (Nagy & Tökölyi, 2014). This may have been merely coincidental but the majesty of a screeching hawk soaring effortlessly framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Mission Mountains or the geological drama of the Continental Divide would lead one to believe otherwise.There are two types of raptors: diurnal (mostly eagles, hawks, osprey, falcons, and kites) and nocturnal (mostly owls). As you are unlikely to see any of the nocturnal variety perched on a telephone pole on the side of the road, and as I was therefore unlikely to photograph them, the new Special Project photos involve only diurnal raptors. A total of 34 species of diurnal raptors were identified by Snyder and Snyder (2006) as existing in North America. Of those 34 species, examining the residence maps provided by Snyder and Snyder indicated that 16 can be found with some regularity in Montana including 10 who make Montana home year-round, five who come here only to breed, and one for whom Montana represents, believe it or not, its winter respite from colder climes (the rough-legged hawk). The residence maps from the National Geographic Guide to Birds of the Western United States (Dunn & Alderfer, 2006) differ a bit and indicated that 17 diurnal raptors are found here regularly including ten year round, five who come to breed, and two here only to bask in the warmth of Montana winters (with the Gyrfalcon making sunny Montana its winter home along with the rough-legged hawk according to Dunn and Alderfer). There are other inconsistencies between the Dunn and Alderfer maps and the Snyder and Snyder maps regarding the presence or absence of various raptor species in Montana which may be due to the uncanny ability of red-tailed hawks to cleverly impersonate other species.
The family Accipitridae contains most of the birds of prey common in Western Montana except for osprey. Osprey have carved out a niche so specific that they form their own family, Pandionidae, largely due to their unique hunting and nesting behaviors. The two raptors that you are probably most likely to see on the byways of Montana are red-tailed hawks and bald eagles (the former in particular and the latter primarily in the western part of the state). Members of these two species make good use of telephone poles anchored in plowed or fallow fields to rest and to identify and stalk their next meal. In the wild and when feeding, these birds like to rest in the tops of dead deciduous trees at the forest margins or river banks, and a telephone pole by a fallow field makes a good approximation.
Any attempt at identifying individual raptors should begin with the following question: Is it a red-tailed hawk? Given the number of red-tailed hawks in Montana, this is a necessary first question but even this basic question is not easy to answer because of the wide variation in coloring among members of this species (ingeniously, not all of them even have distinctively red tails, and even when they do the red coloring may only be visible from certain angles). But in the end, whether you are looking at a juvenile bald eagle, a red-tailed hawk, or an American kestrel is not overly important. The beauty, grace, athleticism, strength, and ferocity of these creatures, along with their tolerance and even appreciation for the human tendency to cut or plow everything in sight makes them a group of species well worth pursuing. The pictures in the Roadside Raptors special project were primarily taken from my car either near Missoula (for example on Mullan Road west of town) or on the dirt roads between the National Bison Range and the Ninepipe Refuge in the Mission Valley. Some days I saw more interesting animals between the two refuges than in them.
If you head out to view or photograph roadside raptors, I have a few pieces of advice. First, be sure to pay attention to traffic and pull into a safe area. Despite the fact that the birds are used to traffic they are not used to cars stopping, so in my experience you only have 10-15 seconds before the birds are likely to take flight, so your camera settings should be where you want them before you stop. Raptors engrossed in eating are likely to stay put for longer. I usually have my camera in shutter priority mode with the shutter speed set to 1/500 at first (fast enough to capture a fairly stationary bird sharply). Then after squeezing off a few shots I quickly increase the shutter speed to 1/2000 to catch them sharply in case they take flight (with a 300mm F/4 lens, ISO 100 or auto depending on the light). Your lens, camera, or personal preferences may dictate another approach (for example, if you are one of those people with a 600mm F/4 lens, why even get off the couch?). Shooting through your open sunroof can be effective (preferably with the car parked, especially if you are the one driving). Lastly, just as praying to the computer gods can help with document printing, with all attempts at wildlife photography it is best to adhere to a vegan diet for weeks in advance in order to curry the good favor of Mother Nature.
Brown, L. (1997). Birds of prey. New York, NY: Chancellor Press.
Dunn, J. L., & Alderfer, J. (2006). National Geographic guide to birds of the Western United States. Washington, DC: Author.
Nagy, J. & Tökölyi, J. (2014). Phylogeny, historical biogeography and the evolution of migration in accipitrid birds of prey (Aves: Accipitriformes). Ornis Hungarica, 22(1), 15–35. doi:10.2478/orhu-2014-0008.
Snyder, N., & Snyder, H. (2006). Raptors of North America: Natural history and conservation. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press.