Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Birding Life On A High Plateau

Posted by Kevin Doxstater

First and foremost, I'd like to thank Robert for inviting me to be a contributor here at Birding is Fun! - I'm honored to be among such great company. For a little background, while I've always been a fan of "nature," I discovered birds about 12 years ago this month while I was busy working my day job and freelancing as a motor racing photographer in Florida. I became somewhat enamored with the bird photographs of one of my clients and started photographing a few just for a diversion. And the more birds I photographed, the more birds I wanted to photograph. I've photographed around 300 species to date and have a life list of over 400. Things sometimes change in our lives and, about 4-1/2 years ago, I ended up here in southern Utah, where I work at Bryce Canyon National Park.

One of the great things about birding is that, sometimes, some of the best experiences happen when you least expect them. There are times when birding is not the primary objective, yet something good happens involving a bird (or birds). Earlier this summer, for example, I was returning to work from lunch and, just as I was getting out of my truck to go inside, noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a large bird flying low and my first thought was that it was a Northern Goshawk, but once I got a good look realized it was a Peregrine Falcon. I am not sure where it was going in such a hurry, but that falcon passed over my head within 10 feet and I could hear the air rushing over its wings as it went by.

Which brings me to an experience I had earlier this week. I don't restrict my photographic endeavors to just birds. In fact, this time of year when you live at 8,000 ft (2400 m), outside of the few species that live here all year, birds aren't exactly plentiful. I was on my way to photograph fall color north of here, driving along a stretch of narrow road that leads off of the north end of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, where Bryce Canyon is located (much of the southwestern portion of Utah consist of a series of high elevation plateaus known as the High Plateaus). In winter, I like to drive up John's Valley in search of wintering raptors, including Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks as well as Bald Eagles.

On Tuesday, birding wasn't foremost on my mind while I was making my way up John's Valley and noticed a hawk perched on a fence post - then another and another. I had to turn around and go back for another look because I wasn't exactly sure what species they were. Thankfully they stayed long enough for a quick photo and for me to check the field guide for verification that they were, indeed, Swainson's Hawks (Buteo swainsoni). If my id skills are up to snuff I believe the bird pictured below is a first year intermediate morph. I was hoping to move a little close for some better photos, but two southbound cattle haulers took care of the three perching hawks and they flushed.

As I watched them fly away, I noticed movement on the center pivot irrigation system (the out of focus dark line just above the hawk's head in the first photo) in the alfalfa adjacent to the road. That's when I started counting the Swainson's Hawks that were perched atop that center pivot. It's kind of hard to tell from the photo above, but there were fifteen on the center pivot plus the three that had  flushed from the fence posts - a total of 18 of them in one small area! And they're still a long way from their destination of Argentina, too.

Though it doesn't top my spring of 2007 Swainson's Hawk encounter in south Texas when I found over 70 of them. That group was north bound when I saw them in a field not far from Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Still, my Tuesday experience was just another great example of why birding really is fun and you never know what you'll find when you take the time to look around.


  1. very nice post Kevin. Amazing to see so many hawks together (i have never caught groups migrating, although I hope to).


  2. Love the post Kevin, great to see so many Swainson's together like that. 70 at once must have been amazing!

  3. Thanks Dan and Mia! Though you often hear of fairly large groups of Bald Eagles together in winter, you usually don't think of other raptors in "flocks" like that - and, yes, it was amazing to see so many Swainson's in one place.

  4. Nice post Kevin! You nicely captured the amazement the birds can bring. Great photos!

  5. Nice post Kevin. I think your story will resonate with a lot of birders. It certainly does with me. As soon as birds hook us, we want more!

  6. Magnificent scenery and seeing that many hawks all at once would make it a perfect day.

  7. Thanks all for the kind comments! A little slow around here now due to the cold air - hope you had a great birding weekend!

  8. Kevin, you put into words exactly why I think Birding is Fun. It is the unexpected moments and excitement. How awesome to see all these Swainson's. I was surprised to find over 200 in a field down in Rio Rico, AZ during October a couple of years back. What an amazing sight! I also use to live in Utah, though not on the High Plateaus. Still, your photos make me miss it!