Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Black-Hawk Bonanza in Southwestern Utah

I spent a couple of days birding the extreme southwestern part of Utah this past week. I knew I'd see some good desert birds down there as well as some spring migrants and specialty birds in their usual places. However, I had one particular bird species at the top of my wish list for my two-day trip. I wanted to see a Common Black-Hawk. I love the raptors and the Black-Hawk is a rare one for Utah. I had barely seen one in a distant flight a couple of years ago and I've wanted better views and photos of one ever since. Several people had reported seeing Black-Hawks in two different locations down there recently so I knew my odds were a little better this time around.

One birding reference I have estimates that there are fewer than 300 nesting pairs of Common Black-Hawks in the United States. Most of those pairs are found in central and southeastern Arizona during the spring and summer months.  These hawks prefer to nest in remote cottonwood and sycamore trees along streams where they can hunt from a perch as they watch for frogs and others animals that exist around the streams.

My first two attempts to locate a Black-Hawk failed during my recent trip so I decided to try one of those locations again the morning of my second day. These hawks are known to soar most actively during mid-morning hours so that's when I arrived at the location. I didn't see a Black-Hawk when I arrived, but I did see a Peregrine Falcon pursuing a swallow. The Peregrine was unsuccessful in its attempt to catch the swallow so it took a perch on a rocky hillside high above me.

Peregrine Falcon Washington County, UT
I turned my attention to a stand of Cottonwood trees bordering a stream. No birds were soaring so I decided to view the stand of trees from different angles. That technique has been fruitful when looking for relatively large birds in trees on previous occasions.  A single perspective often leaves some exciting things hidden.

Several weeks ago I spotted a Swainson's Hawk perched on a power line. I had never really noticed large hawks perched on wires before and wondered how common that was. Boy was I surprised when I got my first unexpected look at the Black-Hawk I was seeking. I rounded a corner of the trees and there it was perched on a power line, right above an empty field.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
I couldn't believe I was getting my first close looks at a Common Black-Hawk. It was a beautiful bird. What I expected to be mostly black bird turned out to include some brown tones. I noticed it had relatively long legs for a hawk of its size. It flew into some trees and perched for a few minutes, gave some calls and then moved inside the trees.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
I was so focused on the hawk that I almost wrote off a calling roadrunner as a cooing dove. After the Roadrunner cooed a few more times I snapped out of my Black-Hawk trance and realized I needed to make sure I saw at least one Roadrunner for my trip to the desert of southern Utah. Based on the way the bird was cooing I decided to look for it on a perch rather than on the ground. I spotted it perched on top of a distant Juniper bush at the very top of the hillside near the Cottonwoods. That's one of the joys of birding--understanding bird habitats and behaviors and hunting them down by ear then sight. The great thing about hunting for wildlife with the Nikon is that they all live to see another day!

Greater Roadrunner Cooing From the Top of Juniper, High on a Hillside Washington County, UT
I remembered that I had to check out of my hotel by 11 so I headed back to St George to get that done. After checking out of the hotel I decided to drive back to the Black-Hawk location and spend the last couple of hours of my trip studying the behavior of the Black-Hawk. This time around I was able to meet a friendly man who owned property in the area. He allowed me to view the location from a different perspective so I drove to the opposite side of the trees and realized the hawk had flown to where a second Black-Hawk was standing on the side of the nest. I kept my distance once I realized there was a nest and remained in my truck to avoid disturbing the birds.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
Seeing two Black-Hawks at the same time at a nest site was just part of the experience. The other part came when the property owner moved his donkeys, mules, and horses into the field from which I was viewing the hawks. The four-legged grazers were drawn like a magnet to my temporary post. They were not shy animals.

A Donkey Takes a Look at Me as I Have My Camera Recording a Common Black-Hawk
The image above provide a bit of the perspective I had on the nest. The nest was about forty feet above the ground and more than 100 feet from me. The little brown spot straight up from the camera and just above the door frame is the nest in the trees. 

One of the two birds perched in a tree across the field from me just before I left the area. The lighting was harsh and sort of washed out the colors. The bird was at rest for a while and eventually took flight. I took that as a cue for me to also take flight and begin the trip back home to northern Utah.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT


  1. This is awesome Jeff, even with the invasive donkeys!
    Common Black Hawk is such a sweet species and one that's such a challenge to find, much less crush with the camera. This was a thoroughly enjoyable post Cheers!

    1. They are hard to find, Laurence, but it helps when people use eBird and share their sightings. It seemed to me they were fairly accommodating once I spent a little time with them. I want to go back in the near future and see if the nest is occupied with chicks.

  2. Why did you go to a hawk nest, isn't that a bad thing to birders?

    1. That's a good question.
      The American Birding Association (ABA) has published a Code of Ethics for birding which outlines principles for birding. You can find those principles at this link:

      Here is what they say specifically about observing nests:
      1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
      Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;
      Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.

      Birders should also respect basic property laws. In this case a property owner granted me permission to enter his property. The nest was discovered on that property and once I discovered the nest I kept my distance and remained in my truck while the camera was recording. The birds came and went from the nest without concern for my presence. I certainly would have moved farther or completely away had the birds appeared agitated by my presence.