This Memorial Day weekend I headed into the Yellowstone Ecosystem for some birding and wildlife watching. The highlight of the weekend was at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Lima, MT where myself and a friend observed a California Gull actively hunting Cliff Swallows.
At Lower Red Rock Lake the swallows had formed a small nesting colony beneath a tiny bridge over the water. The colony of roughly 70 birds remained in a tight flock coming and going together to gather mud for their nests and to catch insects off the lake.
We observed the California Gull working the canal area as if sizing the up the swallow’s reaction to it’s presence. The bird would frequently approach the bridge and test out the birds behavior without making any drastic moves. It still wasn’t exactly clear at this time the bird was hunting, until it suddenly dropped close to the water and snatched a swallow in a matter of seconds. I doubted I would be able to capture this moment on camera, but just for laughs I raised up my shutter speed and began to focus on the gull when it returned after a few minutes of the first hunt.
Again the gull began dipping in and out of the area testing the birds, rather quickly it chose it’s target and began to follow it in a straight and rapid line. The gull appeared to come down atop of the bird almost as if to limit it’s escape options, pressing it closer and closer to the water’s surface. Flying in this straight direct path offered the swallow as helpless and gave the gull the advantage. Within seconds it had the swallow in it’s beak and carried the bird off to be consumed.
I ended up spending 30 minutes with this gull and observed it take 5 swallows total. The next morning I did return and observed the gull testing out the flock again and remained there for two hours with no action. Who knows how long he practiced on day 1 before making a move. Practice makes perfect!