The Patience of a Red-tailed Hawk

June 14, 2020 ~ Four days ago I woke at 6:15am to the urgent shrieking of birds outside my window. No coffee yet, not even sunrise yet, and something was already stirring up the quiet morning. I grabbed the camera and ran outside in my pajamas. A hawk was sitting on our fence, being harassed by a Mockingbird. As I set up, he moved from the fence, to a distant electrical pole, and then back to an exposed branch high in a willow tree just beyond our back fence.

I started shooting with my ISO set at 51256. It was dark, y’all. But the sun popped up touching all the treetops in gold, and soon I had enough light to lower the ISO for some serious shooting… in fact, we were in for a day of blue skies, bright sun and sharp shadows. But I enjoy the birds even when the light is too stark for perfect photos.

DSC_2164-3k
Adult Red-tailed Hawk on an exposed perch
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 800 at 500mm
(Click on any image to enlarge in a separate window; close that window to return here.)

This is an adult Red-Tailed Hawk, showing his characteristic streaked belly band. If he was a juvenile, his irises would be pale, and his eponymous reddish tail feathers would instead be striped in white and dark brown. The males and females look the same, though the female is about 20% larger… so I don’t know whether this is a male or female. The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in North America, and is here year-round. According to All About Birds, their thrilling raspy scream is considered by some to be the epitome of raptor calls, and is used in most Hollywood movie soundtracks, regardless of the actual raptor being filmed.

DSC_1964-3k
Hawk displaying that characteristic russet tail
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 640 at 500mm

He sat, occasionally sliding his head side-to-side, using motion parallax to get better information about the position and distance of potential prey in the grass and shrubbery below. For a few minutes, he had the peaceful morning to himself.

Wikipedia says the Red-tailed Hawk often uses a “sit-and-wait” approach to hunting, perching on a high exposed branch to watch for prey. They prefer small mammals, but will take amphibians and reptiles, large insects, and occasionally other birds. It is this last that accounts for his treatment by the Mockingbirds, Grackles, and Blue Jays. And, the Red-tailed Hawk is not alone in being pestered: check out Linda Murdock’s post on a Red-shouldered Hawk.

DSC_1467-3k
Mockingbird defending his territory
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000 at 500mm

Mockingbirds were the first to spot the hawk, and flew at him screeching, diving past his head, and striking his back, shoulders and chest with claws and beaks outstretched. The hawk’s body visibly shook on the branch as the blows landed, but he gave almost no response. Occasionally, he would turn to preen, straightening feathers disturbed in the attack, simply ignoring the noisy nuisances.

DSC_1187-3k
Mockingbird harassing Red-tailed Hawk
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 800 at 500mm

Hawks have the normal upper and lower eyelid, but they also have a third “nictitating” eyelid, a tough translucent membrane that can be blinked horizontally across the eye for protection. You can see in several of these shots that, when the attackers were especially close, one or both of the hawk’s nictitating eyelids would close at the moment of impact.

DSC_1390-3k
Red-tailed Hawk ignoring pesky Mockingbird
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800 at 500mm

His patience finally exhausted, the hawk flew, with the Mockingbirds in hot pursuit. This photo is a heart-breaker, what with clipping one wing with the upper edge of the frame, and the other wing with the dratted power line. But I included it for his wonderful textured feet, and the rich brown patterns of his upper wing feathers. Aren’t you glad I at least had the forethought to select the smaller aperture, increasing the depth of field and keeping him in focus as he flew.

DSC_2167
I’m outa here.
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 800 at 500mm

He returned to this branch in the evening, for another dose of abuse.

DSC_3745-3k
Again, with the caterwauling?
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/8 ISO 1250 at 480mm

Twice, he took action to discourage his attackers. He rose up to full height, repeatedly and sharply spreading and folding his wings, perhaps to make himself look larger and a bit intimidating. Wings outstretched, he hopped along his branch, taking up a slightly different position. It won him a few minutes of quiet, but then they were back. This shot shows the third fairly reliable identifying mark of the Red-tailed Hawk – the brown patches along the underside of the leading edge of his wing, from armpit to wrist: the patagial marking.

DSC_2934-3k
Shoo! Scram!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250 at 500mm

Even adopting a duck-and-cover posture didn’t discourage his harriers for long.

DSC_3352-3k
Red-tailed Hawk protecting his head and belly from Mockingbirds
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250 at 500mm

The above three photos provide a nice comparison of the use of depth of field. The photos of the hawk in defensive posture show a much less cluttered background than the caterwauling (don’t you just love that word) photo… but the f/8.0 aperture in caterwauling allowed improved focus on the Mockingbird darting by. There’s a constant trade-off between a documentary narrative photo, and one that is more artistic.

I have now watched the hawk for four days. Grackles and Blue Jays have taken their turn trying to send him away. Each time, he stays at a perch (power pole, oak, or willow branch) for 20 – 40 minutes. And each time he flies to another perch, a smaller bird pursues close above him, but breaks off the chase after he has sailed one or two hundred feet away… where a new mob of smaller birds eventually find him and starts the cycle again.

DSC_3038
Taking a quiet moment for grooming
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250 at 500mm

Since it is the breeding season and the hawk has returned so reliably to the same perches, I’m thinking he (or she) may have a nest in the area, so I look forward to another week or so of watching this patient and forbearing hawk.

 

2 thoughts on “The Patience of a Red-tailed Hawk”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s