Red-tail fly-by

Red-tailed Hawk

I was down at the station yesterday, one of two days a week I’ve been going down. It was an absolutely lovely day, cool at startup, but not cold, and warm enough to strip down to a single layer by the time we wrapped up at noon. I pulled out my sunglasses and wore a ball cap instead of a toque for the first time this spring. Naturally, on these first, early sunny days of spring I can never seem to remember to pull out the sunscreen, and so I inevitably get lightly sunburned. At least it’s not the painful, peely sort.

Despite a relative dearth of birds yesterday, there was a good diversity of species. One of the birds hanging about the station was this beautiful Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tails are rather uncommon birds at the station. This isn’t necessarily reflected in the log book, where we often record hawks sailing over high. It’s also not really applicable to the park as a whole, where there’s usually one or two hawks hunting the broad, open meadow areas that cover most of the land area of the park. However, down on the station’s peninsula it’s mostly early successional forest, with enough trees and shrubs to make it less than ideal for the usual hunting tactics of a Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

This guy (or girl; although hawks are dimorphic, it’s by size and not plumage, and a hawk sitting on a branch fifteen feet away just looks large no matter which way you cut it) flew right up and perched just beside the station building, where I was in the process of doing some training with a new volunteer. We both stopped and ogled the hawk while it sat there, since it’s not often that a wild raptor will oblige you with such flattering views. I did my best to run off a few shots, despite the backlighting. A moment or two later he decided further down the road might be better, and he took off from the branch, soaring by just a few feet above my head, close enough that had I desired to (and had the reflexes to), I could have reached out and snagged a few feathers at his passing.

Banded Red-tailed Hawk and me

I’ve handled a Red-tail before, though – we banded one in 2004, my second fall at the station, when I was there in official capacity as an assistant (now I’m an unofficial, volunteer assistant instead). Boy, do I ever look young in that photo. Normally birds this large don’t stick in the net very long, if they even fall into the net in the first place; just as often they’ll bounce right off the mesh and carry on. If they do fall into the net, they’ll likely take a minute or two to flap their way to the end of the net, where they can find some tension in the mesh to pull against to launch themselves out. This assuming that they don’t bounce out before reaching the end. In the case of the above, one of our volunteers happened to be just approaching the net at the time when the hawk flew in. A flailing hawk in a net is extremely dangerous, so we ask our volunteers to call for myself or the coordinator rather than tackle it themselves, but she was able to get help over very quickly. It’s the only Red-tail banded by the station to date, and one of just three large hawks (the other two being a Cooper’s in 2003, and a Northern Harrier in 2005). However, if this Red-tail continues to hang about low the way he has been the last few days, it’s likely that eventually he’ll blunder into a net. Hopefully we’ll be there to snag him.

Red-tailed Hawk

A bit later we observed him fly from his perch in a tree down to the leaves on the ground in an open patch of trees. He hopped about here, clambering over sticks and tangles, looking for I’m not quite sure what. Insects? Although they prey primarily on rodents, Red-tails are opportunistic hunters, and will eat large bugs like grasshoppers if they’re available. They’ll also take rabbits, which can be very abundant at the park, but I doubt he’d be hunting those on foot. I don’t think he was after grasshoppers this early in the season, either. Snakes are a possibility, I did see a few out in the warm weather, and they’d still be a bit sluggish in the early morning cool. You can see a smear of blood on its upper breast in the first photo, so it was obviously finding something to eat down there.

Red-tailed Hawk

I never actually saw him snag anything while he was on the ground, so it might be he was just looking. On the other hand, he stayed pretty well hidden behind a low ridge and some trees the whole time, so it was difficult for me to see everything he was up to. It may be that this particular individual was less dominant to the ones that frequent the meadow habitat, and was here less by choice than because he was forced out of the other areas. Or perhaps he just desired a change of scenery.

Red-tailed Hawk

A minute or two later, after deciding there wasn’t much worth looking for down on the ground, the hawk turned about and took off – once again straight toward me. Red-tails can travel at up to 20 to 40 mph (30 to 60 km/h) at cruising speed when flying. I doubt that this guy was going that quickly, but he was moving too fast for me to be able to get my focus adjusted well.

Red-tailed Hawk

I managed to snap this shot just as he soared by me; a little further this time than the first, I probably couldn’t have touched him, but it was still closer than I usually find hawks flying by me! I got the impression that while he was wary of humans, and kept an eye on us, he wasn’t terribly concerned. He was down there again today (I wasn’t), flying about the area, and demonstrating a similar coolness toward the people.

Red-tailed Hawk

He swooped up to perch in a tree not far from me, before departing for parts unknown.


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

12 thoughts on “Red-tail fly-by”

  1. Wonderful photos and story. The RT hawk is really a magnificent bird. It is not unusual for me to see one at fairly close range when I am out walking. I find they are not easily startled away.

  2. A most photogenic bird! He gave you such a variety of poses.

    Twice this winter, I’ve watched a Redtail perched in a tree (two different trees) by our apartment building, not even twitching as a Kestrel dive-bombed him again and again. The RT’s behaviour must be where the term “unflappable” came from!

  3. Hi Seabrooke,

    I saw the same bird last Thursday foraging on the ground by the main trail. It picked up a small snake, hesitantly and very carefully, tossed it on the path, picked it up and flew off with it. Maybe he/she is looking for more of the same.

  4. Thanks, everyone!

    Ruth: It’s true they tend to sit when other hawks would fly, but even still I find it hard to get close enough to even get a decent shot with my 300mm lens, so this was an unusual encounter for me.

    Lavenderbay: They’re probably pretty used to it! I’ve seen all sorts of birds divebombing Red-tails. Crows are probably most frequent, but also Red-winged Blackbirds and Eastern Kingbirds quite often. The one above had a robin harassing him. The hawks just seem to take it in stride and continue on with things.

    AJ: That would probably be it, then! I was wondering about snakes, and I know Red-tails will frequently take them. I can’t imagine there’s much meat on a snake, though…

  5. sweet blog! I only just found you through technorati; thanks for the link.

    Red Tails are about the largest raptors we get pretty much and I’ve yet to get any kind of photo of them so I’m envious of your close-up opportunities.

  6. Thanks, tai haku! Glad you’ve enjoyed it. It’s funny about the Red-tails that they can be so common and generally fairly approachable, as birds go, and yet still so hard to get a photo of.

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