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