You know when you have an experience that is so great – that’s just so frigging amazing – that you can’t put it into words? That’s what’s happened here. I had an adventure with Red-tailed Hawks (RTHs) this summer, way back in July, that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It was a once-in-a-lifetime type event, and despite being thrilled by the experience, I haven’t written about it or shared the photos, because I just couldn’t seem to find the words.
It all began with my friend Paul. He’s heard, and even spotted, RTHs at his home for the past several years, and we’ve theorized that it’s likely the same mated pair returning to a nesting site in a small patch of woods not far from his house. Each year he’d send me a few photos, usually flyovers or the occasional perched shot, all at the usual middle distance, which is about as good as anyone usually gets.
All that changed this year. For a period of 3-4 weeks, the local RTHs entered his life in an up-close and very personal way. Paul began emailing me with stories of the hawks in perching in the trees and phone poles around his property, and the photos he sent were amazing. Paul has a Sigma 70-300mm lens, so he and I are about even in terms of optics when it comes to birding. And the photos he was making were making me green with envy. He was clearly getting closer to the hawks than I had ever been able to.
It took about two weeks before I was able to come over and see for myself. Honestly, it took that long for me to realize that these weren’t isolated incidents. Each time I’d see another email from Paul, I’d think to myself, “That’s it, his lucky streak is over, it wouldn’t matter if I drove over right now.”
But it wasn’t that kind of short-lived streak. The activity continued, almost every day. By this point Paul had determined that there were three RTHs, and we’re pretty certain it’s the male and female mated pair, and their fledged youngster from this year. We did a little research, since this was well after nesting season, and it appears that RTH nestlings may continue to hang around with their parents long after they’ve fledged and become independant. If their parents are willing to continue to provide food, even intermittently, then the juvenile hawks will stay to take advantage of it.
Paul also reported a change in the local crow population, which was noticeably missing. In prior years they had always had a crow family in the area, and could remember both hearing and seeing the corvids, including their harassing interactions with the hawks. But this year, the crows were gone, which we speculate may have influenced the uptick in hawk activity.
The neighborhood in question is pretty typical of the area. It’s suburban, lying just a couple of miles outside of Clarks Summit’s downtown. It’s an older area, probably 1950s or 1960s vintage, and newer developments have since grown up around it. But while the area is filled with homes, there are small patches forest between lots, and the properties tend to have numerous trees. There are also larger tracts of field and forest only a few minutes away, including farmland, parks, and undeveloped areas.
All of which is to say that there’s plenty of habitat nearby to form a productive RTH territory capable of feeding the three occupants. Especially when you factor in the backyard bird feeders, which are fairly common. Paul has a very nice setup at his house, with a healthy and diverse population of feeder birds.
The hawk’s behavior during this time struck us both as being somewhat unusual – not that we are experts, but based on what we were able to read online, and upon our own previous experiences. For starters, the RTHs were very vocal. They called back and forth to each other regularly, and even when one was hunting, the other was often calling to it in the distance.
The hawks also displayed a decided lack of fear for humans. Before I go any further, I want to make sure I’m clear about something. I love wildlife photography, and the thrill of the chase and capture (photographically speaking) is a definitely part of the appeal. But I do my damndest to always put the welfare of the critter first. That means knowing the point at which an okay approach becomes a stressful approach, knowing the warnings signs that I’m causing stress so I can back off, and trying to avoid having any effect on the critter at all. Sometimes this is easy, if you’ve worked with a species before and know that you can get just so close without bothering them, but no closer. Other times it’s much harder, especially if you stumble across your subject and are already within the stress zone when you discover them.
However, it is an entirely different matter when the wildlife approaches you. Now obviously you need to be alert for and aware of any aggressive, territorial behavior that may indicate that the critter is perceiving you as a threat (for both your and the critter’s safety!). But sometimes critters are just curious, or just don’t seem to care.
The RTHs just didn’t care. They approached us at distances that I never would have thought possible. They’d fly right over us, standing the yard, and land at close range. Sometimes they appeared to be studying us in return, and other times they went about their hawk business as if we weren’t even there.
It was an incredible, insightful, and deeply humbling experience, and I couldn’t help but imagine that we managed to form a sort of bond, an understanding of coexistence, with them.
Paul and I have both speculated on this behavior, but at some point we’re just guessing. Our theory goes like this: for starters, RTS are an apex predator. Although eggs and nestlings are at risk of predation, adults are at the top of the food chain. Humans are about the only species they have reason to fear, and it may be that this particular pair of hawks simply hadn’t had any interactions with humans that gave them reason to fear us. (Wouldn’t that be nice?)
I believe that there’s also an acclimatization factor at work. Assuming that our previous theory is true, and that these same hawks have returned to nest in the neighborhood for several years running, then it stands to reason that they are accustomed to the human activity within their territory. By that logic, slamming doors, car sounds, and even the presence of humans outdoors may simply be “normal” for them.
Combined with an overall lack of fear for humans, these factors could be the root of their unusually open and bold behavior and seeming lack of fear for us.
As an aside, I mentioned curiosity as a possible factor before. I don’t know if the hawks were curious about us, although we certainly must have been a curious spectacle to them! A pair of humans, each with a camera and long telephoto lens stuck to their face, slowly moving about the lawn to observe them. It makes me wonder what they thought of us.
At this point, hopefully you’ve got at least a taste for how excited I am by this experience. I’m trying to lay the groundwork and give the facts; in my next post I’ll focus on the actual event itself. I’ve got 20+ photos that I want to share, so bear with me!
More to come…