In my last post, I discussed the framework for my encounter with the Red-tailed Hawks at Paul’s house, their unusual behavior and our theories regarding it. Today I’m going to set the logic and science stuff aside, and just tell you how it played out.
I arrived at Paul’s about 1130 on a sunny day in mid-July. The activity level was nill – my timing was off, as according to Paul the hawks were most active in the mornings and evenings, which is consistent with most animals. Nevertheless, we sat on the porch and visited for a while, keeping an ear on the neighborhood outside.
There were a couple of high fly-overs, but nothing promising, and it wasn’t until we were about to call it things started to pick up. Paul and I had moved outside near his garden and were shooting a few frames of the regular feeder birds, just so I didn’t go home empty handed, when the hawks began to move in.
They started by landing in the trees behind a neighbor’s house – Paul is friends with the neighbor, so we were able to move into their back yard and get a few shots. The hawks were at a distance and in the shade of the tree, so the shots weren’t anything stunning – nothing like the stuff Paul had been emailing me for the past two weeks.
We returned from the neighbors and were standing in Paul’s lawn talking when the hawk came to us. She swooped in right over our heads and landed on the roof of Paul’s house, right near the edge, in perfect lighting. She couldn’t have been 10 meters away. You can imagine how it went from there – cameras up, and let ‘er rip!
It’s moments like these when I’m my own worst enemy. I get so excited by what’s happening that I’ll start to shake and I’ll lose my mental focus on what I should be doing. I had to take a deep breath and force myself to calm down a bit, then worked on getting the shots.
With so many birds, you’re working at a range where you’re getting a focus point on the bird, maybe even specifically on its head or face. But rarely are you close enough to get the point on a bird’s eye itself. Well, we were that close. I was adjusting the focus point to overlay the hawk’s eye and was able to really fill the frame with its body.
Now at this point I’m having two thoughts. First, is that this has got to be a fluke, so I need to get as many photos as I can, to ensure that there’ll be a few nuggets of gold among them, because the clock simply MUST be ticking. And second, that a hawk on shingles isn’t exactly the ideal setting for a strong environmental portrait. (Yep, that’s a photographer for you – armpit deep in an amazing experience with a wild animal, and still willing to look the ol’ gift horse in the mouth!)
The RTH stayed on the roof for several minutes, before taking flight again. Moments later she was on the next door neighbor’s roof, still less than 10 meters away. We grabbed some more shots of him there, although now we were shooting at a right angle to the light.
The hawk moved on from the roof fairly quickly, this time gliding only a few meters – towards us! – into a pine tree on Paul’s property, right by his bird feeder. (It’s worth noting that just before the hawk made it’s original approach, the feeder birds went silent and scattered.) He perched within the branches, right near the trunk, but fortunately in an area where we were able to shoot through a gap and watch him.
At this point, we were treated to nature at its finest. The hawk went into predator mode, stalking a red squirrel that was either very brave or very stupid. The squirrel climbed the trunk of the tree and began a circling game, the hawk following him around the trunk for two or three passes. For a few moments, Paul and I thought we were going to be treated for some scenes of nature at its most primal. But in the end, the squirrel escaped, and the hawk returned to chilling.
There was a lull for a while while the RTH continued to hang out in the pine tree. Eventually he took off again and moved away. We got one last closeup with him a little later on, when he made a low pass over Paul’s house. He appeared to be landing nearby, and I circled around the back of the house, expecting to find him in the tree by the driveway.
I was puzzled when I didn’t see him, but happened to look up, and there he was – perched on the roof, peering down at me from over the gutter! I got a couple of quick shots before he moved on.
And that was the end of our adventure – the RTHs returned to the patch of woods where we believe their nest is – although they are certainly no longer in a nesting phase, we expect that they still return to that safe area to roost. The afternoon had grown late and I headed home. According to Paul, the activity peaked around the time of my visit and faded out within another week or so – the sightings became less frequent and much less personal, until the hawks seemed to have returned to their old, solitary habits.
Neither of us really has an explanation as to why the Red-tailed Hawks became so “friendly,” for lack of a better word, or why they changed their behavior in such a radical way. But we are extremely grateful for the opportunity we had to work with them under those conditions – it was an experience that I will never, ever forget!