Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, December 26, 2016

Hawk Watching

Hawks are year-round residents in our region. Red-shouldered, red-tailed, sharp-shinned and cooper's hawks are the four most commonly spotted in our garden. These magnificent birds are welcome in our wildlife habitat, not only because they are so majestic, but also as the primary natural control for rodents, other birds, snakes and reptiles. Being higher up on the forest food chain, they keep these populations in check. They could be making more headway with the vole population, in my opinion, which was unbridled this year, but they do make an immense difference.

During the winter months, when the hardwood trees stand uncovered, the forest dwelling, red shouldered hawks are much easier to observe. These birds of prey sit quietly perched on the bare limbs watching the ground for the slightest movement with their keen eyes. 

Perhaps shorter daylight hours for hunting and less available prey during the winter months, make these birds more noticeable in our garden at this time of year. More often than not, it is their movement or call that alerts me to their presence. Their rufous patches, which echo the reddish brown of the leaf litter and their black and white barring, which melds with the tree bark, often makes them tricky to spot immediately.   

Photographing them proves to be even more challenging. It is usually by chance that I'm outside with my camera, suited with the right lens, when I spot a hawk perched in a tree. Sometimes, I am able to run inside, grab the camera, find the zoom lens and return to find the hawk still sitting static. However, even with the zoom lens (70-300mm), I rarely get close enough for that ultimate shot.

This Christmas Day was a magnificent 75 degrees, summoning a walk in the garden, while chatting with family and exchanging Christmas blessings. A red shouldered hawk glided in and perched itself on a low lying limb, within view from the kitchen garden, where I was stationed. It sat motionless for the remainder of the phone call, so as soon as it concluded I hastily made my way to the house to retrieve my camera.

Moving closer without being spotted or heard would require a bit of stealth on my part. The leaf litter that blankets the forest floor did little to help silence my footsteps as I edged ever closer to the bird's location. I tiptoed gingerly along, ducking behind trees to inch along unnoticed, grabbing a few shots each time I halted [in the event that the hawk would fly off].  But signs were in my favor yesterday, as this hawk was more focused on getting its Christmas meal than me skulking through the woods.

When I was half the distance from the house to the hawk, it suddenly swooped down to pounce upon a critter crawling through the leaves. I stood silent watching. [I didn't take any photos in fear of disturbing its activity.] Unfortunately for the hawk, the meal got away, but the determined hawk didn't give up on this sight and flew up onto the song bird feeding station nearby.

There it sat, sharp talons exposed, powerful beak at the ready, and eyes focused. Its receptors allowing it to not only see a range about 8 times greater than mine, but also the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. It searched the forest floor turning its head dexterously from one direction to another. As it sat contentedly balanced on the decorative post cap, I moved in without alerting the bird to my company. Leaning into a tall oak tree to stabilize the camera, I focused and took a few shots. Being in close proximity to wildlife, while trying not to give myself away, makes getting shots a bit of an adventure.

It wasn't long before the hawk either tired of this location or determined I was in its midst, and took off for a tree deeper in our woods. Still not the ultimate shot, but it was a Christmas miracle of sorts for this habitat gardener. I hope this red shouldered hawk was able to partake in a meal as scrumptious as we did on Christmas day.