A young red-tailed hawk pauses while preening its front feathers on a winter afternoon at Ridgefield in 2008. Although birds of this age have long since lost the the extreme nervousness they had after fledging, I like that its expression portrays some of the goofiness they retain as they experience new things in their first year. Not that they should be underestimated, they are already formidable predators as the blood around its mouth and beak suggest. The signposts near the auto tour were favored perches of the young hawks and provided opportunities to watch them at length, especially on rainy days if traffic was sparse.
In May I met this young red-tailed hawk on one of the off-map trails in the Pima Dynamite area, it was still growing in confidence if not in size. Its movements were still a little unsure, here flaring out its wings slightly to maintain its balance atop the flower buds of the saguaro. It kept its head on a swivel, looking at not just its nearby sibling but listening further off for the parents that were keeping in touch vocally (and perhaps visually, they had a taller vantage point than I). The yellow in its legs and beak was quite pale but it had already accomplished much by growing to this size, as babies even the top predators are vulnerable to other predators such as the great horned owls I saw on the previous hike and heard hooting that morning.
By now it will be an old hand at flying about the desert even if still wearing its juvenile plumage. I turned around at this point as its sibling was on a saguaro right next to the trail and I didn’t want to disturb them, they had enough on their minds, enough to learn about their desert home. I can sympathize.
My goal is to photograph every animal on a saguaro, I can now add red-tailed hawks to the list! This adult was keeping an eye out for potential prey moving about on a sunny winter morning in the Sonoran Desert. Hard to believe this is the same species that I watched so often on rainy winter mornings in the Pacific Northwest.
A juvenile red-tailed hawk perches along the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in 2010. We have redtails here in Arizona but I don’t get to see them up close like this anymore. Even at Ridgefield it seemed like in the later years I no longer saw them perching so close, so often, although I could still see them nearby in the meadows.
There was a period of time at Ridgefield where I came across what I called Hawk-on-a-Stick, juvenile red-tailed hawks perched on signs around the large meadow that would allow me to view them from close range. They didn’t often look directly look at me, which was a good thing, as it meant they were comfortable with me and on the lookout either for voles in the meadow or older redtails that might chase them away.
A juvenile red-tailed hawk sits in a meadow in heavy fog at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. The telephoto lens is exaggerating the whiteout effect as it is picking up all the fog between my car and the distant hawk but it illustrates the point: for an animal that might normally hunt by soaring high above the meadow and looking for voles below, a thick fog changes the dynamic between predator and prey.
The fog didn’t have such an impact on an American bittern stalking the shoreline that winter morning as it looked and listened for small creatures both on the land and in the water. Sometimes it hunted by slowly walking up and down the shoreline, sometimes by standing still, but in either case the thick fog would not obscure the prey such a short distance away.
I normally go to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on Christmas morning, as I don’t have kids and usually don’t travel to see family. If it’s pouring rain I might have the refuge to myself, or nearly so, and it’s a contemplative time until mid-morning when the crowds show up. But this Christmas brought ice that kept me from going up, as it would not just be risky to drive there but they often close the auto tour entirely when the roads are bad. But I can at least post a picture from Ridgefield, a juvenile red-tailed hawk in February 2008, listening for breakfast from its perch on a blackberry vine. It’s the juvenile redtails (that don’t yet have their red tails) that hang out close to the road and allow the tight close ups of some of my other pictures, although I saw them like this a lot more back then than now.
At Ridgefield, many creatures prey on the Townsend’s voles that live in the meadows and marshes. Some predators like herons, bitterns, egrets, and coyotes swallow the voles whole. Others like this red-tailed hawk (above) and rough-legged hawk (below) have beaks designed to let them rip apart their prey and eat only the parts they desire. If you watch them on a fresh kill you’ll see them pull out parts like intestines they don’t want and cast them aside so they can get to the muscles and organs they prefer. It’s a bit gruesome and I always feel for the little voles but at least they die quickly, this is how these beautiful but deadly birds have evolved to survive.
I photographed both hawks on the same day, and in nearly the same spot, the rough-leg right as the sun was cresting the hill and the red-tail over an hour later in direct sunlight.
A downpour on Christmas morning left this young red-tailed hawk, sitting on a signpost beside the auto tour, drenched from head to toe with water drops beading up on the feathers on its back. The heavy rain and the holiday morning also meant that I had the refuge pretty much to myself and I was able to observe this tolerant hawk at my leisure without having to worry about blocking the road.