Cochise County Birds: The Redtail Hawk

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It hasn’t been easy with this bird.  When it comes to photographing the redtail hawk on or near our Cochise County acreage, the Buteo Jamaicensis that looks awesome when the shutter is clicked seems to change considerably (for the worse) by the time the picture is enlarged on the computer screen.  I don’t how they do it.  Maybe our particular redtails dislike having their images captured and deliberately hex the digital images or something.

Seems like as good an explanation (or excuse) as any.

The turkey vultures were simple.  Those big death-eaters are far less wary of some dude pointing a clicky thing at them.

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NOTE:  If you Google these critters, you’ll see that lots of written accounts list them as red-tailed or red tailed hawks, not redtail hawk as I do.  But, just FYI, there’s a reason for bucking the system.  Having grown up in Montana, and also having lived in 8 of the 11 western states since then, I’ve never yet heard anyone speak the name as anything but redtail. 

So there.

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One local female redtail  would probably like to hawk a glob of something nasty my way.  She’d been pretty cool up until a few months ago, hanging around for her picture to be taken when we saw her perched on a power pole along the dirt road running out to Highway 92, communicating with my wife the critter whisperer if Pam happened to be with me, and all that.

But then she blew it.  Came in to hunt directly on our 20 acres.  Came diving in on an airstrike that just missed one of the young desert cottontail rabbits not more than fifty yards from the Border Fort.

I had just stepped outside when she came swooping down past me with a fierce –WHOOOSH!–as her folded wings dropped her in a high speed, talon-extended rush.  She made me mad.     I cussed her out.

“What did you kill this time, you -*BLEEP*-?!”

I started striding over that way, reaching for the camera that rides ever at my left hip.    She hit the air again before I could round the mesquite trees, but her talons were empty.

“Missed, did you, Miss Perfect?!”

She gained altitude, spiraled this way and that for a while, yelled back at me in full-throated bird challenge.  Before all was said and done that day, she’d  done her best to defy my rule that says,  NO  HAWKS ALLOWED TO HUNT HERE.  Most importantly, at the end of the game, she knew full well I’d witnessed and recorded  her humiliation when our little resident northern mockingbird dive-bombed her butt till she fled in a nervous huff.

northern mockingbird chases redtail hawk 205

Our resident northerm mockingbird puts the run on a redtail hawk.

The above photo was taken from a good 300 yards out with the handheld Canon PowerShot’s lens set at its maximum 56X zoom.  Which means the picture quality is nothing to brag about, but the action is worth it.  The mocker is finally putting the relatively huge raptor to flight after something like 10 minutes of nonstop harrassment..

Believe me, I’d been cheering the northern mockingbird all the way.

The little cottontail rabbit was still frozen in justified terror, hiding motionless under our two-wheel cargo trailer after surviving one of Nature’s Closest Calls out in the brush.

One very lucky little desert cottontail rabbit, MISSED by the strike of a redtail hawk  minutes before this photo was taken.

One very lucky little desert cottontail rabbit, MISSED by the strike of a redtail hawk minutes before this photo was taken. When the mockingbird chased off the hawk (above photo) some 20 minutes later, the bunny was still there, playing it safe.

Well, if I’m going to put one “not perfect” redtail hawk photo out there for the public to peruse, might was well go whole hog–or whole hawk, as the case may be.  In the years to come, as I manage to get better pictures taken, we’ll see about upgrading this page, but for now….

Just the other day, missing a major hawk photo op nearly broke my little shutter-clicking heart.  I was headed to town.  On one of the power poles standing beside the dirt road, a redtail was hanging out in the usual area.  Thankfully, it stayed put when I stopped the Subaru, aimed the camera, and started taking pics.

The missed photo op?

Yeah.  After a bit, the hawk decided to take off.  When it did, it looped out a ways, then circled back, flying directly overhead.  The sun was just right, the brilliant display of the underside of this awesome creature was UNBELIEVABLE.  What a shot it would have been…if I could have gotten the bird into the camera’s viewfinder in time.

But I couldn’t.  Not that go-round.  Tracking a moving bird in the air with a handheld camera is not that easy, at least not for me.

It was like the fish that got away–always the biggest and best, at least according to the usual fish stories.

Redtail hawk overhead.

Redtail hawk overhead.

The redtails are plentiful and present throughout much if not most of North America.  It’s not like Arizona has a monopoly on these remarkable hunters…but they’re still special critters.  I may (and do) take issue with them hunting small furry animals on our property, but I also consider the redtail hawk to be my medicine bird.

No, I’m not Native American by blood.  Most NA’s probably wouldn’t cuss out their own medicine bird for trying to catch lunch.

On the other hand, I once owned a ranch in western South Dakota where a big redtail dive-bombed one of our young domestic greenhead mallard ducks.  The raptor was just starting to chow down on the still living duck when one of my employees happened to look out the front window.  It took her a second or two to figure out what she was seeing, but once she realized what was going on, she ran out and yelled at the hawk.  Said she had to get pretty close before the raptor gave up and took to the skies.

Amazingly, the mallard survived in good health…but from then on, that was one mean duck.  The attack had left a perfectly mellow mallard with a personality disorder.  It would chase my employee’s little dog around, trying to chomp its tail.

Gave the duck away later.  The friend who took it and several others under her wing (so to speak) reported that a few months later, Mr. Mean Green got out of the cage she and her husband kept the ducks in at night for their own safety.  Duck was never seen again.  Most likely reason:  Coyote bait.

Ever since, I’ve had attitude on any hawks that want to hunt in my front yard.  Now, though, I’ve found the perfect anti-redtail hawk deterrent:  The tiny but tough northern mockingbird.

Back to the here and now:  The most recent hawk photos, taken on Janury 8, 2013.  This one looks like a relative youngster to me.  Or maybe they look different in colder weather.  I’m no expert…not yet, anyway.

Incidentally, have you ever heard the cry of an eagle in, say, a western movie?  If you have, that piercing and altogether beautiful sound most likely came from a redtail hawk, not an eagle.  Eagle voices aren’t nearly as pretty, and it is, after all, Hollywood.

“Dub the hawk cry in for that tone-deaf eagle, wouldja?!”  Cries the director, and the deed is done.

A young redtail hawk, perched on a power pole guyline and looking away from the camera.

 

A closer view and looking at you.

A closer view and looking at you.

 

Feathering up, getting ready to launch.

Feathering up, getting ready to launch.

 

Southbound end of a northbound redtail hawk.

Southbound end of a northbound redtail hawk.

Gaining altitude.

Flashback:  A few more redtail hawk photos from the archives.

Soaring on high, and highly insulted, the big female redtail hawk screams back at me after I cuss her out for trying to lunch on one of our bunnies.

 

Despite the slightly out of focus shot, that is an awesome sight.

Despite the slightly out of focus shot, that is an awesome sight.

 

Crying the challenge.

Amazing, how such a big bird can manage to perch on such a thin branch. The dwelling in the back ground is a good 1/4 mile away, appearing much closer due to the foreshortening effect of the zoom lens.

 

Crying a challene.

Crying a challenge.

 

It looks like she’s coming in for a landing here. Actually, however, she was just flaring her wings to keep her balance when a sudden gust of wind struck her precarious perch.

 

Redtail hawk on a post.

Redtail hawk on a post.

Reckon that’s about it for now, folks.  We’ll get better pictures someday, more sharply focused.  Like I said, I’m no real kind of expert on the redtail hawk, not even here in Cochise County–but I do know  these birds are a pleasure to watch unless you’re a rabbit or other small ground-hugging critter or maybe a careless snake.  They’re bold, they’re brave, but they know they’re no match for a ticked-off northern mockingbird a tenth their size.  They’re ace predators but do miss the occasional bunny wabbit who’s fast enough to jump sideways at the right moment.

And they take insults personally.

UPDATE:  January 12, 2013

Impressive.  The very next day after publishing this page, a small batch of “new and improved” redtail hawk pictures jumped right into the camera.  I was once again headed out to the highway on the dirt road, and once again a hawk was perched on “the usual” power pole guyline.

Strangely, it did not look like the younger-appearing bird from a few days before.  ‘Tis a mystery.  Do they change appearance from time to time?  Or do Mama Hawk and Junior Hawk take turns flying the same route?  You never see more than one at a time…maybe it’s like Superman changing into Clark Kent and vice versa, two identities for the same superhero (or in this case, superhunter).

One of the sharper pics has now been installed at the top of the page.  The others are displayed below.

Suspicion:  The hawk seems to have spotted something over yonder--most likely something edible.

Suspicion: The hawk seems to have spotted something over yonder–most likely something edible.

 

...or maybe not.  At any rate, let's check up thisaway...

…or maybe not. At any rate, let’s check up thisaway…

 

...and thataway...

…and thataway…

...and, of course, over yonder....

…and, of course, over yonder….

I was loving my good fortune.  This was the first time in our nearly four years in this area that a redtail hawk had taken my picture-snapping for granted to the extent of simply going about its business, scanning the countryside in a full 360 degree circle.  Scanning, scanning, scanning….

That’s how they make they’re living.  That’s obvious.  But to watch the process in action was a true privilege.

Eyes front, soldier!  We'll use this one for the Redtail Hawk Army recruiting poster.

Eyes front, soldier! We’ll use this one for the Redtail Hawk Army recruiting poster.

Ever seen a headless hawk before?  Check this out.

The Headless Hawk, terror of the blue, blue skies!

The Headless Hawk, terror of the blue, blue skies!

Up until the Headless Hawk photo, the big redtail seemed to be simply checking out the buffet table otherwise known as the desert floor to see what might be on the day’s menu.  No reptiles; it’s too cold for them at this time of year.  A rabbit, hopefully, but anything small and furry will do.  Or feathered, if it’s something slow and stupid.  One online article claims this “chicken hawk” hardly ever preys on full-sized chickens, but we know they’ll take full-sized ducks.  Refusing a chicken?  Don’t think so.

No chickens out here, though.

Time to get serious.

Time to get serious.

Just before taking off, the redtail looked over my way as if to say, "Been nice posing, but I gotta go get lunch now."

Just before taking off, the redtail looked over my way as if to say, “Been nice posing, but I gotta go get lunch now.”

The launch was awesome.

Redtail launch, away from the pesky photographer's nosy camera.

Redtail launch, away from the pesky photographer’s nosy camera. Look at the muscle in those legs!

Update: February 16, 2014.

Yesterday, I lucked out in the red tailed hawk category. (Note: I’d always thought of this bird as a “redtail” hawk. This past year, though, I’ve notice the more common way to write it is “red tailed”, so I’m adopting that styling–but not going back through the entire post to rework the earlier wording.)

Anyway, the lucky part involved not one hawk but two, a pair, presumably a married couple. One bird perched atop a metal power pole near Highway 92–and as I watched, the other swooped down to join in the fun. I’m 70 years of age, and this was the first time I’d ever seen a hawk twosome cuddle up atop a (fortunately flat-topped) power pole like that.

Here are the photos.

Red tailed hawk pair atop a power pole near Highway 92 In southern Cochise County, Arizona.

Red tailed hawk pair atop a power pole near Highway 92 In southern Cochise County, Arizona.

Last to arrive, first to leave, the red tailed hawk on the left sees something of interest out there in the air.

Last to arrive, first to leave, the red tailed hawk on the left sees something of interest out there in the air.

The second red tailed hawk watches its mate depart but shows no inclination to follow.

The second red tailed hawk watches its mate depart but shows no inclination to follow.

Red tailed hawk on the wing:  Off ye go, into the wild blue yonder...!

Red tailed hawk on the wing: Off ye go, into the wild blue yonder…!

2 thoughts on “Cochise County Birds: The Redtail Hawk

  1. Beautiful pictures. I do have a better close up though. I worked at a vets that did work for the county. They brought him two different hawks, one red tail and I don’t know what the other was. They brought them in about a month apart, with broken wings. Someone had shot the one with a BB gun and broke one of the wing bones.
    The other was broken when it crashed into a car that had not been there a moment before. The vet pinned the wings, let them heal and then they were taken to a refuge for rehab and release. I got close ups of them both while they were in surgery and also in the cages after. I did open the doors and take the pictures. They were in outside kennels with a roof so they were protected.
    I also was sitting in the living room at my mom’s house one day (I was about 15) when one came crashing in through the big picture window onto my sister’s brand new record player. It was going round and round with a record on it and I guess the bird took it as prey. It was damaged and we called animal control to help us get it out of our living room. We had thrown a light blanket over it to calm it down. By the time animal control got there, a man from down the street that did hawking had been gotten by my brother and he came down and got it. It had jesses on it, so we assumed it had gotten away from it’s handler. Animal control gladly turned the bird over to the licensed handler because they had no idea what to do with it. That was quite an experience.

  2. Wow. I guess you WOULD have some awesome closeups.

    Having one crash through a window after the record player…whoa. The closest I can remember to anything like that (so far) would be two widely separated incidents, both involving snowy owls. I was maybe 8 or 9 when, just at dark during a heavy snowstorn on the ranch, a snowy–the first one I’d ever seen in real life, though I’d read about them–came flying out of the storm and smacked our kitchen eastside kitchen window. Did not break through, thank goodness. We never saw it downed on the ground the next day or anything like that, so assume it was stull able to fly after bouncing off the glass and rode the storm somewhere else.

    Many years later, shortly before Christmas in 1991, I was making a run from the Black Hills of South Dakota to my parents’ place near Roundup, Montana. I’d bought an awesome signed print of a Gary Carter painting titled “Bear Step Speaks”, was leaving later than I’d have preferred due to the frame shop being a bit behind schedule on finishing the framing job, and–once again–the bird encounter took place a little after full dark. No snow that time, though. The snowy came rocketing into the headlights and wound up smacking the roofline (right where it joins the windshield) HARD. Didn’t hurt the Pontiac Grand Prix I was driving, which was also white like the owl, but the power of that impact no doubt busted all kinds of hollow bird bones. It’s safe to assume that was the end of that snowy owl.

    Both experiences were memorable enough…but nothing like your hawk-on-a-record-player story.

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