Field day: Red-shouldered hawk

Published: 07/01/2020

I was recently hanging out in my parent's backyard (a welcome break from my backyard-less apartment) when I looked over in a far tree and said "damn, thats a big bird". Sitting about 20 feet up in a pine tree was a Red-shouldered hawk. I've seen this hawk a number of times, along with a pair of Cooper's hawks and their two recently fledged chicks. These two raptor species have battled it out a couple times, but I, frustratingly, haven't had an opportunity this season to photograph either bird. So when I saw the bird perched reasonably low, I grabbed my camera and executed a slow approach.

The hawk tolerated my approach actually really well and never really looked agitated at all. After a few minutes getting comfortable I was able to work different angles on the bird as it preened, sat, and tried to shake off some bugs. 

This first image was taken while the hawk was preening and generally pretty relaxed. Here the bird was actively starting to hunt and looking down quite a lot. I picked a frame where the raptor is looking at the camera, but the majority of the time here the bird was trying to suss out something to catch as a number of birds were starting to mob it (i.e., alarm calling and flying in to try to scare it off).

After a few minutes however, the hawk really seemed focus on an area right below it. I could tell the bird was going to take off so I increased my shutter speed from 1/500 in the previous image to 1/2500 anticipated. Sure enough, the bird basically dropped down head first...

A second or two later, the bird hopped out of the shrub, clearly with something in it's claws and then flew back up into a different section of the same pine. Success! It had caught a field mouse.

After making short work of the rodent, the hawk sat for a few minutes before flying up higher into the tree, presumably to digest. At this point, I actually had to hop on a Zoom call so I headed back into the house and called it a successful afternoon of unexpected photography.

As a technical aside, these images were technically very challenging to both take and edit -- I was imaging this raptor at about 4pm on a sunny summer day, in other words: the light was brutal with a lot of heat shimmer. I had to work hard to both bring back a reasonable amount of detail in both the highlights and shadows. In addition, due to the bright light, the RAW files often had a green cast on the underside of the bird due to the grass below, and a blue cast on top of the bird due to the shadows. I decided to mostly leave these in as it really was how the bird looked at the time, but it is an interesting processing note. Each image was taken with a D500 and 500mm f/4 with and without the 1.4 TC. Images were processed in Nikon Capture NX-D and Adobe Photoshop CC 2020.

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