Some days are wonderful for bird photography especially when the subject is close, exhibits interesting behavior and the light is in my favor. These images are from an afternoon just like that when I happened across a lovely Rough-legged Hawk on a breezy day.
I was out looking for birds to photograph on December 21, 2011 when I spotted this Rough-legged Hawk flying close to where I was located. With enough time to stop, get my camera settings straight and get into position it wasn’t long before I was able to focus on the hawk through my viewfinder to see that it had a Vole in its talons along with grasses it had plucked up when it grabbed the rodent from the ground.
The Roughy flew in close to give me some good looks at it and the Vole in its talons with great eye contact, light under the wing and a very nice flight pose. At the time I thought I’d only have a few minutes with this hawk, I am happy to say that I was wrong!
As the icy wind buffeted the Rough-legged Hawk it hovered with the Vole grasped in its talons. The hawk may have been looking for a place to land to eat its prey when this image was taken, it was nearly motionless at this point. I had to zoom back to keep the whole bird in the frame.
I could see the Vole moving through my viewfinder so I knew it was still alive and I am presuming that it decided to bite the Rough-legged Hawk which caused the bird to let it go. I’ve seen this occur once before where I could see the teeth of the Vole very close to the bird’s leg and then watched as the Rough-legged Hawk allowed the Vole to drop then flew down and retrieved it. The same behavior occurred as I photographed this hawk. The image above was taken just after the Vole started to plummet downwards while the bird kept an eye on it as it swooped towards to the ground.
I’ve been bitten by a rodent (a hamster) and can attest to the fact that it is not fun.
When the Rough-legged Hawk first lifted off I could not tell if it had retrieved the Vole but it sure gave me a great view of its back and top of the wings. I love the dark chocolates, creams and butterscotch colors evident in the plumage of Rough-legged Hawks.
As the hawk banked towards my right I was able to see that it had the Vole grasped firmly in it talons once again before it flew off to the east and I lost sight of it in the distance near the ground. I can remember thinking “wow, that was great” and then reviewed the images I had taken on my LCD screen. I thought my opportunity with this hawk was over for the day but I still felt elated.
When I looked back up from reviewing the images on my screen I could see that the hawk was hovering close to the road near the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake, while hurrying to get closer and into a better position I kept watching the hawk as it glided in the strong breeze occasionally looking down trying to spot more prey. It would kite for a bit then turn in the wind and fly sharply away to the east or west just to circle back around again.
Because the wind was blowing from the north the hawk could pick up a lot speed when it flew east or west and the image above was captured when it was flying towards the west, the Rough-legged Hawk sort of looks like a feathered torpedo in this pose to me.
There were times that the hawk would fly by so close that I had trouble keeping it in the frame, on several occasions I took images that just showed the face and parts of the wings. The Roughy would kite over the shoreline searching for prey, twisting its head down to scan the ground or would hang motionless in the wind. It would approach close then move away. It was fascinating to watch this beautiful hawk. I took hundreds of photos, far more than I could ever put in this single post.
I watched the hawk catch quite a few voles on the ground by quickly dispatching the Voles down its throat in a few pieces. I’ve watched other raptors tear at their prey and taking their time ingesting it, in my opinion Rough-legged Hawks eat much faster than they do. I was soon going to witness just how quickly they eat.
I observed the Rough-legged Hawk dive into the dried vegetation and come back up with a vole, this time in its bill not the talons as I had seen earlier. The Hawk flew out over the water and as I clicked on the shutter button I watched as the Rough-legged Hawk swallowed the prey… in flight… whole!
Sorry about the image quality of these three frames, the hawk just didn’t move into the best light to capture great images of this interesting behavior.
I am posting three of six images that show the entire event with the vole clearly visible in I, going into the bill in II and the final one shows just the tail and the feet of the Vole still visible.
It may sound difficult to believe but this entire eating process was over in less than two seconds. If I had blinked or taken a sip of my coffee I would have missed it all. Bird Photographers do need to be on their toes!
The Rough-legged Hawk; on the other hand, barely moved during this time as the wind held it aloft.
The Rough-legged Hawk flew by so close in the image above that I was surprised it came out sharp because I thought it had gotten too close for my minimum focusing distance, things were happening so fast it was a challenge to even react quickly enough with changing light conditions and backgrounds. Practice, practice, practice does pay off.
This last image was just so funny I could not resist processing it to share. Even the most regal hawks can look goofy at times! I call this the “chicken neck” pose. I’d seen the bird doing this from a distance and was very pleased that it did it this final time close enough for this photo.
It was very interesting watching the Rough-legged Hawk kiting, being bit and eating on the fly near the Great Salt Lake.
I spent just over 30 minutes with this Rough-legged Hawk, observing and photographing great behavior and in my opinion it was a “picture perfect day”! For this bird photographer anyway.