An American Kestrel attacking a Red-tailed Hawk – How I Messed Up This Shot

/, Birds, Davis County, Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, Red-tailed Hawks, Utah/An American Kestrel attacking a Red-tailed Hawk – How I Messed Up This Shot

American Kestrel attacking a Red-tailed HawkAmerican Kestrel attacking a Red-tailed Hawk – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/4000, ISO 1600, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

This is the worst image I have ever posted on my blog and typically any image I have taken resulting in such poor quality would have been deleted as soon as I previewed it on my computer monitor. I kept this file though because it is a reminder to myself to always be prepared. I missed a great behavior shot because I wasn’t.

The lighting conditions were awful the day I took this photo, there were clouds, low light, falling snow and fog even before getting to Farmington Bay so I set my ISO high to obtain adequate shutter speeds, which I had when I took this image. I didn’t screw up there.

On my Nikon D810 I have the option of having my camera automatically reset the exposure compensation back to 0 after I take my finger off of the shutter button for a short period of time. Doing that has worked great for me since I started using the D810 because when I pick the camera up to photograph a subject I always know where the EV is and can quickly assess the light and setting and make adjustments to the exposure compensation quickly on the fly.

When I saw this Red-tailed Hawk being pursued by the American Kestrel in an aerial dogfight I simply didn’t have enough time to make adjustments because they flew in so quickly that there wasn’t time to change a single setting before raised my lens & camera to photograph them and I know without a doubt that I would have increased my exposure for the lighting conditions that were present that day.

I brought the exposure up on this frame by 1.35 in Photoshop to show the talons of the small, feisty kestrel grabbing the head of the much larger and probably thoroughly annoyed red-tailed hawk.

I really wanted to cry when I saw that I had captured the intense defensive behavior of the kestrel and that I had missed creating a quality image because I wasn’t prepared. I’ve been kicking my rear end for not getting this shot for nearly two months now. It isn’t every day that I have the opportunity to photograph an American Kestrel attacking a Red-tailed Hawk in the air, in fact this would have been my best opportunity. Ever.

If only I hadn’t messed up.

Life is good.


See this addition for more information on why this shot was messed up:

I wish I would have mentioned the softness and the reasons for it when I wrote my post but I was rushing to get it done before going out shooting this morning.

I think if I had used +1.3 EV the exposure would have been better and if I would have had just a bit more time to focus on the birds that would have helped to, it is a challenge to photograph with low light, fog and falling snow, even though I have a lens that focuses fast it struggled that morning due to the conditions. I am also not sure the vehicle I was shooting from had completely stopped when I took this image. This all happened so quick though, I just didn’t have time to be better prepared.

Also, by increasing the exposure in post processing I have caused noise to appear which reduces the quality of this image that wouldn’t have been there had I used a better exposure.


Side note: Yesterday evening I was working on moving images from my old gallery to my new photo galleries and I messed up by opening the new post page for my blog instead of the new post page for the photo galleries and published an image of a tiny American Oystercatcher chick in my blog by accident. Many of my subscribers got the email for a new post and I apologize because I removed that post almost immediately. If you would like to see the image of the tiny American Oystercatcher chick please click here


  1. Sharon Constant February 9, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Fantastic “If only …” shot! I have my own painful “if only…” shot of a Kestrel diving, feet first (as if it thought it was an osprey) after an insect. I can’t bring myself to delete it and I’ve been crying over it for at least two years now. Yours is even more painful because it is such a great bit of drama…at least you were there to see it. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Mia McPherson February 10, 2016 at 5:33 am

      Sharon, I think we all have those “if only” shots and they do cause a lot of emotions! Don’t delete the image, you were there, you saw it and that image is still a great reminder of just how freaking awesome nature can be!

  2. Laura Culley February 9, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    People think that because of the Kestrel’s diminutive size they’re not strong or capable. Yeah, wrong answer. Thank you for playing 😀 That size thing is nothing more than an optical illusion! I’m a falconer flying a female Kestrel, and if things don’t go her way, there is bloodletting. It’s not unusual to see Kestrels dive bombing redtails (I also fly a female redtail and she’s been dive bombed a lot of times.). They are WAY bigger than they look and feisty, too. And thank you for posting this shot. Sometimes the image is more important than its photographic perfection!

    • Mia McPherson February 10, 2016 at 5:31 am

      Laura, thanks for sharing your insight and experiences into how tough the American Kestrels can be. I absolutely adore kestrels because they are so spunky.

  3. Mary McAvoy February 8, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    This is a great shot because it tells a story. It’s happening fast, it’s nature doing what nature does (and not in a studio under ideal lighting etc.), and the mystery of the wild is preserved. It looks to me as if the kestrel is trying to gouge out the eyes of the red-tailed hawk.
    I have a photos sequence (of worse quality) of a red-winged blackbird attacking a great blue heron. I also have a few shots of the red-winged blackbird attacking a red-tailed hawk. I’d argue that the male red-winged blackbird is the hit man! I gave him “father of the year” award on my blog one time. He’s fearless! Here’s the link to the series of images:

    • Mia McPherson February 10, 2016 at 5:30 am

      Mary, thanks so much for sharing your images of the Red-winged Blackbird attacking the Great Blue and the Red-tailed! I think both the kestrel and blackbird are hit men!

  4. Steve Rathnow February 8, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    Just curious–what was the eventual outcome of this skirmish, if you know.

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      Hi Steve, the kestrel let go of the red-tailed hawk’s head when they got a bit closer to me, the hawk flew southwest and the kestrel flew back to the east. Neither seemed worse for the wear!

  5. Elephant's Child February 8, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    You may have missed the shot – but you had the experience. Which will stay with you forever.

  6. Glen A. Fox February 8, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Thank you for preserving this shot and posting it. I’ve seen kestrels and merlins dive at and strike buteos but I would have never believed that they would actually attack and grab the head of the bigger bird. Pretty Fiesty!

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      Thanks Glen, I think kestrels are among the top of the feisty birds!

  7. Vicki Rogerson February 8, 2016 at 11:01 am

    At least you were a witness to this great drama, you have proof, and a good story! I feel your pain on the “missed great shot”, and as a an extremely amateur photographer I have a lot of that pain. 🙂

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      Vicki, I am so glad to have seen this even if I didn’t get a great shot. Nature is infinitely fascinating!

  8. Patty Chadwick February 8, 2016 at 10:15 am

    Those are certainly some solid-looking legs on that baby oyster catcher!

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      Thank you Patty! They sure do have sturdy legs.

  9. Patty Chadwick February 8, 2016 at 10:12 am

    WOW! What an event to capture, sharp or not! Those cute little assasins have no fear…and, boy, does this capture prove it…too bad about the sharpness issues, but kudos on the captured action!!!

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks Patty, it thought it was so funny to see the falcon’s talons wrapped around the red-tailed hawk’s head!

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks Patty, it thought it was so funny to see the falcon’s talons wrapped around the red-tailed hawk’s head!

  10. Sarah Mayhew February 8, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Oh, such a shame! Hate when that happens!!! It is always a crucial photo too! Still amazing! Glad you kept it as a memory. I would have done the same. I have never seen a Kestrel after a Red-tail. Last night I was photographing Harrier Hawks stealing voles from Short-eared Owls in mid air! As always, they were way too far away on private property! Frustrating! Keep on with the great work!

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      Sarah, photographing the harriers stealing voles from short-eared owls must have been a blast too! Thanks for your kind words.

  11. Jim Miller February 8, 2016 at 8:59 am

    Be sure you say it with a French accent; Patrick was from Belgium.

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:06 pm

      Can do, I took French in high school 😉

  12. Cindy February 8, 2016 at 9:55 am

    We all have “If only” moments, Mia. Fantastic image. I like to imagine the hawk is just hitching a ride on the Kestrel’s head. 🙂

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      Thanks Cindy, that made me smile.

  13. Bob McPherson February 8, 2016 at 6:42 am

    Great shot Mia, so its a little out of focus. it happens to everyone. please don’t beat yourself up over it. Think of the many many images you
    post that are just beautiful.

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      Thank you Bobby for your kind words

  14. Peter Kummerfeldt February 8, 2016 at 6:34 am

    Mia please excuse my photographic ignorance here. I’m new to the game. What was it that you didn’t do other than adjust the exposure compensation? It appears to me that it is a focusing issue in addition to a lighting problem. What am I missing>

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 2:01 pm

      Peter, please see the addition that I made to my post. It will explain the softness.

  15. Jim Miller February 8, 2016 at 6:02 am

    Mia, When I worked for car and motorcycle magazines back in the ’80s and ”90s, we sometimes used an outstanding racing photographer named Patrick Behar. His comment on such photos was always the same: “It was a great shot, but I missed it.”

    Looks like that’s what happened here.

    • Mia McPherson February 8, 2016 at 6:12 am

      Thanks Jim, I think I will borrow that saying the next time I miss such a great shot.

  16. Stephen leonard February 8, 2016 at 5:54 am

    If birds had a mafia, the Kestral would be the hit man…

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