Pair of Red-tailed Hawks Mating – A Wild 34 Seconds

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Female Red-tailed Hawk leaving the nestFemale Red-tailed Hawk leaving the nest – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 500, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

The light yesterday was beautiful, there was a slight breeze, the morning temps were cool and I just had to be outside in it. There were a few thin clouds to the east but they were thin enough that they didn’t interfere with the light. I was hoping to find some Short-eared Owls courting but only saw two in flight.

What my keen eyes did find was a pair of Red-tailed Hawks at an old nest site in northern Utah. What caught my eyes was movement in the nest and new nesting material that hadn’t been there before.

Then one of the hawks flew off of the nest and landed nearby on a rocky outcropping covered in lichen.

Male Red-tailed Hawk flying towards the femaleMale Red-tailed Hawk flying towards the female – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

What I didn’t expect yesterday was that I would be able to photograph the Red-tailed Hawks mating on the lichen-covered outcropping but that is what happened very quickly after turning around to get better light on the nest.

This image isn’t the best of the photos in a technical sense but when the male flew in towards the female his body and wings lined up in such a way that it looked like one oddly formed hawk instead of two individuals.

It also shows fine barring on the rectrices (tail feathers) of the male.

Male Red-tailed Hawk about to mount the femaleMale Red-tailed Hawk about to mount the female – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

This photo shows the female in a receptive posture and the male landing on her back. It also shows that the female lacks the fine barring on her tail that the male has on his. Both hawks show one thick terminal band on their tails.

Male Red-tailed Hawk mounting the femaleMale Red-tailed Hawk mounting the female – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

This image shows when the male mounted the female. Note that the male has his talons on the female’s back and although it is hard to see at this size his talons are curled up tight into a “fist”, I assume he does that so he doesn’t hurt the female.

Mating Red-tailed Hawks in Box Elder CountyMating Red-tailed Hawks in Box Elder County – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

After the male mounted the female stayed in her crouched position with the male above her.

Male Red-tailed Hawk calling while matingMale Red-tailed Hawk calling while mating – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

I could hear the male calling while he mated with the female however to my ears it was not the call we all recognize when a Red-tailed Hawk is in flight, perched or calling to another bird. I wish I could have recorded the call but my focus is on images rather than recording sounds. I looked on the net to see if there were any recorded mating calls but did not find any to share.

Red-tailed Hawks mating on a rocky outcroppingRed-tailed Hawks mating on a rocky outcropping – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

During this mating session the female seemed to use her left wing to help balance the male’s weight or activity by dropping that wing low enough to touch the rocky outcropping. I can’t say for certain that is why she lowered that wing but that wing was in that position until they finished mating.

In this photo the male’s tail is just above the female’s tail and we can only see the underside of his and the top of her tail.

Red-tailed Hawks copulatingRed-tailed Hawks copulating – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

In this photo the female’s tail looks like it belongs on the male, it can be seen where his right wing meets his chest above her back. The male’s tail is now just below the female’s right wing and rump.

Pair of Red-tailed Hawks mating on lichen covered rocksPair of Red-tailed Hawks mating on lichen covered rocks – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

I have to say I was very pleased with my Nikon D500 while photographing this mating session because there was never a time when I felt my camera buffer was filling even though I was firing in one long, high speed burst. It is so nice to not worry about my buffer filling like I used to with my older camera bodies.

I took over 200 images of these hawks mating in two long bursts. I only stopped firing the shutter briefly to refocus once. I love the Nikon D500 for bird photography.

FYI, I use a Lexar Professional 64 GB XQD 2933x memory card, it is blazing fast for reading/writing and if you can use an XQD card in your camera I highly recommend getting them. Last week I forgot my XQD card in the card reader at home while out shooting and I only had the SD card inserted in my D500, I did notice my buffer filling with the SD card while shooting a burst that day and have never noticed that in the field with my XQD card. I remember missing some pretty fantastic shots in the past because of my camera buffer filling.

Red-tailed Hawk pair on the rocksRed-tailed Hawk pair on the rocks – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

Okay, back to the mating Red-tailed Hawks. Sorry there are so many images in this post but I felt they were needed to tell the story with pictures.

Copulating Red-tailed Hawk pairCopulating Red-tailed Hawk pair – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

While copulating the male held his wings in many positions, I liked this photo because his wings are slightly spread and it also shows a view of his talons all curled up.

Red-tailed Hawk mating behaviorRed-tailed Hawk mating behavior – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

I liked this photo because it shows the female’s tail fanned out above her back while the male’s tail seems to have disappeared but it is actually behind the female’s body and her dropped left wing and can’t be seen. He may have been using his tail at this point to maintain his balance.

Red-tailed Hawks on the rocksRed-tailed Hawks on the rocks – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

By this frame the male had been mating with the female for just about 30 seconds and I wondered if he was getting tired or how much longer this would go on. I have photographed wild mating Red-tailed Hawks before on the top of a juniper and it did not last this long. Maybe that was because the juniper was not as steady of a perch as this rocky outcropping.

Red-tailed Hawk male beginning to dismountRed-tailed Hawk male beginning to dismount – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

By the time I took this photo I could tell that the male was beginning to dismount from the female.

Red-tailed Hawks after matingRed-tailed Hawks after mating – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

And sure enough he did move away from the female who had her tail stuck straight up in the air when they were done mating. The duration of this mating session from the time the male flew into to the female was a wild 34 seconds.

I don’t often get to photograph birds mating and it is always exciting when it happens. Photographing these Red-tailed Hawks mating yesterday was awesome.

Life is good.

Mia

I will not give out the location of this nest, please don’t ask me. It is near a road that has plenty of traffic and the hawks are acclimated to to the presence of both fast and slow moving vehicles. We stayed well away from the nest.

16 Comments

  1. Utahbooklover March 31, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    Almost missed seeing this interesting series but so glad I didn’t. Fantastic indeed !

  2. Mia McPherson March 31, 2017 at 10:36 am

    Thank you all for your wonderful and much appreciated comments.

  3. Humming bird lover March 31, 2017 at 7:31 am

    Hi! sweetie! What a wonderful lesson today!! Your photo’s and info are beyond some peoples knowledge! Great job! Love mom

  4. Pepe Forte March 30, 2017 at 11:44 pm

    Absolutely stunning pics and your narrative is extraordinary! Thanks.

  5. Elephants Child March 30, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    An amazing privilege. Thank you for sharing it. And thank you also for giving me a work around to the commenting debacle.

    • Mia McPherson March 30, 2017 at 3:05 pm

      My pleasure EC, hopefully by the next WordPress core update they will have the apostrophe bug worked out.

      • Elephants Child March 30, 2017 at 3:14 pm

        I hope so. It is very weird that it doesn’t affect all WP blogs equally though. On some I can comment apostrophe and all.

  6. Antoinette von Grone March 30, 2017 at 10:15 am

    You are the bird whisperer. What amazing “luck” to be there at the right time, with the right light and appropriate distance. Really fantastic. Thank you.

  7. Patty Chadwick March 30, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Great series!–especially interesting with the comments…very informative. Am now hoping that this pair is successful at raising a healthy family…

  8. Heather March 30, 2017 at 9:22 am

    These are absolutely awesome. The gods were in your favour. The light, the subject, the camera, the poses and everything in focus. Awesome. I appreciate you share the number of pictures you did and the explanations. Really gave a full picture of the events. Love your photography Mia

  9. Bob McPherson March 30, 2017 at 8:46 am

    A Wonderful story of nature, Very well told. Excellent work, Mia. The bar you set is very high.

  10. Laila Quick March 30, 2017 at 8:45 am

    Absolutely incredible!! If I can’t see the action in real life, these beautiful shots will suffice just fine! Thank you for your wonderful work!!

  11. Kim March 30, 2017 at 7:47 am

    Love these!

  12. Ian Holland March 30, 2017 at 7:21 am

    Fantastic!

  13. Esther March 30, 2017 at 7:17 am

    Great series of captures. Congratulations!

  14. Liz Cormack March 30, 2017 at 7:00 am

    Wonderful mating shots!

Comments are closed.