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A Hawk for Dinner

Making a good photograph can be a combination of luck and preparation.

March 25, 2017 Birds

A nature drama played out in our neighborhood late this afternoon. An adolescent Cooper's hawk caught a red squirrel in our backyard near the bird feeders. Then it stayed on a broad branch of a nearby maple for an hour as it ate its prey. At one point, some crows flew through the treetops. The young hawk fanned its wings and tail feathers to shield its catch from their view. As the late-afternoon light failed, it took the remains toward the nearby city park along the river.

An adolescent Cooper's hawk hides its catch from passing crows.

An adolescent Cooper's hawk shields its prey from passing crows.

A Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is a small raptor that has become well-adapted to city and suburban life. It is suited for hunting songbirds and small mammals in parks and wooded communities. It's comfortable in close proximity to people and will routinely cruise through backyards while is hunts for birds around bird feeders or for small animals like squirrels and chipmunks.

An adult Cooper's hawk may eat 12 percent of its body weight in one day. That's like a grown man eating about 25 pounds of food in a day -- say 10 or 12 large pizzas. Though the hawk is not likely that successful each day, the meat from a red squirrel can fuel it for a couple of days.

It can be easily confused with its smaller cousin, the Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus). I believed it was a Sharp-shinned at first. But after digging through several field guides and bird books, I decided it was a Cooper's. Besides its somewhat larger size, its rounded, white-tipped tail, and its banded breast feathers, the fact that it had caught a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) cinched the identification.

The Sharp-shinned hawk is a few inches shorter from head to tail, but has almost-identical plumage. Its tail is shorter in comparison to its body, is squarer and has a narrower white band at the tip. And it rarely hunts small mammals. It's broad, short wings allow it to crash through brush and densely-branched trees as it chases song birds. Just like the Cooper's hawk. The surest way to tell them apart is to see them side by side. That only happens in the field guides about birds.

I have a fickle relationship with this Cooper's hawk. It sweeps through our back yard weekly in search of birds around our sunflower-seed feeders. I've seen it swoop toward roosting birds and chase them like a shot. I've watched it waiting for smaller birds to emerge from hiding in evergreen shrubs -- when they don't, it dives into the boughs and flushes them out.

When the young Cooper's hawk nails a mourning dove, a house finch or a house sparrow, I cheer for it. When it takes a beloved cardinal or a chipmunk, I curse it. And today, when it snatched and dispatched a small red squirrel, I watched with fascination. Having a hawk here for dinner was a gift from Nature.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Birds)

SUBJECT: Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) with a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).

CONDITIONS: Clear, light breeze, about 40 degrees F.

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D810, 500mm f/4, 2X teleconverter, tripod, ball head, cable release. Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, Auto focus, Continuous High shutter release mode.

EXPOSURE: 1/250 sec @ f/8, ISO 1,000

TECHNIQUE: Making this photograph hinged on the alertness of friends. While I was making dinner as my wife drove home, I got a phone call from our neighbors across the street. They told me there was hawk in the maple at the end of their long driveway. They spotted it as they drove under the branch where the hawk was perched. Now they and their three young daughters were looking at it from their back porch.

After a quick look out a front window at the hawk with my bird-watching binoculars, I grabbed my camera gear and went out onto the front lawn. Our yard is higher than the street. With the long telephoto lens and this added elevation, I gained the perspective of looking at the bird at its eye level instead of looking up at it from the ground. Now I felt like I was in its world.

The long, heavy lens coupled with the 2X teleconverter required I use a sturdy tripod and ball head. I framed a pleasing composition, focused on the hawk and clicked a frame. I checked the histogram and adjusted the exposure.

Next, I tightened the ball head release knob, moved the auto focus' focusing points to the hawk's shoulder and head, and with my thumb, I depressed the Auto Focus back button (marked "AF-ON" on the back of the camera body). Pressing it engages the auto-focus function; releasing the button locks the focus. It's handy for a subject at rest or for tracking one on the move. I have this Custom Function setting selected on all of my cameras.

I was hoping the hawk would stay long enough for me to get some good images of it in action. As I got more attentive to the hawk's movements, I selected Continuous High for the shutter's Release Mode. Now when I clicked the shutter button, I would make a series of images in short, quick bursts, so I could get multiple photos of a good pose. Through the viewfinder, I saw there might be some vibration happening. So since the hawk wasn't changing its position on the branch, I opted to attach the electronic cable release. This let me take my finger off of the shutter button which could create vibrations. I wouldn't do this for most wildlife photography, but in this situation for a subject that wasn't moving much, it helped.

After a while, the hawk did change positions and so did I. I moved across the street to look at it head on. The images were more graphic with flesh, blood and bone exposed. That was part of the story, too. You can see a few of those additional photos in the Recent Work gallery.

This remarkable experience was unexpected. And it reminded me about the combination of being lucky and being prepared. For me, luck usually includes unequal measures of attention to what's going on around me and hanging around in a good location. And preparation includes having the right equipment for the scene or subject that surprises me and a comfortable knowledge of how to use that gear quickly. In this situation, the luck was that my friends were aware of what was happening and they shared it with me. The preparation was having my gear near at hand.

If I could have changed one thing, I'd have used my D4S camera body instead of the D810. Though the D810 yields more megapixels per image, it doesn't handle higher ISOs as well as the D4S. I'd like not to shoot higher than ISO 640 with the D810 where the D4S works well up to ISO 3200. But the D810 was the camera closest at hand, so it was the best choice for a subject I expected would depart at any moment. As a friend says, it's better to get any photograph of Bigfoot than no photo at all. Lucky for me the photographs were sharp enough and I was the only hungry, hairy creature in the neighborhood.

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