Thursday, September 18, 2014

First Encounter: Red-shouldered Hawk at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge

I typically try to capture and then share high-quality images from my encounters with wildlife. I do this with a hope to provide a new view (NeoVista) of nature to people so they develop a greater interest in and connection to nature. For this post I'm sharing images that are not the quality I typically prefer, but they do represent what was a high-quality experience for me--my first real encounter with a Red-shouldered Hawk.

I am a raptor fan. I wanted to fly like an eagle when I was a kid and to this day one of my simple pleasures and a real thrill is to watch a raptor fly and soar. I don't know how to describe it, but I am in awe of these birds doing what is so natural to them and impossible for me.

In January of this year I got my first glimpse of a Red-shouldered Hawk as I was driving down a southern California freeway. I knew what it was immediately because I had studied them in my books. However, the bird was gone by the time I managed to turn around on the freeway and get back to where it had just been perched.

This past weekend I was birding Nevada for my first time with Eric Peterson. We were driving through Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge when I caught a glimpse of a raptor rising from from some tall grass and into a tree about a quarter mile or more from the road on which we were driving. I don't like letting a raptor go without positively identifying it to a species. Eric and I parked and walked the distance to the tree to investigate the bird. The bird moved down the tree line and farther from us before we could locate it. Just as we were about to unknowingly approach its second perch it dove down from the tree and away from us. All I had was a split second view of its topside before it was out of my view and blocked by the trees between us. I saw in that instant a very speckled topside and immediately exclaimed, "Red-shouldered Hawk!" I ran to get a better view, but the bird had already begun to climb in altitude as it flew in some large circles. I knew getting good images was going to be a challenge because of distance and lighting, but I managed to get a decent view of the underside and a distant view of the top side. Both images revealed enough to capture the classic field marks of a soaring juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk. The first image shows the wings pushed slightly forward. Back lighting accentuated the white commas at the base of the primary feathers and the evenly spaced dark and light tail bands.

I played a little with the exposure on the image below highlight the top side field marks. The classic reddish shoulders and evenly banded tail can be seen. The wings are also pushed forward as it glides.

As I watched the hawk soar I noticed it move toward a small group of trees another quarter of a mile away. I was on a Red-shouldered Hawk high and decided to try for a closer view. I was able to capture one poor image of the bird perched in the shadow of and aspen before it decided to fly to a more distant location. The brown streaking on the head and neck, the speckled back and wings, as well as the banded tail can be seen.

I can't wait to get another, and hopefully, closer look at one of these hawks. I'm eager to go looking for them next time I'm in their known range.

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