My New Book


Weekend Of Red-tails

Sometimes, it’s fun to live in our neighborhood. Oh sure, there are noisy neighbors, but there are benefits. Twice in the last week I have seen Sir Ian McKellen, once behind me line at the grocery store and tonight on our way to the movie theater (he’s in town performing King Lear at the Guthrie). I didn’t say anything at the grocery store, but tonight when I pointed him out to Non Birding Bill, he went over, greeted him and told him how much he enjoyed his work as an actor. He was really, really nice and very gracious. Can I say how much I enjoy just picking him out in the streets among all the other people? It’s like finding a Ross’s goose mixed in with a bunch of snow geese.

On to hawk banding!

Here’s the man who makes my weekends of hawk banding possible–Frank Taylor! One of the coolest guys I know and the man who taught me to handle birds of prey and to give an entertaining yet informative program.

Well, it was a weekend chock full of red-tiled hawks at the banding station (that’s a passage or first year red-tailed hawk in the above photo). On Saturday we got 7 birds (1 northern goshawk and 6 red-tailed hawks) and on Sunday we got 8 birds on (1 sharp-shinned hawk, 1 northern goshawk and 6 red-tailed hawks).

I think of all the birding things I do throughout the year, hawk banding is my favorite. I love everything about it, the fall foliage, the layers of cold to ward of the chill in the air, the waxy chocolate donuts we eat in the blind, watching the birds fly in, picking our raptors from the specks flying away.

We got to see some other wildlife besides raptors. We heard the crows going berserk on the other side of the field. Eventually, a coyote came into view. Rick Dupont got the above photo. They coyote kept coming closer and closer. Every time someone’s camera beeped, the coyote would look right at us. Even with the wind blew and they coyote turned to sniff, if a camera beeped, it looked towards the blind. The coyote kept on its merry way and disappeared and suddenly as it appeared, followed by some noisy crows.

We even had a lone raven meander towards the blind. We watched this bird for the better part of Saturday morning, walking along through the grass snatching up lethargic grasshoppers. Periodically, the raven would hunker in the grass and sleep. After awhile, the raven would resume hunting grasshoppers. It worked its way closer and closer to the blind, oblivious to the many red-tails zooming over head, the half dozen people popping out of the blind, and even the noisy goshawk. When I watched it through my scope, it blinked both eyes in quick succession and not always at the same time. I’ve seen birds with West Nile Virus do this and wondered if that had struck this raven. The bird would let people get within 10 feet of it and then would fly. It had an ample food source and was wise enough to evade humans, so we didn’t make too much effort to catch it.

There were also quite a few horned larks lurking in the grass. It was fun to watch them disappear and then reappear. A couple of northern shrikes hunting in the field would try to separate one of the larks to catch it, but to no avail, the larks were too fast. Another bird that hung out near the blind was a boreal chickadee. A small flock of black-caps flew in and one of them sounded a little nasally–instead of chickadee dee dee it was more of a chickashneeee. It hung out low in the trees and I got one of my best looks at one (alas, I didn’t have the digiscoping equipment set up).

Even though we had almost all red-tailed hawks come in, each one had an interesting story. Like this bird. It was in haggard (adult) plumage, complete with red-tail (although the eyes were kind of half passage, half haggard). Note the blood mustache over the bill–this bird had eaten fairly recently. However, it did one of the most powerful dives into the nets I had ever seen. We actually almost missed this bird coming in. We were kind of chit chatting, someone had asked me a binocular question and looked out the blind window and said, “Well, 8×42′s are good GASP…” and most everyone else saw it at the same time straight ahead, wings tucked, the bird going over 60 miles straight for the pigeon.

The red-tail blasted through the front net so fast and so hard it went all the way into the back net! Frank and Rick had to get the hawk out of two nets! Rick, ever the master yanker, did manage to pull the pigeon out of the way before the hawk nailed it. I did get to thinking though–if the nets hadn’t been there, and this hawk was hunting the pigeon, it would have hit the prey so hard it would have blasted right into the woods. It would have rolled and tumbled and maybe slammed into a tree. That bird was intense. It wasn’t skinny either, it had been eating well.

It’s always interesting to see the differences in adults and young birds when you have the up close. Even without seeing the tail, you can know this is a young bird by how yellow the eyes are. Red-tailed hawk eyes get darker as they get older. So, above is passage red-tail…

and here is a haggard bird–look at how dark brown those eyes are! Speaking eyes, one of Frank’s sub banders was up the whole week banding hawks and found an interesting one:

Chuck Schotzko got in this one eyed red-tailed hawk. Look at that, the whole entire eye ball is missing from the socket! Chuck is a medical doctor and guess with how dried out and healed up the injury is that this happened long ago, perhaps even when the bird was young. He speculated that this happened with the bird was young, even in the nest. It would be much easier for a young bird to learn to hunt with only one eye, than for an adult to suddenly lose an eye after hunting for years with two. Regardless, the bird was very chunky, the tissue around the keel was very plump–this bird had been eating well. If it can fly and is a good weight, there’s no need to take it some place like The Raptor Center, this bird is doing just fine on its own.

Here you can see clear back into the empty eye socket. This really makes me wonder about birds in wildlife rehab facilities with only one eye that are turned into education birds or euthanized. This is the second red-tail we’ve gotten into the nets with vision in only one eye that was fat and sassy. Birds always remind me that they are more resilient than we give them credit for.

On Saturday night, I slept in Frank’s van. He has a cot set up inside, so all I had to do was unroll my sleeping bag. I brought a pillow and stuck some hand warmers in the bottom to keep my toe warm. The stars crowded the skies and I was tucked warmly inside my sleeping bag and watched the sky. I was only disturbed once when someone drove slowly by shining a very bright flash light (I assume looking for deer). I set my iPod and iMainGo speaker to alarm so that I would wake up the next morning to the sound of bobolinks. I met Frank and his wife Trudi in their cozy trailer for hot chocolate and donuts, then it was off to more banding. It is nice to stay in hotels, but I have to say that I’m glad that I still have it in me to sleep in a van and use the woods for a restroom all for a cool birding experience!

This is one of the many red-tails we got in on Sunday, note the blood stains on the breast? This bird totally punk’d me! We were watching it in the distance and it hovered, it held its wings in a v-shape, the wings looked longish–I called it a rough-legged hawk. Until it flew into the nets and showed itself to be a juvenile red-tail. Later on, I tried to turn a kestrel into a merlin–I was having an off identification day. Maybe sleeping in a van dulls my bird id skills. Ah well, happens to all of us.

I did find a red squirrel lurking in the trees. It was surprisingly quiet. I suppose it noticed all the hawks flying in and decided that hunkering down and eating would be a sensible tactic instead of chirping and drawing attention to itself.

After we banded and released one of the many red-tailed hawks that came into the nets, it landed in the top of a spruce. As I set up my digiscoping equipment, it started to take off and I got this photo. But my favorite photos to get are the ones of me laying on the ground while people release the birds:

Like this…

Or this…

And this…

This was a little boy who got to release a red-tail. Since he was a tad short, I opted to take his photo from the side. The last thing I want is a face full of red-tailed hawk. He did a great job doing the release–that’s a lot of bird for young boy.

I love this photo, that little boy looks like he’s about to go into the sky along with the red-tail!

18 comments to Weekend Of Red-tails

  • archi's mum

    speechless – cool – amazing – you have an awesome life – i wish i could come up with more descriptive adjectives to explain how much i enjoyed this post and was able to put myself a little there in the way you described and photo’d the trip. thanks for sharing.

    and yeah, the 1 eyed hawk… i think we could learn a TON from animals that do so well with “handicaps.” every day archi ann, with her splayed front legs and useless left front leg teaches me tons about resilience and determination.

    great post!

  • Anne

    Man, I <3 raptors. Every time you post pictures of hawk banding, jealous goes through me so hard. I would love to be a part of that one day.

    Okay, bird question. In the pictures of the red tailed hawks, their tongues are shaped sort of like calla lilies with a sort of “shelf” at the end, is there a reason for this/does this shape hold a purpose? Do all raptors have tongues like that?

  • spacedlaw

    That squirrel is looking – understandably – stressed.

    Beautiful pictures as usual.

  • dintoons

    amazing amazing photos!!! :O

  • KatDoc

    Terrific stuff! Thanks to your pictures and descriptions, I am getting better at hawk ID. In fact, when I saw the first photo, of Frank, I thought, “Hmmm, passage Red-tailed” and I was RIGHT. Yay!

    It is nice to hear that even the experts like you get fooled by a bird now and then. Birds keep us on our toes, don’t they?

    But, my favorite photo is the last one, of the young boy releasing the hawk. I think it is so important to be sure that today’s kids have a connection to nature, instead of all the “bliny-blinky” games they have their noses poked into these days.

    Birdchick, you are my hero!

    ~Kathi, whose verification word is “ojersy” Just a reminder that I can’t go to Cape May, boo-hoo

  • Peggy

    Good release photos!

    It’s not everyday you get Gandalf behind you at the supermarket.

  • lisa

    I am learning so much about birds from your blog. (…actually all about the birds and bees… hehe… anyway…)I think the raptors are my favorites.

    I love that very last photo. It’s a really good capture. It does look like both bird and boy are taking flight together. It’s beautiful.

  • birdchick


    I’m so glad you asked about the red-tail mouth! I should have mentioned it in the blog entry.

    The back of the tongue has two kind of horn shapes and what that does is help guide chunks of meat back when they swallow. Right behind the tongue is a hole leading to the trachea so it’s important to have those horns on the tongue to keep food moving swiftly over the trachea so they can breath.

    One thing you have to watch when taking them out of the nets is that the net doesn’t get behind those horns and cut the tongue as you are taking them out.

    Kat Doc

    I’m blushing!

  • dguzman

    Wow wow wow. That first d-scoped pic of the bird flapping its wings at the top of the tree is amazing–well, all the pics are amazing! That’s so cool, roughing it out there and working with the hawks. What a life. AND you saw Gandalf in the grocery store! Amazing.

  • Lynne

    Very, very cool post Sharon!

  • Jacci

    A Ross’s Goose mixed in with a bunch of Snow Geese…..I looked….I laughed out loud and started my morning off with a smile! Thanks

    Don’t you feel a bit like a modern day Audubon living out in the “wilds” and recording your bird encounters. Your pencil and paper tho is digital….but you still are using those images to teach.

    Way to go Birdchick.

    Jacci in S. P. Maine

  • Sharon

    I think I’m going to have to come hang out in your neighborhood. I’d LOVE to meet Sir Ian McKellen (and Moose would too, although he’s about to get shipped to Antarctica in the next few days…)
    ~other Sharon

  • Mary

    Wonderful wonderful post Sharon. The pictures are awesome as usual, but my favorite part is you sleeping in the van and being happy that you’re still willing to do stuff like that in order to have more birding experiences. Clearly you know how to feed your soul, and it’s so great to see someone who isn’t afraid to go for it.

    (I’m also annoyed with myself a wee bit. Hawk Ridge is only a 3 hour drive, so why do I only get there every few years?)

  • Susan Gets Native

    I just would have peed down my leg if I ever saw Ian McKellen in person. I love him. “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

    I’m intrigued by the one-eyed RT. I don’t know if we have ever released a young hawk with one eye, but we have recently released two screech owls with distorted pupils. They passed multiple live-prey tests with flying colors! (They were first-years) I’m going to forward this post to our Director. She will be interested!

  • Laura Erickson

    Oh my gosh! Ian McKellen!!!!!! What I would have given to see him performing in my favorite play–King Lear! Or even just to stand near him in a grocery store! I think I’d keel over dead if I could get a photo of him holding my book!

  • birdchick

    You know, not that I didn’t get little geeky around Sir Ian, but I’m just so proud that I have not shouted “Gandaaaaalf!!” or requested that he tell me that I shall not pass or tell him I support mutant rights…

    I think when an actor has a Sir in front of their name it forces you to mind your Ps and Qs a bit more.

  • Patrick Belardo

    Ok, I need to go watch “Fellowship” for the 3000th or so time…

    Last week, I saw a PBS special about a teacher who has his 5th graders do Shakespeare plays. Sir Ian visits the class each year. He was really cool and seemed extremely genuine.

    The hawks are cool too.

  • Stacy

    Absolutely amazing! You are a wonder to behold in posting this for all who may not otherwise be able to ever see this kind of wildlife.

    I am ashamed to admit however, that I must keep kleenex next to my computer when I’m looking at your blog. Every single time I see RT’s my eyes go all wonky! Jeez I’m a sap!

    I never imagined that just ordinary folks with hearts as large as Irish fields would be allowed to help. I’m going to call the nearest center to me (we are very close to RT territories) and see if they need help!

    Thank you for your inspiration!