I was trying to take pictures of bumblebees on a ceanothus bush when two women who had chatted with me about that project moments earlier called out from some distance down the path and pointed into the bushes. A big bird! they said. And it was. Dark brown on its neck and back, it squatted on a low branch that bent under its weight. While I was fumbling to reset my camera from bumblebee (manual focus, macro, shutter speed priority, burst) to big bird of prey (auto focus, tele, program priority, single shot), the subject flew off. Luckily my companions saw it and spotted its new resting place about halfway up the hill toward the northern edge of the dog area.
I set off in pursuit and got a backlit shot from below that was not a very good photograph but turned out to be critical to the bird’s ID. I continued up the hill to get the sun behind me, and after an encounter with a dog owner whose yapping nuisance delayed me setting up my tripod, I managed to get a good position. This was an impressive bird, and I wasn’t at all sure what it was until I got home and looked at the images next to pictures on the Cornell bird lab website.
At first I thought this was a Golden Eagle. It had the brown back and the kind of golden (or auburn) sheen around the neck and the back of the head. Then I thought, Red-shouldered Hawk. They’re very similar from behind and from the side, sitting on a perch. What I really needed was a picture of the underparts. Here my backlit shots, once boosted in photo editing with fill light, showed a streaked and patched white belly. Nope, not a Golden Eagle. Not a Red-shouldered Hawk. They both are brown underneath.
This has to be a Red-tailed Hawk. They have that light belly. Further confirmation came when I freeze-framed the video at the instant when the bird took off from its perch. You can make out the rusty-red tail and the broad white area under the wings. Thes hawks are not quite as big as eagles, but plenty big. I’d seen others in and near the park, but this was the biggest by far. After I’d taken all the stills and video that I wanted, the bird leaped off its perch and took off, very low, out of sight.
These birds are easily big enough to snack on ground squirrels, and a nesting pair of these predators would do much to balance the squirrel population. However, the park has very few trees of the height where these birds are likely to build a nest. Until that changes, raptors like this one will just be visitors.