Dominator

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) Photo Phil Rowntree
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) Photo Phil Rowntree
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) Photo Phil Rowntree
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) Photo Phil Rowntree

When a Red-tailed Hawk, particularly a female, makes an appearance in the park, it’s hard to miss it. This bird dominates like no other local feathered species. Having no predators to fear, it operates in the open. It needs no camouflage. It chooses a high perch and waits. Its crystal-clear vision, sharper by many degrees than any human’s, spots the slightest stirring below, and in a swift, silent dive, it descends on its prey with open talons extended.

This hawk is the only local daytime raptor big enough to hunt and kill Ground Squirrels, and has been filmed in the act. (See “Red-tails Revenge,” Nov. 9 2021.) Barn owls, when they are here, are capable of hunting squirrels, but these owls hunt mostly at night, when squirrels are underground. Seeing a Barn Owl in daytime is exceptional. (See “Daylight Surprise,” Oct. 9 2021.) I have seen no evidence of a squirrel falling prey to these fearsome nocturnal raptors.

Red-tail populations across North America are said to be stable or even increasing. The bird shows considerable diversity in coloration and great adaptability to different habitats. Some have been seen to nest in cities. Both sexes have similar feathering, but females are about 20 percent bigger and heavier than males.

This individual looks to be a juvenile, judging by the pale yellow color of its iris; in older birds it is brown.

They are known to breed in Northern California, and the park offers the kind of mixed high/low habitat that they prefer for foraging, but I’m doubtful that they’re nesting here. Their nests tend to be big, messy affairs, two to three feet in diameter, in the crown of the tallest trees. This is the time of year when they’d be doing the construction, and we’d likely see birds flying with sticks in their talons. Neither I nor other photographers active in the park have seen that behavior.

Although these birds have no feral predator, they are subject to annoying attacks by swarms of crows. (See “Crows v. Hawk,” Feb. 17 2020.) Those two species don’t compete for food, but the crows claim a monopoly over the territory and don’t want birds bigger than themselves breeding here.

I’ve also seen a White-tailed Kite buzz at a red-tail, presumably to drive it out. (See “Raptor Ruckus,” Mar. 2 2019.) The kite feeds primarily on voles for dinner, and the red-tail competes for that prey, even though it’s only a snack. Bottom line, there are factors about the park environment that might make Red-tailed Hawks look for a different nesting neighborhood.

This individual is not banded. It’s a different bird from the one that appeared late last fall, carrying metal and plastic identifying bracelets on its ankles. (See “Banded Hunter,” Oct. 14 2021.)

Photographer Phil Rowntree, who captured these images, has had earlier successes with red-tails in the park. Earlier this year, he got a great photo of a red-tail with its wings extended, (“Two on Fence,” Jan. 25 2022), and last fall he snapped a hilarious pic of a Ground Squirrel seeming to chase a red-tail away (“Crazy Squirrel,” Oct.15 2021). He also got the first image of the banded red-tail (“Supervisor,” Oct. 8 2021). The sequence showing crows attacking a hawk (“Crows v. Hawk,” Feb. 17 2020) is also Phil’s. Phil’s first Red-tailed Hawk photo ran here in 2018, “Red-tailed Hawk by Phil Rowntree,” Dec. 10 2018. Not to mention Phil’s photographs of other species, see them all here.

I’ll have more photos and short videos of a Red-tailed Hawk in the park very shortly. As I said, when the bird is here, it’s hard to miss it.

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2 thoughts on “Dominator

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  • March 14, 2022 at 7:11 pm
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    Spectacular photos, Phil! What a gift to see them! Thank you.

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