ImageSpotlight: Red-shouldered Hawk

I love photographing birds of prey and right now, the red-shouldered hawks are wintering in the Rio Grande Valley. They are easily observable at the Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas but getting a great shot of one is slightly more difficult. Unlike photographing birds of prey on a private ranch, where the photographer can select the right perch with the right background and then bait them in with regular success, photographing one at a state park is quite challenging because setup photography is not a practice typically supported at state parks.

On this particular trip to Estero Llano Grande State Park, I had not set out to photograph hawks. I had returned in hopes of finding the Roseate Spoonbill that I had seen the week before. As luck would have it, I found the Roseate Spoonbill in the exact location and so I proceeded to get in position for those shots. Once satisfied I had the image I wanted, I slowly made my way along the boardwalk trying to photograph other ducks on the pond. Suddenly, a red-shouldered hawk caught my attention.

The red-shouldered hawk was perched on a metal post (not the most attractive perch) about 80 yards away. I didn’t think I would be able to get close but I slowly made my approach, snapping a few insurance shots along the way. Luckily, the hawk swooped off of that perch and landed on one of the signs identifying the name of the pond. While not a natural perch, it’s much nicer than a metal post and at eye-level, made for a nice scenic shot.

Red-shouldered Hawk: Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5 with 1.4x converter, ISO 400, f7.1, 1/800. Click on image for larger view.

To get this shot, I needed a little luck on my side but I also had to know how to make my approach. A fast paced walk to close the distance would have surely sent the hawk flying. Too slow an approach and I may not have closed the distance enough for the hawk to occupy enough of the frame. So, I took several vertical and horizontal images at my present distance, then I’d slowly ease forward 3-4 paces and again I’d take both vertical and horizontal images. I kept repeating this process (eventually closing the distance by a little more than half), observing whether the hawk was displaying any nervous tendencies. I often started my forward pace when the hawk’s head was turned away from me. I hoped to get a really nice takeoff image but as it turned out, the hawk decided to fly away while I was pacing forward. Oh well, I had at least one great image of a hawk that I had never photographed before so I was happy. Besides, now I have a reason to keep after these hawks while they are still here.

Until next time, keep shooting. –KEVIN

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