Red-tailed Hawk Chick Making A Hazardous Return To Its Nest

One of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had with raptors was watching this youngster try to figure out how to safely return to its nest on the side of a cliff.

I’ll be referring to it as a chick because it still hadn’t fully fledged.

 

1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This is almost certainly the oldest of the three chicks from a nest on the side of a cliff (for the sake of convenience I’ll refer to it as a male although I don’t know its sex). Until that morning I’d never seen any of the chicks off of the rock ledge the nest is on but when I arrived on site (only two days after my last visit) this one had been exploring and I found him on a point of rocks high above and to the left of the nest on a ledge below. I’m sure he mostly climbed to get up to where he was.

At this point I suspect he was already trying to figure out how in the hell he was ever going to safely get back down to the nest as he peered straight down into the abyss below him (the actual nest is a little further to our right).

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

After contemplating his precarious situation for some time he limbered up with a pretty little wing stretch before he attempted his first obstacle, which was to…

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

jump the gap between the outcropping he was on and the top of the cliff almost directly above the nest.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

He flailed through the air a little as he went but he…

 

 

1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

did make a successful landing (this image is a little soft but I decided to include it anyway).

I’m quite certain that at this point he has still never made a powered flight over the wild blue yonder (so officially he hasn’t fledged yet) and this span of a few feet was probably quite intimidating to him. Gutsy little guy!

 

 

1/1000, f/9, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 400mm, not baited, set up or called in

This image taken with another camera shows where he’s come from and how far he still has to go. His destination is the nest at lower right. One of his siblings is at center bottom and the other one who has also been exploring, though much more cautiously, is somewhere in the deep shadows of the cliff.

The problem is once he moves further to our right it will be almost a sheer drop down to the nest and this bird hasn’t fully fledged yet so he hasn’t really learned to fly. He’s probably just realized what many human hikers and rock climbers eventually discover – it’s usually much easier (and safer) to go up than it is to go back down.

 

 

1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

He maneuvered as close as he dared to the edge of the sheer drop to the nest below and then began to tentatively test his wings to see how they might help accomplish whatever might be necessary to safely get down to the nest. He was holding on with his feet and talons as best he could but he was slipping and sliding down the rock all the same.

 

 

1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

At this point he’d committed himself, gravity took over and he had to just go with the flow and see what happened.

 

 

1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

He instinctively turned sideways as he fell, probably at least in part to make it less likely that he would “glide” too far away from the cliff face, miss the nest, and fall much further than he intended to. It’s definitely a long ways down if he misses the ledge the nest is on.

 

 

1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I was impressed when even at this young age he “knew” to drastically rotate his tail so that air flow would keep him close to the cliff face as he fell (this is the image I posted on yesterday’s “teaser post”).

And from there he simply…

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

parachuted down to the nest…

 

 

1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

where he landed with a plop.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Mission accomplished! (I’ve avoided using that phrase since May 1, 2003 but it seemed appropriate here). And his slightly younger sibling watched the entire performance so perhaps “she” learned something of value for when her turn comes.

All I can say is that this little drama was damned fun to watch!

Ron

 

PS – Yesterday quite a few readers made a stab at guessing what this hawk was doing when I posted one of these images on my blog as a “teaser”. April Olson pretty much nailed it (Chris Sanborn and Dick Harlow came close) when she said in her comment:

  • “my guess from the coloration is it is a juvenile who has been practicing flying and hopping around and was higher in the rocks. It decided to head back down toward the nest perhaps a parent brought in food”.

And later in her comment April also nailed something else when she said: “If it is from the nest you have been watching it sure grew fast!” I include the following image as further evidence of April’s observational and deductive skills.

 

 

1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

In this photo of one of the parents bringing in a duckling (I first posted it on June 25) the scruffy-looking chick on the right is the same chick as I’ve featured on today’s post. I’m sure of that because in both cases it was quite obvious that it was the oldest and most independent of the three youngsters. And this image was taken only two days before the rest of the images in this post!

I was flabbergasted by how incredibly fast he had matured in that very short time.

 

 

77 comments to Red-tailed Hawk Chick Making A Hazardous Return To Its Nest

  • Cindy

    What a delightful tale with a happy ending. Thank you for sharing!

  • Tim

    How can anyone not love Red Tails or Raptors in general?! These are incredible images Ron…..great work!

    Tim

  • John Sherrill

    Cool! New category of competition . Raptor long jumping.Johyn

  • Nikonsteve

    Since I’m arriving late…it seems everything that could be said has been…so I’ll just say that I agree with it all..one of (actually two) of your best ever! Thank you, Ron

  • Alice Beckcom

    This must be a very intelligent bird to do what it did. His every move seemed to be calculated. We are so lucky that you captured all of these moves and continued to narrate the suspense with each photo. I’m glad this story has a happy ending.

    I am sure that putting this series took a lot of time and thought. Thank you always for what you do for your lucky admirers!!

    • Yes, it was a lot of work but it was fun and rewarding too, Alice. I’ve always learned a lot while “preparing lessons” over the years! 🙂

  • Marty K

    This is too cool, Ron! I totally understand why yesterday was “just” a teaser. I can’t even begin to imagine all the time and effort that went into setting up this post. THANK YOU!!! 😀

    So great to see a successful experiment by this young bird. You’re right about how quickly they’ve changed and matured. Wow!

    I’m also finding myself wanting to add thought bubbles to some of the pictures, as I see a kindred spirit. I’ve spent a lot of time sliding down mountains on my tush — either intentionally or not so much. You’re right: up is much, much easier!

    • Marty, In a somewhat similar situation I once came very, very close to being killed or seriously injured while rock climbing and those kinds of lessons aren’t forgotten quickly if you survive the initial experience.

  • Yet another lesson that ‘free as a bird’ comes with built in perils. And that predators aren’t the only danger.
    But WHAT an incredible sight to see. And capture.
    Megathanks.

  • Nicole

    stunning series! I will be viewing each pic carefully with my two boys!! They will be very excited…

  • April Olson

    Fun series of photos! I love watching fledglings try out their stuff. I guess my years as a feral child paid off, (my parents regularly read your blog and will laugh they never knew what barn, field, or mountain top I might have been exploring for the day).

    • Thanks, April. I hope your folks enjoy the post. And congrats on having the most accurate guess – you win the Golden Jelly Bean!

    • Laura Culley

      LOL April! From one feral child to another, don’t you pity the kids coming up now? They have no adventure, no outside learning experiences and just no idea about the REAL world where the rules are different from the inside (electronic) human world!

  • Laura Culley

    What a SPECTACULAR series and oh how wonderful for you to have been there at the right place at the right time!! And I nailed it!
    Fledging is serious business and the young birds (usually the males go first in a “Watch This!” context) really struggle to get all the controls working in their favor, especially on the first try. The first lesson is that flying (so to speak) and landing are two entirely different skill sets 🙂 The first landing is mostly a somewhat controlled crash. With this nest, the angles are challenging so he had to work at it–and yes, I agree this is PROBABLY a male with the probability that his sister watched the drama with disinterested interest. LOL!
    Oh how I love redtails!

    • Laura, As I was composing this post I thought of you and hoped you’d see it. Sounds like you enjoyed it as much as I hoped you would.

      • Laura Culley

        I enjoyed it mightily, Ron. Stepping into the way back machine, I got to watch a golden eagle fledge in the Snake River Canyon standing next to Morley Nelson back when I was a newly-minted falconer. The gathering was a falconers’ celebration of the peregrine delisting at the Birds of Prey Center in Boise and part of the agenda included a boat trip down the Snake River with Morley as our guide. We stopped for a walkabout, and while the bulk of the falconers scoured the cliffs looking for prairie aeries along the river canyon, Morley stepped away from the group and I followed. He pointed out the golden eagle nest and lo and behold, one of the kiddos decided that was the time to go. It looked a whole lot like a kid riding a bicycle for the first time! I SWEAR I could hear that kiddo screech/whine, “Mom! What do I do NOW?” LOL! As expected, his landing (for lack of a better term) was NOT a pretty sight, but he did it. Before we left, he did a very similar excursion back to the nest as this redtail. Then there were all the fledges/fludges from the Cornell hawk nest, so I’ve seen this song and dance before. What a magical memory!

    • April Olson

      I was surprised Laura did not post yesterday with the correct response. Living with birds is educational and exciting.

      • Laura Culley

        April, I did post, but late. My Internet connection is not playing nice and I haven’t had time to investigate what other options I might have in rural Arizona. Too many other human things to do at the moment. Grumble! 🙂

  • Jorge H. Oliveira

    Arriving from a short vacation I am glad I made it in time to see this great series.
    One of the best I have ever seen. Thank you very much for the hard work you’ve been through to share it with us.

  • Susan aka blue

    Delightful post! I held my breath…

  • Barby Anderson

    I like this game Ron! However, I never would have guessed it was a baby that did that! Great sequence that kept us guessing. 😊

  • Susan Stone

    This has to be one of your best posts ever. Definitely worth waiting for.

  • Susan Stone

    I am not surprised at how fast the chick matured, after watching the first nesting of American Kestrels in our neighbors’ palm tree. Once they started exploring, the rest came very quickly. However, I am amazed at the way this chick figured out how to get back down to the nest. It reinforces for me how smart birds are. I’ll bet the butt shot of the landing is one that didn’t frustrate you… 🙂

    • “I am amazed at the way this chick figured out how to get back down to the nest”

      Susan, when I see things like this I always wonder where the line is between instinct and intelligence in birds.

      • Laura Culley

        Ron, in the for whatever it’s worth department, I define instinct as our perfect intelligence, installed at the factory. It’s stuff we just KNOW. And assuming we listen to that perfect intelligence, we can’t go far wrong. That’s just in MY world 🙂

  • Trudy Brooks

    Ron, just love the photos, you let us all take a peek into the bird world, with things most of us would never see in our life time. Love the comments you add to the pictures. Thanks for all hard (fun) work you do.

    • I’m glad you appreciate the narrative too, Trudy. For me that’s probably the hardest part – writing well doesn’t come very easy for me.

  • Linda

    What a treat to see this series of photos. It was fun to keep scrolling down to see what would happen next. How fortunate we readers are to have you out there and bringing back these images to share with us.

  • Chris Sanborn

    As Laura Culley would say, Oh Wow! Truly, the best part of a series like this is that your individual images and commentary can be thoroughly studied and absorbed so I’m actually seeing and understanding much more about birds’ behaviors than I could possibly get from witnessing it live. All of those actions taken by that wonderful little Red-tail would go by in a flash and I’d not be sure what I saw. Absolutely one of my favorite of your blog posts, Ron — thanks, thanks, thanks for this vicarious thrill! So happy for this family of hawks to be getting along so well in their rocky outpost.

    • “All of those actions taken by that wonderful little Red-tail would go by in a flash and I’d not be sure what I saw”.

      Exactly, Chris. I usually learn more of the details about birds from looking at my images than I do from witnessing the actual event.

  • Philip Carlson

    April is the one who suggested I follow your posts, she ALWAYS gets it right!

  • Sibylle Kinley

    WONDERFUL! Your photos capture this exciting adventure so well. I find that the young Red-tail Hawks have incredible expressions. The detail you’ve captured in these is palpable. Thank you for sharing this special event. Love the extended wings showing wonderful color and the “bloomers” with the polka dotted pattern, the “poofy” tail and peachy chest – a feast for my eyes! Red Tails are probably my favorite hawk – THANK YOU!

    • Sibylle, that “peachy chest” is one of the things that knocked me over about the quick maturation of this bird because only two days before there was very little evidence of that color there.

  • Nancy Blake

    Wonderful series! Bet that youngster was relieved to make it back home. I always learn so much from your posts, and this was no exception. Thanks for spending the time to put it all together.

    • He did seem relieved, Nancy, but who knows – maybe he took it all in stride…

      • Pam Skaar

        I think the final look on his face is something like “I can’t believe I actually made that crazy feat work and I’m safe in the nest!”

        Great series.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Love this series and commentary! Once again, an adolescent manages to get out of a self-induced predicament…this is almost as good as being there…maybe better in some ways, because the lack of visible movement allows ypu to focus in on the details…

    • Thanks, Patty. Yes, there’s something special about photos over video because we can “focus in on the details” much better. That’s one of the reasons I rarely shoot video.

  • Zaphir Shamma

    I had such a fun time reading your words and looking at the companying photos. You made me feel like I was there with you. Great series and post, thank you 🙂

  • CaJ

    That was a perfect series of pics and story to tell. Thank you for sharing with us ALL.

  • Charlotte Norton

    What a wonderful behavioral series Ron! Thanks 9!

    Charlotte

  • D. Gusset

    Great photo series and story, thank you!

  • Dominique Gusset

    Great photo series and story, thank you!

  • Joanne OBrien

    Thank you for the fun series! Great to look at while sipping my morning coffee… alas I didn’t get out early this morning 🙂

  • Jerry Ellison

    Ron, this is one of the best sequences ever…great story, fantastic pictures!!

  • Marina schultz

    Awsome series…. that’s why I love my nest s they give me endless entertainment !!! And you are always guaranteed pictures .. and yes of course I keep a respectable distance … my ferruginous hawks have fledged…

  • The rate of growth in baby birds is truly amazing. This was a fun shot. I imagine his sister was saying, “Hmmph. I didn’t think you’d make it. I’m sure I’ll be much more graceful. BOYS.” 😀

  • Judy Gusick

    WOW! Fantastic shots of the learning curve of the hawks! 🙂 I’d have had a hard time shooting just wanting to watch this unfold! 🙂 Grinning ear to ear. Appears these are thriving in spades!

    • “I’d have had a hard time shooting just wanting to watch this unfold!”

      To some degree that was true for me too, Judy. On the other hand, watching through my lens gave me a much more detailed look at what was going on (when my shutter curtain wasn’t sweeping through the frame during the long bursts I was shooting…).

  • Dick Harlow

    What fun to watch and photograph! Many thanks for the post. Excellent photography!
    This area must have a good food supply for these raptors. The chicks look very healthy!!

  • Sheila Piccone

    What a fantastic set of photos! But, honestly, I don’t expect anything less than this from you Ron! You are a great photographer.