On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions. From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
This series was created by Alain Chamot (1971-2020).
Wow, somebody is pissed off at #7! Yikes. Wonderful set.
Because I take way too many pictures of hawks, I sometimes get contacted by hawk researchers to get more details about some of the bird images I post on FaceBook or on eBird. This is a great way for me to learn more about the birds and the folks who study them.
One of those contacts led to a small adventure in late February, when I had the privilege of accompanying Bryce Robinson and Luke Decicco, of the Red-tailed Hawk Project, on an expedition to trap, tag, and perhaps put transmitters on some of our winter-resident dark hawks. Bryce is a graduate student at Cornell, and Luke is a graduate student at the University of Kansas, just down the river from my town of Manhattan KS. They are interested, like lots of others, in the multitude of plumage variations in Red-tailed Hawks, and are working to figure out the summer breeding locations for some of the dark redtails who winter here on the Great Plains. You can read more about the project here.
It was a blustery overcast day when I met up with them in the morning to find and trap and tag some of the birds I have been tracking locally. Per usual, the birds that I had located that might be of interest to them were either AWOL that morning, or ignored the trap. But finally they managed to get one of the birds that I had seen several times previously this winter. This guy.
Trapping Red-tailed Hawks is usually done with a device called a bal-chatri, which consists of a bottom-weighted wire cage that holds a couple of conspicuously visible small live rodents (mice, gerbils, etc) that might be of interest to a hungry hawk. The top and sides of the cage are covered with monofilament nooses that entangle the talons of any raptor who pounces on it to get the rodents who are safely inside the cage. Similar devices, sometimes baited with birds rather than rodents, have been used for centuries to capture falcons for hunting. The loaded trap is tossed onto the ground from a slowly moving vehicle when an appropriate hawk is sighted; the vehicle and its occupants then move a distance away to park and watch. When the bird gets tangled with the trap, they quickly move in to grab the bird and reassure the terrified rodents. Here’s a shot of that process.
Once the bird is safely in hand, and the rodents back in the warm car, photos and data collection commence. The hawk is held firmly by the legs, so that it cannot use the talons to shred the researchers, and it often displays its irritation. This one looks particularly irritated because of those bright yellow eyes. Plumage characteristics, especially the tail, identify this bird as a second-year dark-morph Harlan’s Hawk.
And here’s a shot of that gorgeous tail!
The bird is photographed against what might be the world’s largest 18% grey card, which helps researchers ensure that the photos are exposed properly even under varying light conditions. The other useful tool in this image is the 24-patch Color Checker that ensures that the color balance of all images (of this bird and any other birds captured) can be corrected if needed. Wings, tail, and facial shots are taken.
Spread wing shot
I do like the white eyebrow on this bird, which makes it look even more scary and pissed-off.
Bands are attached to the bird, a regular metal Bird Banding Lab band on the right leg and a colored re-sighting band on the left; those are partially visible in this shot of yours truly holding the bird. This bird ‘s color band is blue with the alphanumeric code 0Y. If you see him, let me know! Blood and feather samples are also taken for later chemical and DNA analyses. Some birds get transmitters; for various reasons this bird was not fitted with a transmitter. Transmitter tracking data from two birds trapped last year can be viewed here.
The entire process takes about 25-30 minutes, and the bird is then released to seek more palatable and less magical small rodents. Here’s a video of the release.