The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak and stared with his foot on the prey.
~Lord Alfred Tennyson
One day last week as I was walking through the bedroom, I glanced out the back window and saw something on a tree trunk just beyond the deer fence. This tree has fallen to the point that the trunk is almost parallel to the ground. The critter was in the shade and was upright so there was not a lot of detail and I assumed it was a squirrel and started to look away. It then made a sudden move and I saw what looked like a wing go up on one side. I grabbed the binoculars (we have a pair at a window in every room, don’t you?) and looked – it was a Cooper’s Hawk! I went into the other room to get my camera and when I returned, the feathered blob on the trunk was gone, or so I thought. I then saw it on the ground below the tree, and it was pulling at something. When I got it in the binoculars again, I could see it had a large prey item and was tearing pieces and eating. But the bird had its back to me and its body blocked much of the view of what it had caught. I finally saw some fur and then a head as the hawk yanked on its prey – it was a Gray Squirrel.
Now, I must admit I have a love-hate (maybe mostly the latter) thing with the squirrels on our property as they love to dig up plants out of flower pots, raid the garden veggies at times (mainly tomatoes and peas), chew on our deck wood, chew on our Christmas light wires (I had to repair them 4 times last year), etc. So, I was somewhat pleased that this Cooper’s had made a successful kill. Last winter, we had a Cooper’s Hawk spend much of the season around our property, occasionally grabbing some birds near our feeders. Over a span of a few months, I documented two Mourning Doves, one Downy Woodpecker, and one male Northern Cardinal that fell victim to the stealth fighter hawk in our yard or just downhill in our woods.
Cooper’s Hawks and their smaller cousin, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, are primarily bird predators. Their rounded wings and long tail enable them to maneuver swiftly through the trees in pursuit of songbirds. They often use obstructions as cover to surprise their prey, zooming in low just above vegetation until close enough to strike. I even saw the one last year use our house as cover when it flew up and over our roof (coming straight down from the roof) to surprise birds at the feeder off our back deck. They will take other prey, including small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and larger birds. I once saw one take down a Wood Duck that flew up from a roadside canal at Pocosin Lakes NWR.
I was anxious to get some photos of this bird and it seemed preoccupied with its meal, so I started shooting with my large telephoto. Hand-holding that lens and taking pictures through the bathroom window ( better angle than the bedroom), wasn’t giving me much in the way of sharp images.
So, I decided to get the tripod from the basement and see if that would help (the bird was in deep shade and shooting through the window probably didn’t help). The hawk continued to feed as I set it up. I opted to do some video as that is sometimes more forgiving of low light than still shots (above is one of those clips). Perhaps I could open the window to get a better shot. I slowly cranked it open, only moving the window when the hawk bent over to pull meat off the squirrel. Once it was fully open, I turned back to position myself at the camera and when I looked through the viewfinder, the hawk was gone.
I waited, scanned the trees, thinking it might have seen me move inside the window and would come back to finish its meal. Nothing…so, after a few minutes I went down to the tree to take a look.
To my surprise, the hawk had flown off with the squirrel! That is a fairly large package for a Cooper’s Hawk to carry, but all that was left was a few spots of blood and a piece of squirrel hide about 4 inches across. I was bummed I had missed seeing the hawk flying off, but thrilled to witness such an adept predator in action. No doubt, it or another one will provide some other opportunities to appreciate their skills in the coming months.