Winter Birds: the Red-tailed Hawk

Hawks and eagles are valuable, exciting elements in the winter landscapes of Central New York. Whether perching high in a roadside tree, soaring among the clouds, or evading a mob of crows, red-tails are the species of hawk that is most visible and widely known.

The red-tail’s soaring habit; large, broad wings; rufous tail and dark, broken band across the stomach take much of the guesswork out of identification, even at long distances.


Red-tailed hawks thrive in agricultural areas where the large, deciduous trees in farm woodlots provide nest sites and nearby fields and fence rows provide habitat for small mammals like mice, voles and cottontails – their dietary staple. However, this food source can be scarce and unreliable, especially when winters are long and deep snow cover persists. Red-tails, eagles and other predators have adapted to such scarcity by being opportunistic and scavenging on carrion. Here, that generally means road-killed deer.

As a rule, it is unethical to disturb a raptor when it’s feeding, for fear that it will lose precious energy when escaping and abandoning its food. This red-tail was the exception. It was feeding on a deer carcass in a farm field, not far from a residence, and was more or less oblivious to the presence of a solitary human. There were no signs of poisoning or bodily injury and the bird eventually flew to roost. The consensus among viewers for this highly unusual behavior was simply “old age” (?).

I slowly and cautiously worked my way around the bird, shooting all the while. I hoped to capture feeding behavior in detail, without pushing the hawk off the carcass. One behavior in particular caught my attention. Initially, it turned its back to me, hunched over the carcass and covered it with wings and tail. This was classic “mantling” behavior, a strategy to conceal and guard food from other predators that might attempt to steal it. In this case, I was the threat.

Mantling behavior by a Red-tailed Hawk while feeding on a deer carcass

The final images illustrate the challenge of ripping frozen meat from carrion!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

A Winter Wonderland in January, 2019

Snowstorms, wind and bitter cold can greatly reduce wildlife sightings in our winter landscapes. Wildlife numbers reach an annual low, most surface waters freeze, and  animals conserve energy by moving less and living in sheltered habitats. Adding to the difficulty of wildlife viewing in winter is the ethical constraint that demands minimum disturbance of animals that are trying to survive four or five months of resource scarcity.

Sometimes I respond to the challenges of winter by photographing wildlife around backyard feeders, then shifting my focus to landscapes when out and about. Such was the case most of this month.


Wave ice on a partially frozen pond


The peace, quiet and virgin landscape that follow a heavy snow create the illusion of  the isolation and solitude associated with a wildland journey


With the right perspective, blue skies dress up surface waters, adding color to otherwise monochromatic scenes


Over time, spring water seeping and freezing over a limestone rock face takes on a life of its own


A favorite cattail marsh, the tussocks accented with a blanket of deep, fluffy snow


A small, nondescript creek morphs into a thing of beauty when buried in snow


The visual effects of subzero temperatures and morning sun on local waters


Dense vegetation along a fence row, performing double duty: wildlife habitat and wind reduction; these are drifts on the lee side (1 of 2 images)


Powdery snow, blown and drifted across corn stubble on the lee side of a brushy fence row


The sentinel: An old, battered sugar maple tree that refuses to concede to wind, snow, ice, salt and grazing cattle. She still sparkles in a coating of frost.

Photos by NB Hunter (January, 2019). © All rights reserved.