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Catching a Red-tailed Hawk just at the moment of take off is one of the more dynamic images that one can make of this species. Red Tails are heavy birds, weighing up to about 2 1/2 pounds, and it takes a lot of energy for one of them to become airborne. That is particularly so when the bird is perched low and where there isn’t a lot of margin of error in taking flight. In that circumstance, the hawk can’t simply flap its wings and develop sufficient lift to keep from stalling. No, it must gain some momentum in order to defeat the pull of gravity.
The hawk solves that problem by jumping from its perch. Just before take off the bird crouches, visibly lowering and flattening its profile and then, it jumps upward, propelling itself into the air with its powerful legs as it simultaneously unfolds its huge wings and begins pumping them rhythmically. Typically, the hawk also spreads its tail feathers at the moment of take off so as to increase its surface area to the maximum possible extent. It’s very much like an airplane extending its wing flaps on take off in order to increase lift.
A couple of weekends ago, I was driving in agricultural country northwest of Tucson, with a friend, Carl Jackson, when we found a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk perching on a fence post, only about four feet above the ground. Juvenile birds are often much more naïve than adults and they sometimes allow photographers to approach them more closely than do adult hawks. That was the case with this one. Carl and I walked to within about 20 feet of the bird before it decided to take flight. I was extremely fortunate in that the hawk took off in my direction. And, I was even more fortunate in that I caught it just at the top of its jump, at the moment when it had gained maximum altitude from leaping and when it was beginning to bring the force of its wings into play. Here is the “jump.”
Image made with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO, aperture preferred setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/1600.