Earl the Owl did his job! I bring Earl out only on special occasions—Mainly when the winds at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge are strong and from the NW in late September through late October. So you see, Earl doesn’t get out much. But when I put him up on his dead snag in full view of migrating hawks, he draws their ire and they come in to drive him off, and I, hopefully, get a shot of these feathered rockets before they move on. Hawks really, really dislike Great Horned Owls. It may be because GHOs, on occasion, prey on roosting hawks at night or because they are competitors for the same foods (true with Redtails). Earl, you see, is a plastic decoy Great Horned Owl that I bought (i.e. “adopted”) at a hunting store. A super-glued downy feather on his side lends a touch of realism to him.

Only minutes after I put him up, and before I was even ready to shoot, a big shadow crossed over me…It was a young Red-tailed Hawk (photo above), only 30 feet overhead, making a beeline for Earl. She dropped her talons, flared her tail (not yet bright rusty-red as in adults) and made several passes at this mortal enemy before continuing her journey south—to Kansas, or Iowa, or southern Minnesota.
Raptors winging their way south from Canada and northern Minnesota are pushed by NW winds to the North Shore of Lake Superior. But hawks would rather not fly OVER the big lake—no thermals, no updraft winds, no prey. So instead they funnel down the shoreline and right over Hawk Ridge, which is located at the southwest corner of our inland sea.

My real goal for the day was to photograph the Hawk Ridge specialty…the bird that many birders from across the country come to see..the Northern Goshawk. The “Gos” is a large accipiter (raptors with relatively short, rounded wings and a long tail) that nests in mature mixed woods of large aspen, pine and spruce. The big females (in raptors females are almost always larger than the males) specialize on Snowshoe Hares and the smaller males pick off Ruffed Grouse and Red Squirrels. Of course, like most accipiters, they also will take smaller birds. Their short, rounded wings allow them to fly through dense woods in pursuit of prey, while the long tail acts as an aerial rudder, helping in changing direction quickly. The reason birders come to Hawk Ridge to see them is because during other times of the year they are rarely encountered and if seen, it is usually only a fleeting glimpse.

And then suddenly the Gos was there, harassing Earl. I didn’t even notice the big raptor coming in. I grabbed my camera and started shooting. Autofocus was set to AI Servo (focus setting that follows your subject as it gets closer or further from you) on the center focus point (the most accurate one) and I used shutter priority (1/2000 of a second to freeze motion), Auto-ISO (a feature on some cameras that allows the ISO to vary up and down automatically…works great on bright days when there is no chance of it cranking the ISO up into the noisy range above ISO 1600) and f5.6 so the background would blur nicely. In fact, I set up so that Earl would be between me and a line of Sugar Maples on the distant hillside that had turned brilliant red and yellow. You can see the color in the top photo.

This adult Sharp-shinned Hawk can be aged by its stunning blood-red eyes…a feature that only develops in adult “sharpys”—juveniles have yellowish eyes that turn orange and finally red as they mature into adulthood. They are at the opposite end of the size spectrum of accipiters from Goshawks. Sharpys are small and live almost exclusively on a diet of small birds. Earl caused this beauty conniptions, coming in and diving on him several times. My autofocus did its job and I got this very sharp Sharpy image at very close range.

Can’t wait for the next cold front and accompanying NW winds! Are you ready Earl?

From the top:
juvenile Goshawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2500 (shutter priority), ISO 1000 (auto-ISO) handheld
juvenile Red-tailed Hawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2500 (shutter priority), ISO 1250 (auto-ISO) handheld
juvenile Goshawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2500 (shutter priority), ISO 1000 (auto-ISO) handheld
bottom Sharp-shinned Hawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f6.3 at 1/2000 (shutter priority), ISO 320 (auto-ISO) handheld

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