05.02.21: Hawk vs. snake

A Red-tailed Hawk eyes a snake it captured and is battling, Sharon Woods Metro Park, Westerville, Ohio.

A Red-tailed Hawk eyes a snake it captured and is battling, Sharon Woods Metro Park, Westerville, Ohio.

Watching a Red-tailed Hawk fighting its meal

Tech specs

  • Date/time: Apr 9, 2006 10:44 AM   
  • Camera: Canon EOS 20D
  • Lens: Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L+2x 
  • Focal length: 600mm
  • Aperture: f/7.1
  • Shutter: 1/500 second
  • ISO: 200

This is a photo I shot 15 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday.

I had returned to photography about a year earlier after taking a 30 year break. I was still learning the ins and outs of digital cameras and had decided wildlife photography was a good way to accelerate that process. The reasons behind the decision were simple: There’s a lot of wildlife in local parks and I don’t have to pay to get in, get permits or permission or travel great distances.

I had spent the morning wandering through Sharon Woods Metro Park north of Columbus, Ohio, picking up a few usable photos of mockingbirds and swallows, and was heading back to the car.

Then I saw a Red-tailed Hawk standing in a field just off the left side of the trail. It looked at me, then ignored me.

I thought that was odd.

I grabbed a couple of shots from the trail, then took a few steps into the field, fully expecting the hawk to fly off when I approached. But it continued to ignore me while it glanced around, then down.

Maybe it’s injured, I thought, and wondered how I could reach one of the park rangers.

I took a few more shots, then stepped closer.

The bird stayed put.

Then I saw some motion in the grass and a snake’s head popped up toward the hawk.

My first thought: He’s got a snake! (Followed quickly by a second thought: There are snakes in this field? I hate snakes.)

I continued shooting as the hawk battled the snake. It was a one-sided battle. The hawk had the snake pinned down with its talons and seemed to be trying to tire it out.

It was almost like watching a live episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Yep, I just dated myself. For those younger than me (which is the majority of the nation’s population), you can look it up. 

After about 10 minutes the hawk flew off with the snake, landing in a nearby tree to start eating. I photographed some of that process. The photos turned out nice, but watching a hawk pull a snake apart isn’t a pleasant way to spend a morning.

I’ve photographed a number of animals hunting or eating prey since that day: eagles or osprey eating fish, hawks eating birds … if you spend enough time photographing in the wild you’ll see these things.

But watching that Red-tailed Hawk working to capture the snake was a first for me. It almost made me feel like a true wildlife photographer.

I’ve photographed a number of animals hunting or eating prey since that day: eagles or osprey eating fish, hawks eating birds … if you spend enough time photographing in the wild you’ll see these things.