How I Got the Shot: Black Hawk Exploding From the Woods.

Common Black hawk © Eileen Nauman
Common Black Hawk © Eileen Nauman

Story & photo by Eileen Nauman

Actually, I should  have named this blog:  The Hawk Who Sits ALL The Time.

There is a Common Black Hawk family in our area and for two years,  I’ve been trying to catch this raptor flying, not sitting. He is the longest parked hawk I’ve ever encountered. Even Bald Eagles don’t sit as long as he/she does! And we have Bald’s in our area and I can attest to that. I’ve sat for a half hour up to an hour waiting for him to fly. He just sits there and smugly stares down at me from his bare branch in one of his Cottonwood trees.  

My hobby is photographing wildlife. At 73 years old, I’m not as steady as I wished I was, but you can’t shoot flying birds with a tripod. At least, I sure can’t. On the other side of the ledger, being older means I have more patience. When you shoot wildlife, there’s a lot of waiting coupled with a whole lotta patience involved. I always say, “Hours of boredom followed by split seconds of chaos.” Plus, I like shooting when everything is natural, and the bird or animal is not forced to perform, doesn’t get upset with a human being too close to them, or have to do something to upset the natural rhythm of their life. I always look at myself, the photographer, as a GUEST IN THEIR HOME, and to conduct myself appropriately.

This raptor is a fairly rare hawk in North America, and many of them are based in Arizona, where I live.  So, I sat.  And waited.  And watched.  I learned over time that they eat small fish, frogs, snakes, insects and lizards.  We have a nesting pair of Common Black Hawks in my area and over that two year time period, I got to know their habits and what trees were their favorite perches as they watched nearby Oak Creek, one of their favorite buffet meal stops.

This past season, 2019, they mated. One fledgling survived and I got to see Mom and Dad teaching it how to find food.  They sit a lot on their Cottonwood tree, just waiting and watching.  Unlike a Red-tailed Hawk (there is a pair of them nearby as well) which soar a lot, Black Hawks don’t. I began to feel more like a field biologist, visiting them day in and day out, as I walked that area with my husband Dave, and our dog, Gracie, keeping a respectful eye on the hawks, their lives, haunts and eccentricities. I started calling them “Tree Hawks” instead of their species name. Blame it on photographic black humor. Every other hawk in our area was a lot more active in flying than they ever were.

Well, one morning, the worm turned. About 6:00 AM, just as we drove in and parked to take Gracie for her morning walk, I heard a hawk screech to my left in a tree line. I had just opened up the trunk of the car where I had my Canon D7 with a 400 mm prime lens case opened, to take it out. I learned a long time ago to turn ON my camera before ever removing the cap and pulling it out of my case. We often have Bald Eagles, Osprey and a local two-hundred mile-an-hour speedster, a Peregrine Falcon, who usually fly the area nearly every other day or so. I learned years ago to first, turn on your camera even if it’s in the car because these raptors pop up out of nowhere. And if you are not fully prepared? Well, you miss the shot. In my peripheral vision I saw our local Black Hawk explode from the tree line to the left of us. It was, indeed, our local branch sitter. This all happened in a span of about 2 seconds.

Whatever was going on in that tree grove? The raptor was screeching and screeching at something that I couldn’t see. I’ve known this family of hawks and NEVER seen one of them as noisy and upset as it was on that  morning. In one continuous motion I lifted my camera, pulled off the lens cap (and let it drop into the dirt at my feet), took one step away from the car, locked on and pressed the button down for 12 fps, praying I would at least get ONE decent photo. That hawk flew past us like a bullet. These have been the only photos I’ve ever gotten of it in flight. I hadn’t even put in my camera settings yet, which I usually do before leaving the car. In the back of my mind I was gritting my teeth, because at 6:03 AM the sky was clear and cloudless, light was low, the sun hasn’t risen yet (there are some rugged buttes in the area), and I knew that I was going to get a dark shot. But . . . you know?  You do the best you can under whatever the adverse circumstances are. The lesson I take away from this experience is to guestimate the settings before I ever put that camera in our car to go and photograph an area.

The moral to this story, then is this. Always have your camera ready to go even when you’re pulling it out of the case….before I ever take the lens cover off, I turn the camera ON. And this time? Those seconds I saved, let me get the shot after two long years of waiting! It’s already a winner in my world of wildlife shooting ;-).  When I got home and dumped my card, I was expecting black silhouettes of the Black Hawk. Looking back on it, I should have had, for the pre-sunrise light conditions, an ISO setting of 1200, not the actual 500.  My speed at the time I took the photo (1/1600_ is normal for most of my bird shots, unless our local speedster flashes by. Then, if I see him soon enough, I quickly up the setting to 1/2000 to compensate for that rocket-like velocity.  I used Photoshop CS5 12.0.1 x64,  to lightened up the photo.   And yes, it’s a VERY old copy of Photoshop, but it’s like me ;-).  An oldy but a goody ;-).

Later, I poured myself a glass of champagne to celebrate (I added some orange juice to it . . . ), verbally toasted my always-parked Black Hawk, silently thanked him or her for an in-flight shot, and sipped my reward.  Life is good.

Technical info:

Date:  7.2.2019, 6:03 a.m. MST
Canon EOS 7D
Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L
ISO:  500
f/5.6
1/1600
Shutter priority

LINDSAY MCKENNA aka Eileen Nauman

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Lindsay McKenna is the pseudonym of author Eileen Nauman. With more than 200+ titles to her credit and approximately 23 million books sold in 33 countries worldwide in her 37+ year career, she is a full time writer to this day at 73 years old. Being an amateur photographer for 40 years, building her own black/white dark room in the basement of their home, when they were in vogue, she enjoys being out with Nature and wildlife.  In 2000 she switched from film to digital photography, starting out with Nikon, later evolving to Canon (D7) and now, an Olympus. OM-D E-M1II (mirrorless).  She is a member of  NANPA and the Audubon Society.  Visit her at: www.lindsaymckenna.com