The predator above us (Wings over Behrend)

By Christine Palattella
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Red-Tailed Hawk cropped

Photo by Andy Colwell ’11 COMM

The secret to optimizing your Behrend bird watching experience? Have a great photographer with you, and hope that he or she owns a lens the size of a dinner plate.

I was lucky to be in the company of Andy Colwell ’11 COMM two Saturdays ago when a pair of large raptors started circling high above Junker Center. Andy used his Nikon Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 manual telephoto lens to capture this image of a red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis.

Any lens with its own handle is a serious piece of business, but Andy’s also has an interesting provenance: Before finding its way to him, the Nikkor spent twenty years on the sidelines at Beaver Stadium, shooting Nittany Lion football games. Andy learned the patience and finesse needed to coax crisp images from his mega-manual lens while earning his two undergraduate photography degrees, in visual journalism and in art photography.

As for Buteo jamaicensis, they are year-round residents of the region and common sight over campus. Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. John Steffen told me that the males are indistinguishable from the females, to humans at least. Red-tails themselves clearly have it worked out, because they are monogamous and somewhat infamous in the bird world for their elaborate mating display: After a series of aerial swoops and dives, the pair will rest in a tree. The male will stoop down in front of the female, and if she’s into him, she rolls over so that their cloacas can meet. They’ll build a stick nest in the crotch of a tree to incubate their clutch of two or three eggs; Steffen says it’s not unusual for these nests to reach four feet in diameter. He added that in many places, red-tails are the top-dog predator; their diet of songbirds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians keeps the population of smaller vertebrates regulated.

Learn more about the red tailed-hawk and hear its call here (it will be a familiar sound to you if you’ve been at Behrend for a while).

Learn more about photographer Andy Colwell (below) and see more of his work here.

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