A "get out of here" look
I saw the shadow of a raptor float by me as I hiked down the Umtanum Creek Canyon trail. I took the lens cap off and unlocked the lens on my camera and this is the first photograph I took of a raptor looking as though he was getting ready to stoop and dive on a hapless field mouse. Instead, he was lining up on me. He wanted me gone and so did the female circling high above him.
At the time I took these photographs, I had no idea that I was having an "encounter" with a Northern Harrier [Circus cyaneus] a raptor with not only great eye sight but excellent hearing as well. I didn't know that the male was mostly gray in color and that the female was mostly brown with pronounced bands on her tail. Most of all I had no idea that they were ground nesters.
I had assumed that raptors in Umtanum Creek Canyon were cliff nesters (I had no specific knowledge to form that conclusion, it is just what I thought).
So when I looked through the viewfinder of my Canon XSi (with a 70-300 lens) at the light colored male Northern Harrier above me, I was completely surprised to see it start to dive right at me. I was watching all the action through the camera viewfinder.
The male dove withing five feet of the top of my head and came straight at me. I was quite a distance from any canyon cliffs, but once again, I had no idea they were ground nesters, so I was either too close to their nest or they are the most territorial raptor I have encountered on a hike.
The male dove at me at least a half a dozen times, always coming straight at me rather than from behind. He always passed directly above my head. To be honest it was somewhat of an exhilerating and exciting experience. I had the camera with the long lens in front of my eyes and face so the only thing I was risking was my old trusty Tilley hat, sittin on top my head.
After the persistent diving continued, I realized I was obviously disturbing these raptors so I hiked quite a ways down the canyon trail, but the male didn't give up. He followed me down the canyon and tried a new tactic which was making a quick turn down low above the canyon bottom (almost trail level), holding for a second to "line me up" and then coming at me straight. This time the male came very close to my head. I kept the camera clicking hoping to record the event but at that close range, all I got was a blurr of agitated male Northern Harrier.
At this point the female started circling but kept up high in the sky as if to make certain that the male did his job right. He did. I capped my lens, and hiked at a fast pace down the trail, with the intent of leaving this pair and any nest they might be guarding, alone.
I was less than two miles up the canyon on this hike and a sign near the footbridge near the Yakima River said something to the effect: Trail closed 3.5 miles up canyon to hiking February something to July something, to protect sensitive wildlife. I had always assumed that the "sensitive wildlife" were bighorn sheep, but now I wonder.
Since I hike the canyon often, and know a huge ponderosa pine that resides about three miles up the canyon, I'm 100% certain, that I wasn't up the canyon past where I should have been.
I hated the thought that I might have put any stress on the raptor pair or for that matter even disturbed them. I had never had anything like this happen to me on a hike before, and at the time I was both surprised and at the same time in a way, privileged to be a part of what nature does naturally.
I hope Mr. and Mrs. Northern Harrier do well. It was fun to look at the photographs when I got home and see the owl like dishes on the male's face and that intent eye contact that only a raptor can make.
I will delete many of these photo in a few days, but wanted to include even the blurred photographs, to give you a feel for what I saw through the viewfinder of my "protective" camera and lens.
I took a short hike up Umtanum Canyon, which is a nice side canyon of the Yakima River Canyon, and located between Ellensburg and Yakima, Washington. It is a canyon I have hiked from top to bottom and bottom to top, many times over the last 30 years. Currently you can hike only 3.5 miles up Umtanum Canyon from the Yakima River foot bridge. A sign states this is to protect "sensitive wildlife".
I took two cameras with me. I used a Canon G10 on the hike up the canyon and then just for the fun of it, I used a Canon DSLR XSi with a 70-300 IS USM zoom lens on the hike back down the canyon.
I hiked slowly and stopped often to enjoy and photograph the wildflowers, wild berries, old orchard trees, and the new beaver dams along the Umtanum Creek. It appeared at times as though the winds would blow a hard rain into the canyon (and then I would be able to use the new word I learned from a good friend in Arizona: petrichor), but it didn't happen. The sun came out and the sky turned blue for a few moments but mostly it was gray fast moving clouds over the canyon, giving it a different but enjoyable look.
I didn't see any bighorn sheep or deer on this hike. I got started a little late in the morning for wildlife (and I couldn't use another one of my favorite new words: crepuscular, something I consider myself to be along with some of my favorite wildlife).
Lighting wasn't too good for landscape photographs (with my limited photo skills), so I took pleasure in some macro photos and playing with the aperture on the cameras, experimenting with different depth of field treatments on outdoor subject, on both cameras.
The highlight of the hike was on my way back down the canyon. I got attacked repeatedly by a Northern Harrier. In all my years of hiking, being attacked by a raptor, was a first for me.
I was carrying the XSi with the telephoto and had the G10 in its case on my camera day pack sternum strap. I saw the shadow of a raptor pass near me so I took the lens cap off; unlocked the lens; and began searching for the raptor, who's shadow I had just noticed.
I found it quickly in the sky above me, gathering itself as though it was about to go into a stoop and dive. I took a photo. Then it seemed to be diving, and to be specific, diving directly at me. It was. With me trying to zoom and let the lens focus as best I could I shot photo after photo as the male Northern Harrier passed just over my head at high speed. He climbed in altitude a short ways; banked; and repeated the performance. Each time he buzzed me he passed directly over my head from the front, traveling at high speed and never missing my head by more than about four or five feet.
I tried to take photographs of about four of these fast diving passes, but then decided to move on down the trail as I was obviously where the Northern Harrier did not want me to be. I was confused as I thought I was way too far from a cliff that I thought might serve as a nesting area, but then I didn't realize until I got home and grabbed a book, that Northern Harriers nest at time, on the ground. Now I understand.
So I hiked about 200 yards down the trail but this wasn't good enough. Now the brown banded tail female soared high in the sky above me while the male resumed trying to take my Tilley hat off my head. I again tried a few photos, not knowing which might turn our and which would not (as a fellow flickr person put it...I often trawl for photographs...taking many....in the hopes that a few might turn out ...Oh how I love digital photography).
The male now tried a different tactic and instead of hovering and diving at me from the sky, he flew low over the canyon floor, turned and came in low. This time he came closer to my hat and my head, than I was comfortable with, and I really didn't want to disturb this beautiful raptor, so I put my head down and picked up my pace as I hiked at least a quarter mile, before even glancing back. No more attacks. I must have got far enough away from their nest or their territory for them to resume their normal routines.
None of the photographs came out particularly good, but still it is a hike and an outdoor experience I want to at least share for a few days, with any of you, who might find the photos of interest....blurry ones and all.