When a raptor eats a snake, or at least so my sources tell me, they often begin by positioning the snake so that they may eat it… head first. It makes sense really. The scales of a snake are designed for forward motion, not back, and they would catch and snare the entire way down if an animal tried to swallow them tail first.
The snake in these pictures is a Garter Snake. I do not know the exact variety, but it is a fairly common species out here in Northern California. I have seen raptors with some larger species of snake, that were too big to swallow whole, strip the flesh from the snake (such as this Red-tail eating a large gopher snake), but garters seem to be small enough to allow this dramatic method.
I saw this Red-shoulder as I was driving down the road one day. I pulled over in a safe spot and crossed the road, keeping a copse of trees between us. Hawks have very good eyesight, and I did not want to spook it off.
There was a dry stream bed running through the small, thin stand of trees, so I stayed as low as I could, often not having any view of the raptor (if I could see it, it might be able to see me). I stopped before I got too close. I knew I could always crop my images down to have more detail when viewing the pictures.
Bit by bit, the snake went down. And shutter click by shutter click I captured the action. I likely took more pictures than I should have. This is only a small collection of the total, but some images are often lost to such things as a birds nicatating membrane, blur, misfocus, or other undesireable detail.
I was using a long lens of course (420mm). Shutter speed and ISO were set accordingly.(f/8.0, 1/500th, ISO 200)