Anatomy of a photo #38: Hawktopus

This is when I first saw that which I never imagined was possible

It was the middle of winter, less than two weeks past solstice, and there were rumors of whales in Tomales Bay. It was hard for me to put my kayak in the water before 4:30pm that week, but one day I decided to see how far I could make it before I lost all light- Could I paddle fast enough and far enough to make it where the whale had been seen while it was still bright enough to photograph from my kayak? Likely not, but it was worth a try.

I set out paddling hard. I knew it was a pace that would be difficult to maintain for long, but I was feeling driven. I cut across the bay on a different line than I normally would have, driving farther to the north, where I had come across whales before, and where I knew the water was deeper. I kept up the high speed rhythm I had settled into, instead of easing up as my muscles began to burn. The sun was already behind the hills, and the light was fading quickly. I didn’t know why I was carrying on, as my light was essentially gone already.

I had just reached the far shore and was adjusting my course more to the north when a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk flew into view, trailing something in its talons. I trained my ever present binoculars on it and felt my jaw drop (well, almost felt it drop). The hawk was carrying an octopus, something I could have imagined from an Osprey, but never a Red-tail.

Red-Tail taking wing with its octopus prize

It landed near me in a low tree near the shore. I immediately began retrieving my camera from my dry bag (it was fairly well stowed away, as I thought it was so dark I wouldn’t be using it). I cranked the ISO up higher than I ever would have in normal circumstances- 1600. I didn’t care about noise now, I just new I needed to capture some images of this phenomenon. I opened up the aperture as wide as it would go, saying to heck with depth of field, and then set my shutter speed- 1/200th of a second.

The image was still a little dark, but I didn’t trust myself to be able to hand hold the camera steady enough to capture a crisp shot at a lower shutter speed, especially as I was shooting from my kayak, and a crisp image was imperative. I needed these photographs, I had to capture such an amazing prey in a Red-tails talons.

I discretely paddled a little closer, only a few hidden strokes, and then left my kayak to drift with its momentum very slowly toward the bird in the bush. Click. Click. It took wing. I’m not sure if it is because the Tail realized my proximity, or if it was because of the movement of the octopus (which was very definitely still alive), and it wanted a better perch for eating and killing. I captured several images as it flew off. These are blurred from the slow shutter speed that the low light necessitated, but much better these blurred images than none at all… the blurring even adds a sense of movement to some of the pictures.

One of the first down strokes of the wings as it took flight with the octopus trailing from its talons

The bird flew around a small point with the octopus writhing in its talons. I followed, but it had disappeared.
I have since learned that it was an Octopus rubescens, or common coastal red octopus. They can shift their color depending upon their mood, and red is the color that shows they are angry. This one looks very angry with its deep red color.
It is very rare to see octopus on this bay. I had only seen them for the first time a few days previously.

And away it goes

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, hawks, marine life, nature photography, photography, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Anatomy of a photo #38: Hawktopus

  1. Great catch by both you and the bird!

  2. Was this photographed recently or a few years ago?

  3. jbcamera says:

    Fantastic shots. Well done!

  4. janechese says:

    that’s really amazing-never have seen anything like that before

  5. Emily Heath says:

    Spectacular. Poor angry octopus!

  6. opienc says:

    nice catch. i’ve been following a pair of Red-tailed hawks for over a year here in Downtown Raleigh, NC and seen them capture squirrels, birds, mice and snakes, but the octy is a rare-one.

  7. They are once in a lifetime shots! Too bad you couldn’t set the shutter to 1/800 th. I am one for using high ISO and would have had it at 3200 or higher. I know the grain is bad, but I also do not make big prints like you or sell the images. Even with the blur, the images are fantastic.

    • I had the ISO set at 1600, and was hoping that I was freezing the action enough at around 1/200. It was hard to know for sure, as it all happened so fast that I didn’t really have time to check the images until it was all over.

      I really need to play around with my higher ISO settings more, so that I can try and decide what noise levels are acceptable in which sizes of prints. It changes each time I get a new body. I remember with my first digital SLR anything above 400 was pushing it. I think that first camera instilled in me a fear of the higher ISOs that isn’t nearly as justified now.

  8. Vicki says:

    wow!! I would never have seen this if not for your current post regarding photoshop.. what an amazing moment you caught.. and I wonder how the hawk caught the octopus? incredible.

    • I didnt actually see the Red-tail catch it, but the day before I had seen several dying octopi washed up on shore, moving weakly about. It’s my guess that the hawk had seen one moving enough to attract its attention (from the photos, it’s obvious that the Coastal Red Octopus is still alive, from coloration and the fact that it grabs onto a branch). The Red-tail was also less than a year old, and unlikely to have been able to pick up much in the way of fishing skills in that time.

      I’m involved in a local hawk research, counting and banding project, and after I showed the photos to the director and some other folks, the photos made the rounds of raptor research projects around the country, and no one had ever heard of a similar incident. Apparently this was an anomaly and not the norm. I was very glad I had my camera with me

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