Two deadly predators scan the terrain. One does so from the sky, its sharp eyes scanning the rocky ground below; the other is on that very same broken ground, using its nostrils and forked, flicking tongue to test the air for potential prey. Little does this terrestrial hunter know that today it will itself become the prey of a much larger animal...
The two carnivores are residents of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a wetlands area of coastal Southern California. The bird is a red-tailed hawk, likely North America’s most common hawk. The snake appears to be a Pacific rattlesnake, a species known to inhabit the area. Fortunately for us, a photographer was on hand the day these two animals clashed, and these intensely dramatic images are the result.
Normally the brown and white markings of the rattlesnake are an excellent form of camouflage, allowing it to blend in seamlessly with its similarly-colored surroundings. Unfortunately for this particular snake, its earthy tones are not quite effective enough to fool the eyes of the hawk, which can spot a tiny rodent from a height of 100 feet (30.5 m).
Like all snakes, the rattlesnake has a keen sense of smell, though it doesn't primarily use its nostrils for this purpose. It can accurately identify and track prey, using its tongue to pick up the creature's scent. It is also very sensitive to the vibrations of moving animals, and its eyes can make out objects up to 40 feet (12 m) away. Sadly for this snake, these abilities were useless when it came to detecting a hungry hawk far above it, just as its open jaws would prove little deterrent to the raptor.
The hawk attacks! Seizing the rattlesnake in its talons, it pecks at the reptile with its sharp, hooked beak. The snake will not be taken easily, however, and opens its jaws to strike, exposing fangs that are able to inject a deadly venom. A rattlesnake can actually open its hinge-like mouth to an angle of 180 degrees, and in its effort to defend itself this one appears to be doing just that.
It looks as though the hawk has the snake firmly in its clutches here, and yet if you look closely you’ll notice that the rattler has struck the bird of prey on its foot. Rattlesnake venom quickly enters the bloodstream, destroying tissue and causing internal bleeding and necrosis – the death of cells in living tissue (read about the most poisonous snakes here). But have the snake’s fangs pierced the tough, scaly skin protecting the bird’s foot? Could this battle be going the way of the underdog?
Having exchanged first strikes, in this next image the bird of prey and venomous snake seem to be eyeing each other off, although the rattler also looks as though it is about to strike again at its larger adversary. Which animal will be the victor in this dramatic encounter – the rattlesnake fighting for its life, or the hawk that wants its lunch?
The fight to the death continues. When faced with larger prey, red-tailed hawks generally try to kill their victims with their talons, before tearing them to pieces with their beaks. Smaller-sized animals are gulped down whole, while other birds are even decapitated. In any case, both beak and talons are lethal. Put it this way: we wouldn't want to trade places with that snake.
As the raptor appears to gain the upper hand, it’s worth noting that reptiles don't make up the largest part of a red-tailed hawk's diet. These hawks mostly go for warm-blooded creatures such as mice, squirrels and rabbits. They're not terribly fussy eaters, however, and clearly if they happen to spot a vulnerable snake in an open space, they might well consider it an opportunity for an easy meal.
It looks like the game is up for the hapless rattlesnake, its energy expended and its body hanging limp from the raptor's beak. The bird has the snake gripped firmly, just behind its head. This would seem to be a good place to keep hold of a creature with such deadly venom – particularly as bites can be inflicted by rattlesnakes even after they are dead.
As a species, the rattlesnake is normally higher up the food chain than it appears to be here. It even shares some of the same prey as the hawk to which it has fallen victim. Mice, rats and other small animals (including birds) are rattlesnake favorites. When hunting, rattlers rely on their venomous bite, waiting until their quarry is incapacitated before swallowing it whole – head first! It almost sounds like an even worse way to die than being torn apart by talons, although we'd really rather not know for sure.
With its prize gripped securely in its clawed foot, the hawk takes off for somewhere safe to enjoy its dinner. Despite its formidable weapons, the red-tailed hawk, like the snake, can be prey as well as predator. A raccoon or a great horned owl, for example, might be a threat while the hawk is more vulnerable on the ground.
Here's a closer look at those powerful, vicious-looking talons the hawk uses to grab its prey. Like human fingernails, a bird's claws grow throughout its life as they are constantly being worn down. Also visible in this shot is the brown rattle at the end of the snake's tail. Although believed to serve as a warning mechanism to ward off would-be predators, it clearly didn’t do enough to scare off this particular enemy.
The hawk spreads its wings majestically as it searches for a suitable place to tuck into the rattlesnake. The red-tailed hawk's wingspan can be as great as 4 feet (1.2 m), and while searching for prey, these birds use their broadly spread wings to wheel in large circles, scanning the ground for their next meal.
It looks like the victorious predator has spotted a safe place to land. The dangling rattlesnake seems to have its tailed curled up. Who knows? Maybe it is still alive. Then again, a snake's nervous system is said to be able to function for a number of hours after it is dead, so the twitching of its body does not necessarily mean it is still living.
The red-tailed hawk looks to be ripping away at the unlucky snake with its razor-sharp beak. Hawks are not the only threats that rattlesnakes need to fear; eagles, owls and other snakes also prey on them. What’s more, as few as one in five rattlesnakes ever make it to their second year of life, with the younger snakes eaten by various other animals, including smaller predatory birds, raccoons and weasels.
The hawk continues to eat its dinner – looking as if it's slurping up a strand of spaghetti! Meanwhile, we can reflect on the way these two incredible creatures were brought together in deadly combat, and the fact that in the wild many animals can be both hunters and the hunted.
Although we can't help but feel a little sorry for the rattlesnake in this photo sequence, we know that by killing and eating it, the hawk is simply doing what it needs to do in order to survive. If these images show us anything, it is that nature can be both cruel and beautiful, often at the same time.