14-year-old photographer stalks San Jose’s bloody birds of prey (2024)

Photographer Parham Pourahmad was at a Santa Clara County park this winter, when he noticed a pair of kestrels engaged in some, let’s say, interesting behavior.

“They were perched in a parking lot, eating insects and gravel to help them digest prey. I didn’t get great shots that time, so I returned later and found them again,” the 14-year-old Los Gatos teen says. “They were repeating the same behaviors, except for something new.”

What Parham eventually captured was an artfully composed shot of two birds mating. This June, that shot won him the prestigious Youth Winner prize in the National Audubon Society’s 2024 photo awards.

“Such a classic beauty of a photo, with great warm light and saturated rich colors,” Sabine Meyer, photography director with the National Audubon Society, judged of the picture.

Despite being half the age of most wildlife photographers, Parham has covered a lot of ground in the Bay Area — documenting birds of prey, bobcats, coyotes and the thieving red foxes whose antics stealing food from distracted golfers are infamous at San Jose’s Los Lagos Golf Course.

His Instagram feed — @wildphotop — is full of praise from serious photographers, and he has impressed local and state conservationists with his artistry. And Parham seems to have a future in the business: His Audubon prize grants him a trip to the society’s Hog Island camp for teens in Maine next year, where he hopes to photograph puffins.

But on this particular day, Parham is eager to discuss his current project: photographing the fearsome raptors of San Jose’s Ed R. Levin County Park, where he has shadowed white-tailed kites and Cooper’s hawks for the last three years.

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“Even though they are both hawk species,” he says, “the white-tailed kite hunts by hovering over fields and then diving when it finds prey, usually mice or voles.”

Parham is fascinated by the Cooper’s hawks, in particular, calling them “really ruthless killers. … Cooper’s hawks hunt in forests, using sneak attacks on their prey,” he says. They’re dedicated and highly maneuverable hunters that can squish down at extremely high speeds to dive through the gaps in a picket fence. And they’ve developed a unique talent that might trigger emotion among bird lovers.

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“They specialize in urban and suburban areas on bird feeders,” says Andrea Jones, senior director of conservation for Audubon California. “These Cooper’s hawks will sit in someone’s yard, where they know there are songbirds coming in. It’s easy pickings for them to take the songbirds.”

In Levin park, Parham has photographed the hawks vocalizing, posturing handsomely and in one grisly instance — captured with dramatic, Caravaggio-like shadows — ripping apart a hapless ground squirrel.

“The mom Cooper’s hawk flew back to the nest with prey, and after a bit of searching, I found the baby she had given it to,” he says. “Over the next hour, I stuck with the juvenile hawk as it flew around the oak forest with its prey.”

“A ground squirrel would be on the large end of their menu as they primarily feed on other birds,” says Matthew Dodder, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. “But this is a handsome photo — it has beautiful lighting and is very heroic. I love gory pictures like this, too. Seeing it actually behave like this is really quite something.”

“He has a unique ability to really bring animals to life, even when it’s looking at hard things like raptors killing other animals for food,” says Jones.

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“He’s daylighting the things you can see if you go to an urban park in the San Francisco Bay Area. Especially as a young person, he’s exposing a lot of people to the beauty and wonder of birds, and the more people see birds and their behaviors, the more they’re going to care about them and help in their conservation.”

Parham is also following a nesting pair of white-tailed kites, a species that in the United States only lives on the Pacific Coast and in southern Texas, and whose feeding and mating rituals fascinate him.

Returning from the hunt with prey, the male kite hovers, Parham says, “waiting for the female (or offspring) to come get the prey. The result is a spectacular mid-air food transfer that is the goal of all the photographers to capture.”

This year was the first that Parham was unable to capture photos of kite babies. “I heard about what happened from a local photographer,” he said. “A barn owl found the nest and killed all of the young ones. Ed Levin (park) has a giant barn-owl population, so it’s definitely plausible.”

“It’s a bloody place out there,” says Dodder.

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14-year-old photographer stalks San Jose’s bloody birds of prey (2024)
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