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Saturday, July 17, 2004

Alto's expanding her range

(Photo credit - Rob J)

My friend Peter has been in a serious funk this summer. He's a really skilled birder and amateur naturalist. I've learned a tremendous amount from him about birds, plants and insects in the eight years that we've been friends. When he admitted to me that he hasn't picked up his binoculars in eight weeks I knew something was seriously wrong. This is a guy who is rarely without a pair of binoculars and is usually the first person to report "special" birds in Prospect Park. I ran into him online early in the morning and we typed an instant messaging conversation for about thirty minutes. I convinced him to dust off his bins and meet me at the Nethermead Arches.

Observing the behavior of the Red-tailed Hawks has always been an effective catharsis for anything that troubles me. I thought that tracking down the hawks with Peter might help him clear his head and work through his issues.

The two hawk families seem to have avoided conflicts by establishing separate territories within the park. Big Mama and Split-tail's offspring have been hunting at the north end of the park within the Midwood, Payne Hill, "Elephant Hill" and Sullivan Hill. The three noisy fledglings from the Ravine nest have been honing their skills along Quaker Ridge, the Quaker Cemetery and Lookout Hill. I met Peter near the Nethermead Arches and we walked the muddy bridle path at the edge of Quaker Ridge. Two young hawks were tirelessly calling from somewhere up on the ridge near the cemetery. Closer to us we heard the rising, whistled "wheep" of a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers. We spotted one of the flycatchers preening on a bare branch about 20 yards up the ridge.

A street lamp at the edge of the road on the Nethermead Arches has been an annual nest for a pair of House Wrens for several years. I've been hearing the bubbly song of the wrens at this location since mid-May. This morning Peter and I spotted one of the tiny, brown birds carrying an insect in its bill. He flew up to the top of the street lamp and poked his head into a small opening at the back of the light fixture. At this late date I presume that this is a second brood for this pair.

The Midwood forest was quiet but I heard some robins calling from the north end near Rick's Place. As we approached the stairway near the start of the woods a young hawk began calling from within the dense foliage of a tuliptree. We scanned the tree from a few different perspectives but couldn't find the source of the calls. A hungry "Bebe" perhaps? We waited in that spot for about ten minutes then gave up and walked across the roadway towards the Vale of Cashmere.

A soccer match was in progress on Nelly's Lawn and we had to walk around the south edge of the field. As we approached the sidewalk on the far side of the lawn I heard the alarm call of a robin up ahead. I assumed that Big Mama or Split-tail was hunting nearby. We located the perturbed songbird under the verdant umbrella of a stand of mulberry, cherry and aralia trees. Brilliant sunshine beaming through the leaves cast a green hue on everything below the canopy. The object of the robin's warning was not one of the adult hawks, however, but the young Alto! She bravely decided to leave the woods of Sullivan Hill and Battle Pass, cross the east loop drive, fly across Nelly's Lawn and was now hunting near the Vale of Cashmere. Like a proud parent I was ecstatic that she was expanding her horizons and learning to provide for herself.

Hunting near Nelly's Lawn

(Photo credit - Rob J)

She was perched on a cluster of dead branches and was intensely scanning the goutweed ground cover below. She snapped her head from side to side occasionally leaning forward and focusing in on a patch of weeds. It looked like a good spot for rodents and I thought we might get to see her make a kill. Finally she got the intense look of a cat about to pounce and began slowly stepping to her right to a better position on the branch. Then she took one step too many and the rotted wood broke off sending her flapping to the ground. She quickly recovered and flew to a tree across a small stretch of grass. If there had been any rodents in the area the branch crashing to the ground must have scared them off. A few minutes later Alto returned to the same spot and again began patiently waiting out her furry prey. Peter and I were also in need of lunch and were thankful that we didn't have to sit perched in a tree waiting for a potential meal to wander passed. We left Alto still scanning the ground and walked over to the local pub.

After lunch we walked back to the park to check the Lower pool for Wood Ducks. We watched a flock of seven young ducks feeding in the seclusion of the northwest corner of the pond and then went our separate ways. Before leaving Peter commented that the binocular strap on the back of his neck felt a bit alien. I advised him that he was going to have to use his bins for a few weeks to wear the groove back into his neck. He agreed.
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Prospect Park, 7/17/2004
Wood Duck (7, Lower pool.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1 adult, 4 juveniles.)
Laughing Gull
Chimney Swift
Northern Flicker
Great Crested Flycatcher (2, Quaker Ridge.)
Eastern Kingbird
Barn Swallow
House Wren (Carrying food into nest in lamppost on Nethermead Arches.)
Gray Catbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole (Quaker Ridge.)

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

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