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Thursday, July 08, 2004

Tracking the Fledglings

I've been away from the park for too long. Yesterday I was working in an office in Soho. There were some workers on the street below making a lot of noise. Suddenly, a piece of machinery made a loud, high-pitched sound that was so similar to a young red-tailed hawk cry that I involuntarily whipped around and looked out the window towards the sky. For a fleeting moment I was outdoors tracking down hawks not in an office troubleshooting computers. I needed to make time to check on the hawks.

It's been over a week since my last visit to Alto and Bebe and I assumed that they would have started to venture much farther away from their nest woods. Nonetheless, I decided to first check their favorite oak tree on Sullivan Hill. They weren't at that spot, in the muddy puddle or anywhere in the immediate vicinity. In fact, the area was very quiet. It felt like ninety degrees when I left the house so I thought that a likely spot to find the hawks might be in the cool shade of the Midwood forest. As I approached Rick's Place I could hear the continuous clamor of agitated robins coming from the Midwood. I presumed that if I followed the sounds I'd have my hawks. I spent the next hour in the forest tracking my quarry.

The robins were calling from a couple of spots near the northeast section of the woods. The gaze of one of the robins directed me to Split-tail perched above the bridle path. I heard a whistling chirp a short distance east of his perch. The source of the call turned out to be Alto. She was settled on a branch about ten feet above a foot path that is parallel to the east loop road and across from the carousel. As she looked over her shoulder at me I noticed that her normally shiny, gray bill was now deep brown from a layer of mud. Walking around to the front of her I saw that her yellow, scaly feet and legs were also covered in dark mud. Some of her belly feathers were tipped with the brown stuff, as well. I guess I missed her romp in the mud puddle. I began scanning the adjacent trees for Bebe. I couldn't find him but a few yards away I spotted Big Mama preening her belly feathers.

I walked west into the center of the Midwood to check on the Wood Thrush nest. The female was sitting on her eggs and her mate was foraging on the ground below. I'm not sure why but the park Wood Thrushes always include bits of white paper in their nest construction. One unintended benefit is that it makes locating their nests much easier for me. As I was watching the thrushes I heard the whining cry of another red-tail near the southwest corner of the woods. It was from the same area that Sean and I heard the cries last week. Today I found the fledgling hawk flying from branch to branch in a tuliptree near the edge of the Midwood. He eventually flew off towards the Ravine. As I walked back north along the bridle path I heard an odd, guttural squawk above the treetops. I saw two young hawks circling low and apparently tormenting a Great Blue Heron. The heron broke off from the formation and continued squawking as he headed off in a northern direction.

In a little over forty minutes I was able to locate four of the five fledgling Red-tailed Hawks but I still wanted to find Bebe. I walked back up through the center of the Midwood where most of the robins I encountered earlier were still calling. Where the bridle path climbs the hill towards Rick's Place I spotted a robin diving in and out of a stand of locust saplings. I thought that one of the hawks might be on the ground. I approached slowly but couldn't see what had the robin so upset. Finally I realized that he was right in front of me. The dappled sunlight on his brown and white speckled back made Bebe practically disappear into the log that he was standing on. He had a small rat in his talons and completely ignored both the nagging robin and the nosey birder. It only took a few minutes for him to tear into then devour the whole rodent. He then went hunting for more. The ground on the western rise of the Midwood is covered mostly with a weedy plant named goutweed. Bebe slowly walked through the green growth looking more like a big cat stalking prey than a hawk. Sometimes he would run through the underbrush with his wings held out for balance. Like his parents, who frequently hunt from a perch, he would make short flights up onto a log, scan the underbrush, then jump down onto any perceived movement in the goutweed.

It's exciting that both sets of fledgling hawks have begun exploring the Midwood. It appears that they are currently staying at opposite ends of the forest but it should be interesting when they inevitably cross paths. By that time I probably won't be able to tell any of them apart. How about name tags?
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Prospect Park, 7/8/2004
Great Blue Heron (Circling over Quaker Ridge.)
Red-tailed Hawk (2 adults, 5 fledglings.)
Northern Flicker (2 Midwood.)
Red-eyed Vireo (Payne Hill.)
Wood Thrush (Adults at nest in Midwood.)
Gray Catbird
Common Grackle

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Red-bellied Woodpecker (2 Midwood.), Downy Woodpecker (Midwood.), Blue Jay (3 or 4, Midwood.), Tufted Titmouse (Midwood.), American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

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