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Saturday, October 16, 2004

Gallinule and hawks

I feel like I've been neglecting the Red-tailed Hawks. My curiosity for all the other fascinating seasonal changes has briefly lead me away from my "friends". While watching the Purple Gallinule today seven of the local Red-tailed Hawks breezed in to interrupt the afternoon's focus. I also recently watched a pair of Red-tailed Hawks hunting above me in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. Last night I received an e-mail from my friend Janet with a report of her observations of the Red-tailed Hawks in the Green-wood Cemetery. Maybe I should take these experiences as a subtle reminder. I wonder how all the young from this year's broods are surviving? Are they even all alive?

Gallinule food

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I walked over to the end of the Peninsula at around 1pm. Steve was taking some photographs of the gallinule and there were a few other birders hanging around. Sean arrived with his camera a few minutes later. It's always nice to see a rare bird in the local park but it's even more satisfying when it's a relatively tame individual. There have been trucks and back-hoes working nearby and an electric boat giving lake tours passing by every fifteen minutes yet the gallinule seems unfazed and continues feeding. The steady stream of birders arriving at the water's edge have been able to get unusually close looks at this seemingly domesticated young bird. It's given me an opportunity to study this bird for long, uninterrupted stretches.

Sean and I were curious what he was eating so we used a long branch to drag a section of water-primrose onto the shore. Underneath some of the leaves we found minute, freshwater snails. I suppose that as long as the lake doesn't freeze he has little competition for the Brooklyn escargot. When he is feeding he habitually twitches his tail straight up. He also holds his wings down which allows his tail to fit perfectly into the notch created between his secondary and tertial wing feathers. We wondered if the flashing, white undertail feathers acted as some sort of warning for predators trying to sneak up from behind.

Hawk food

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Warm air rising off of the exposed concrete slab of the dry skating rink creates a convenient lift for the hawks. Breeze Hill, adjacent to the rink has been hit by southwest winds all day, also creating a perfect updraft. At one point there were five hawks hanging in the air above our section of the park. I said that I hoped none of them had any interest in the gallinule. A few minutes later one of the juvenile Red-tailed Hawks that had been kiting over the rink began to descend in our direction. He seemed to be watching the gallinule who was, as usual, feeding out in the open. He flew thirty feet over the small bird's head then ascended to a perch in a Pagoda tree. His perch had a straight shot at the hungry gallinule. I began to imitate the call of a Red-tailed Hawk hoping to distract him from the small bird. He took off from his perch and headed right towards the Purple Gallinule. Fortunately the gallinule headed for cover and the hawk veered off at the last moment. From within the protection of the phragmites the gallinule made a soft, crying call.

Through the afternoon we had more Red-tailed Hawk sightings in that area, as well as, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Cooper's Hawk and one Osprey. Would the inexperienced gallinule be able to avoid the unrelenting predators? We began to wonder if he could even fly as we had only observed him walking around. Eventually, at about 2pm we saw him flying across the water towards the skating rink. His exceptionally long toes hung down and nearly skimmed the water. I hope that he regains a sense of direction soon and heads south on the next northwest winds. Brooklyn may be a nice place to live but not for a Purple Gallinule.

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Prospect Park, 10/16/2004
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Brant (40, Flying over Peninsula towards lake.)
Wood Duck
Northern Shoveler
Ruddy Duck
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk (4 adults, 3 juveniles.)
Purple Gallinule (Upper Lullwater across from rink.)
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Gray Catbird
Common Yellowthroat
White-throated Sparrow

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

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