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Thursday, March 10, 2005

New Year?

More budding trees

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The more I learn about birds, nature and seasonal cycles the more arbitrary January 1st seems to be as the start of the year. In fact, January 1st is right in the middle of the winter season where I live. I don't think there is any astronomical reason for the choice of date and, in fact, the Vernal Equinox would seem a more logical choice. There really isn't any start or stop to the seasons as they are in a constant state of flux. However, lately I've begun to consider the nesting of our local Red-tailed Hawks as the commencement of the new year. The hawks begin courting during the coldest days of winter and set about shoring up their nest by late winter. At around the time witch-hazel is blooming and tiny buds are appearing on some trees, the hawks are settling down to incubate their eggs. By the time many birds just have hatchlings in their nests the young hawks have already fledged and are learning to hunt.

As I approached Payne Hill from the north I spotted one of the adult red-tails soaring above the nest woods. A moment later he was joined by his larger mate. I was surprised when a third, juvenile, Red-tailed Hawk appeared below them. I don't know if it was one of their offspring or a stranger but they were indifferent to his presence and allowed him to soar above the woods with them. I was hoping that they'd descend towards the meadow so I could photograph their undersides for comparison. No such luck. The young raptor ascended into a large puffy cloud as the two adults remained above Payne Hill. Suddenly, from out of the north, a Merlin rocketed towards one of the red-tails. He veered off at the last moment and went into a steep climb. At the top of the climb he rolled over, tucked his wings close to his body and plummeted towards the Red-tailed Hawk.

Now, an average Red-tailed Hawks is 19" long with a 49" wing span and they weight about 2.4 pounds. On the other hand, an average Merlin is only about 10" long with a 24" wing span and weight about 6.5 ounces. What these little guys lack in size they make up for in speed, agility and attitude. The Merlin continued to attack the Red-tailed Hawk for about two minutes. Each time it seemed certain that he would collide with the larger hawk the red-tail would flip his body over and point his bayonet-like talons at the falcon. Maybe the Merlin was just looking for someone to play with but he eventually flew off towards the Midwood.

During the aerial dogfight I lost track of Big Mama, as did Split-tail. He flew off in the direction of the nest and I followed on foot. When I caught up with him he was perched near the top of the tallest tree in the Midwood. He was also making a low, whinning sound. Perhaps he was looking for his mate. A few minutes later he took off, flying north through the trees on Battle Pass...and still whinning. It was easy to find him at the edge of Nelly's Lawn. There is a towering example of Tuliptree labeled on old maps as "Elizabeth's Tuliptree". Since 2002 I've noticed that this is a favorite perching tree for this pair. Perhaps they like it because it gives them an overview of both Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Also, I frequently observe them copulating in that spot at this time of year. This time, however, he was all alone. He barely opened his mouth to make his muted call. It sounded like a lonesome puppy waiting for his master to come home. When he flew off again, this time towards the Picnic House, I decided to check on the other hawk nest.

In the Ravine one of the other hawks was working on the pine tree nest. As he flew over me I noticed his distended crop. He must have just eaten. It prompted me to look around for the pheasant but I didn't see him. On Center Drive I relocated the hawk with the big crop as he stripped bark from a branch in a Sweetgum tree. When he flew off towards the nest the long, trailing extension made me think about the pheasant again.

I took a quick survey of Prospect Lake where the Ring-neck Duck flock has grown to 35 individuals. They're a very nervous species and quickly move to the center of the lake whenever I try to approach. I noticed that "Woody", our resident Wood Duck, has disappeared recently. It seems to be a late-winter pattern. He leaves the park for parts unknown for about a month, then returns in time to court the Mallards.

On my way back home I decided to walk up to Lookout Hill. There's a stand of pines on the hill that seems appropriate for roosting owls. Owls are quite rare in the park but it never stops me from looking. There were no signs of owls. I decided to cut through the woods below the trees instead of taking the icy roadway. I wasn't thinking about birds at that point nor paying attention to the ground when something startled me. There was the flash of a chipmunk-colored bird from the snow in front of me then the whistling of wings. I got my binoculars on it and watch as an American Woodcock flew off towards the Quaker Cemetery. If I had been more vigilant perhaps I could have gotten a photograph of a bird, instead I got this:

Woodcock tracks

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Then last night I received the following e-mail from a friend:

"Just read your note and I was surprised by a woodcock this afternoon. As I was pulling my car into my driveway [ ... ] I saw a small roundish bird sitting in the sun under a white pine next to the driveway. I called my husband on the cell and asked that he try to photograph the bird. He came out slowly and got only one picture before the bird flew toward the swamp, rounding its tail as it went. It was the bright rusty color of the back feathers that caught my eye or I would have missed it.

American Woodcock (Scolopax minor )

(Photo credit - Sandra Marraffino)


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Prospect Park, 3/10/2005
Pied-billed Grebe (1, Prospect Lake.)
Double-crested Cormorant (1, Prospect Lake.)
Northern Shoveler (~20, Prospect Lake.)
Ring-necked Duck (35, Prospect Lake.)
Bufflehead (1, Prospect Lake.)
Hooded Merganser (5, Prospect Lake.)
Common Merganser (1, Prospect Lake.)
Ruddy Duck (~50, Prospect Lake.)
Red-tailed Hawk (4 adults, 1 juvenile.)
Merlin (1, attacking Red-tailed Hawk over Payne Hill.)
American Coot (~10, Prospect Lake.)
American Woodcock (1, Lookout Hill.)
Ring-billed Gull
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (1, near Nelly's Lawn.)
White-breasted Nuthatch (1, Lookout Hill.)
Swamp Sparrow (Peninsula.)
White-throated Sparrow (Fairly common.)
Common Grackle (Peninsula.)

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck (~5, Prospect Lake.), Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker (Several.), Hairy Woodpecker (1, near Litchfield Villa. 1, Lookout Hill.), Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin (Common.), European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

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