Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Looking for signs of owls

It was 20°F when I left my house. I decided that it would be a good day to search for signs of owls in Prospect Park and the botanic gardens. My decision wasn’t based on any local reports of owl sightings or intellectual reasoning. I was really just motivated by the season’s first sting of arctic bluster and the mental picture of a tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl hunkered down among the protective needles of a conifer. There weren’t any owls around that I was aware of but every year about this time I begin looking for signs of a roost.

I walked east across the Long Meadow near 3rd Street. When I left the shelter of the trees and walked out into the open I was blasted by a frigid north wind rolling down the mile long meadow. I spotted an adult Red-tailed Hawk rising up over the trees near the Vale of Cashmere. Despite the strong wind she effortlessly navigated into the gusts and patrolled the north end of the meadow. She circled close to me then dove across the field and down into the trees at the north end of Nelly’s Lawn. I had begun to follow her when she appeared in the air above Nelly’s Lawn and flew quickly towards the zoo. A moment later a juvenile hawk emerged from the north zoo woods and flew across the road towards Payne Hill. Rather than follow either hawk I decided to stick with my original plan to look for owls.

In the stretch of woods behind Sullivan Hill squirrels shoveled their noses into the leaf litter looking for hidden stashes. It felt good to be out of the wind but, unfortunately, it was also devoid of bird life. At Payne Hill I took a look at the old Red-tailed Hawk nest. Nothing seems to have changed. As I stood looking a nearby Blue Jay mimicked the high, raspy “keeeer” call of a red-tailed. For once, I wasn’t fooled. He’s been messing with my head for about a year but I can finally differentiate the thinner quality of his imitation.

I briefly scanned the bare branches of the trees in the Midwood then continued walking east towards the botanic gardens.

Japanese Beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, while free of the warm weather hordes of humans, was an oasis for wildlife. Flocks of robins and Cedar Waxwings gorged themselves on red hawthorn berries. A large flock of starlings occupied the tops of a pair of pagoda trees and feasted on translucent, green bean pods. Squirrels climbed up into dense Japanese Beautyberry shrubs and nibbled on its clusters of vivid purple berries. I spotted rabbit tracks in the snow beneath a Flowering Quince shrub where several quince had fallen. One looked like someone had stopped for a snack. As I searched all the garden’s conifers I came across several small flocks of Black-capped Chickadees. They seemed to be finding morsels to eat within the tree’s needles and the fragrant mats below.

One of the first places I looked was at a California Incense Cedar. Early last February I noticed about twenty owl pellets at the base of this tree. Today there were none, in fact, I couldn’t find signs of an owl anywhere in the garden. Maybe later in the season.

On my way back home I walked through the Midwood and on to Center Drive. In the Midwood several squirrels were squeaking their typical agitation sound. I searched the trees for a predator but didn’t find one. As I crossed the Nethermead Arches I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a Black Cherry tree on the south side of the bridge. I walked around behind him to get a closer look.

My first impression of the hawk was that he was tall and lean. His profile was very different from “Big Mama” who always gave the impression of being very wide and muscular. The “V” pattern usually seen on Red-tailed Hawk’s scapulars seemed somewhat subdued on him. The feathers that form the “V” are generally white with a central, dark brown wedge shape. This bird’s “wedges” were all bordered by rusty red. His underside also had a considerable amount of fine, red feathers from the throat to the belly and around to his flanks. His feathers were neat and clean and, on closer inspection, appeared to have sharp, fresh edges. Perhaps this is his first season with adult plumage.

I walked back to the bridge to take another look at the front of the hawk. As I was getting ready to snap a photo something across the road caught his attention. He jerked his head forward then took off in the direction of the Midwood (where the squirrels were very agitated earlier). I can’t be 100% certain but he looks like he might be a new tenant in Prospect Park.

Hawk and First Quarter Moon

(Photo credit - Rob J)

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Prospect Park & Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, 12/7/2005
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Canada Goose
Gadwall (Upper pool.)
Mallard
Bufflehead (3, Upper pool.)
Cooper's Hawk (BBG.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1 adult, 1 juvenile.)
American Coot
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee (Fairly common.)
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper (BBG.)
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird (BBG.)
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing (BBG.)
Northern Cardinal
White-throated Sparrow (Common.)
Dark-eyed Junco (Fairly common.)

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