Thursday, February 23, 2006

Late February hawk reports

Today's posting is a look back at past year's hawk observations. I plan to spend a few hours tomorrow looking for the Red-tailed Hawks in Prospect Park. Out of curiousity, I went back to my journal to see what I might expect to find regarding late February activities. If the hawks are nesting again, and I have luck on my side, I may be able to report some exciting observations. In the meantime, enjoy the following excerpts:

"Big Mama & Splittail"

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

DATE: Saturday, 23 February 2002

[...] Both the male and the female returned to the nest repeatedly with various sized twigs and sticks. After carefully assessing the ever growing structure they'd meticulously weave the new piece into the nest. Sometimes the hawks would fly a short distance to one of the trees bordering the road in search of building material. Sometimes they'd fly off and I wouldn't see either bird for 10 minutes or more. I tried to find some identifying marks on the birds but could only tell them apart when they were side by side. The female (presumably) was noticeably larger than the male and the males tail looked a little tattered. I watched the female hawk looking for branches only a few yards from me. She'd use her talons to step on a small branch and if it didn't easily break, she'd try another one. One time she tipped her head to check out the wood above her. Stretching her neck out, she used her bill to snap off a branch and then flew back across the road to the nest. Hundreds of pedestrians, runners, rollerbladers and cyclists must have passed under the "construction zone" but only four people actually noticed the hawks. Those folks we excited and extremely curious about hawks in the park and I gladly shared my few experiences with them. I think one possibility for their choice of location is its proximity to the playground. With small children comes stray bits of food and with those bits of food come lots of squirrels and other rodents. For years I've noticed that a Bald Cypress between the Litchfield Villa and the playground has been a favorite perch for Red-tailed Hawk. [...]

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DATE: Wednesday, 23 February 2005

[...] As were were scanning the Upper Pool we heard the harsh cackle of the Ring-necked Pheasant near the Lower Pool. We slowly approached the source of the alarm call when I grabbed Linda's arm and stopped her from walking any farther. A few yards ahead of us a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk was perched on the top of the four foot fence that encloses the pool. There were a few people walking right passed him but he seemed too focused on the pheasant to be bothered. The pheasant was hiding motionless within the dried stalks of Cattails that ring the pond. The hawk flew up to a perch in a Gingko Tree above the tempting bird then, a few minutes later, to an oak tree immediately to our right. I guess he was trying to get to a better vantage point for his attack. Suddenly the pheasant cackled, flew from the Cattails and bolted across the pond into the underbrush of the peninsula between the two pools. The hawk followed close behind and perched in a Black Cherry tree above the frightened ring-necked. The relentless hunter tried several times to drop down onto the pheasant but was unable to get the right angle. His quarry stood still beneath the bare branches of a grouping of small shrubs. After a few awkward attempts the young hawk gave up and returned to a perch in the Gingko Tree. Standing with his back to the pheasant he scanned the Long Meadow for easier prey. I wonder if a Red-tailed Hawk could actually take down a pheasant as they are pretty much the same size and weight. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

I brought Linda up to Payne Hill to check on Big Mama and Split-tail's nest. We walked up a small incline and to the base of the Elm Tree where I watched the nesting pair last year. After only a few minutes of waiting the pair began circling their nest woods. At one point Big Mama landed on the nest. She seemed to be examining the nest, perhaps to give it her final approval. They remained in the woods at Payne Hill for a short while then flew in ever widening circles above their territory. At one point a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew in from the north and followed closely behind Big Mama. He made a few half-hearted attempts to intimidate the much larger raptor but she just ignored him. The sharpy veered off to the east and descended rapidly towards the Midwood forest.

Also, I just received the following note from my friend Peter:

"I saw 1 or 2 [Red-tailed Hawks] bringing nesting material to the top of the Ravine pine. No change of address labels needed." [...]

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DATE: Wednesday, 24 February 1999

[...] Also noteworthy is the sighting of an adult Red-tailed Hawk carrying what appeared to be nesting material. I have been observing the RTH's in Prospect Park since 1995 and my previous early sighting of nestbuilding was March 16, 1996. [...]

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DATE: Sunday, 24 February 2002

[...] As I watched the Red-tailed Hawks working on their nest this morning I tried to find some distinguishing characteristics to identify the individuals. I thought that I had a good mark for the female. She appears to have a large white patch on her rump caused by some feathers that are askew. At approximately 11:45am I observed the male bird fly over to the perched female and briefly mount her. A lightbulb when off over my head much later when I realized why those feathers are a little out of place. I guess that won't be a good field mark forever. The Bald Cypress that I described in yesterday's report appears to be the source for all the branches in the nest with the long green catkins. Both birds were travelling back and forth to it in search of building material. "The Birder's Handbook" lists the incubation period for red-taileds as 30-35 days. If she lays her eggs within a week, and they are successful, we could be seeing hatchlings anywhere from March 31st to April 5th. Let's keep our fingers crossed. [...]

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"Splittail"

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

DATE: Tuesday, 24 February 2004

[...] It seems like "my" hawks are once again playing hide-and-seek with me, trying to keep the location of this year's nest a secret. The north zoo nest is unused but last year's first attempt in an elm tree looks like it's been recently expanded. I've observed them actively courting and on Sunday the male tempted his larger mate with a rat as he lead her on a chase around the Long Meadow.

Today I located the large female perched low, in the wind break of "Elizabeth's Tulip tree" at the north end of Nelly's Lawn. I sat in the blowing, wet snow on a park bench beneath a pair of Beech trees and watched her. I spotted her mate in the distance as he preened under the umbrella of a pine tree at the edge of the lawn. After a few minutes she dropped down to a branch a little closer to me. Five minutes later she moved a bit closer. I wondered if she understood that the circular, bare patches in the leaf litter below her were caused by squirrels digging for their buried caches. After about 10 minutes of scanning the ground she flew to the park bench on the opposite side of the path from me. She perched on the top wooden rung and we silently stared at each other in the light snow fall. The words from an old Simon and Garfunkle song popped into my head; "Old friends, winter companions...sharing a park bench quietly." Her mate called and flew from the pine tree to a branch above my head. She eventually turned around on her perch and began looking down at the bottom of a black cherry tree adjacent to the bench. It looked like it had a large rat hole at its base. She hopped to the ground, bent over and looked inside the hole. She then flew up into the tree and checked inside a squirrel hole. Nobody was home so she flew up into the tuliptree where she was joined by her mate. They briefly copulated then flew off towards Sullivan Hill.

The inclement weather probably made their usual method of hunting very difficult. I was able to follow them on foot as they hunted from low perches around Nelly's Lawn, Sullivan Hill, Battle Pass and Payne Hill. I wasn't able to confirm the location of this year's nest yet. [...]

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DATE: Friday, 27 February 2004

[...] Sean and I went looking for the Red-tailed Hawks today for photo-ops and to try and confirm this year's nest location.

We started off at the Vale of Cashmere and I lead Sean on a tour of some of the hawk's favorite north end hunting spots. On Wednesday Sean noticed one of the hawks at the nest near Rick's Place so we headed over towards Payne Hill to check it out. This is the nest that I noticed them building back on January 17th.

The nest was empty when we arrived but Sean spotted one of the hawks perched nearby. It appeared to be scanning the ground below for prey. Sean found a good spot to set-up his camera and I walked to a location where I could watch both the hunter and his nest. When the hawk obligingly dropped down to a lower perch we moved a little closer hoping to see a kill. I've been seeing and hearing a few chipmunks around the park lately awakening from their winter nap. Perhaps these little rodents were the object of this hawks intense, searching eyes. He didn't seem to mind our proximity or another person who walked almost directly beneath his low perch. After about 30 minutes his mate returned to the nest and called for him. She also made a low, muted peeping sound that reminded me of begging hatchlings. She slowly walked around the top of the growing stick construction as if she were a building inspector. She then flew to a tree nearby where she began pulling on a large, dead branch to add to her nest. The piece of wood was so large that she had some trouble getting it to the nest. She briefly landed in a small, adjacent tree. It looked like she was trying to figure out the easiest path to take and eventually dragged it up to the nest and carefully weaved into her new nursery. She then joined her mate below. They flew to a branch above the sidewalk, quickly copulated then sat side by side for a few minutes staring off at the Long Meadow. I've tried to illustrate in words the extreme difference in size and shape between these two birds and I think that Sean was able to snap off some shots of them together before they took off. Hopefully, he got some nice comparison photos.

The pine tree nest, which is only about 100 yards from "Big Mama's" nest was empty today. It should be interesting to watch the interaction between these two closely nesting pairs, it's a wonder that they tolerate each other at all. The only other Red-tailed Hawk we observed today was an immature over Breeze Hill. It looked like it had taken quite a beating as it had many missing or broken feathers on its left wing. As we were watching it the adult pair, which had been soaring over the Nethermead, began approaching. All of a sudden the adult male tucked in his wings and accelerated at tremendous speed directly towards the young bird. He appeared to slam into the bird near the Oriental Pavilion then casually returned to his mate, still circling nearby. The immature bird flew slowly along the Lullwater below the treetops and perched near the Terrace Bridge to lick its wounds. He has unusually dark, practically black, facial feathers and his left wing looks pretty beat-up. While he appears to be able to fly just fine, he seems to be having trouble "getting the message". [...]

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