Friday, April 06, 2007

Continuing the search in the cemetery

"Precious Georgie"

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

On Sunday night I studied the map of Green-Wood Cemetery, reasoning that if Big Mama and Junior had built a new nest there was no way that they could keep it hidden from me. I started drawing lines on the map to create search grids. My next step was to compare the Google Earth satellite image to the quadrants on the map. I looked for clusters of trees, compared them to the map and areas that they frequented as reported by the groundskeepers. When I was finished I sent a scanned copy to Marge and we arranged to meet at the cemetery on Thursday morning.

Bishop Ford radio tower

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Thursday arrived with a blast of arctic air and strong winds. By 10:00am we were standing at the edge of the Sylvan Water in a light snow flurry. The weather conditions didn’t bode well for our search effort. Marge thought she saw a hawk coming our way. It turned out to be a Turkey Vulture. I wouldn’t think that they’d migrate in such wintery weather, but, in fact, we spotted a second one a short time later.

We didn’t have enough time (or warm clothing) to crisscross the entire cemetery so I picked a line of quadrants that I felt might be productive. Compared to other nest sites I’ve observed, this first strip of habitat seemed to have desirable features for the hawks. There were lots of mature, towering tulip trees, sweetgums, sycamores and other deciduous trees along the route.

I should have brought a compass along as it is nearly impossible to maintain a straight line in Green-Wood. Every hundred yards I had to refer back to the map and make adjustments to the direction that we were walking. The cemetery was built on a section of terminal moraine so that there are very few completely level areas. The highest point in Brooklyn is within the cemetery.

Once we reached the opposite side of the cemetery I consulted the map to decide which strip of squares we would use to get back to the car. By noon the sky had cleared, but it was still cold and gusty. It wasn’t too bad when we were out of the wind and within the valleys, but I still needed to wear a pair gloves. Unfortunately, one of my gloves dropped out of my pocket somewhere early in our walk when I was checking the map. I made a mental note of where I thought it was and would go back once we were finished.

Magnolia pistil & stamen

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Magnolia bud (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

The sunlit valleys were the only places that we encountered bird activity. It was just too windy out in the open. Juncos and White-throated Sparrows scratched in the leaf litter and woodpeckers drummed higher in the understory. I heard, then spotted a Hairy Woodpecker clinging to the side of a beech tree. Nearby, the brilliant yellow of a Pine Warbler caught my eye. Normally found feeding high in trees, the warbler flew down to the ground in front of a hillside mausoleum. He began foraging within a flock of white-throats and juncos. There were also several Golden-crowned Kinglets moving between the ground and the bases of the trees. Looking like Brown Creepers, the kinglets probed the narrow, vertical ridges in the tree bark for insects.

As we were walking towards the Hillside Mausoleum something occurred to me. I told Marge that we shouldn’t overlook the conifers. Pine trees are an unusual place to find a Red-tailed Hawk’s nest, but so are the sides of buildings and we have both in New York City. There are lots of dense, healthy conifers in the cemetery so it would make our hunt that much more difficult.

Morning passed and we hadn’t found the nest or seen the hawks. As we approached Sylvan Water I noticed Mike Zablocky scanning the pond with his binoculars. Mike is one of only three or four people who regularly bird in the cemetery. In the past, we frequently crossed paths in Prospect Park but he has given up the park for the more peaceful cemetery. I explained my plan to Mike and he agreed to join us. Marge had to leave so we walked back to her car. After she left Mike and I walked a route that skirted the far end of where I started the day.

We saw another Pine Warbler, but still no hawks. Maybe the strong wind was keeping them grounded. By about 2:00pm we decided to wrap it up, but first I needed to retrieve my lost glove. Mike was very patient as I turned on the wrong paths and ended up on the opposite side from where we should have been. I finally got my bearings and headed towards where I was certain I’d find my glove.

It wasn’t an expensive glove and I had plenty of other gloves at home but, maybe subconsciously I was using it as an excuse to spend more time in the cemetery. After circling for half an hour I finally recognized the trees and headstones. I stepped off the path, and, within a few yards, spotted my black, polar-fleece glove. After I picked it up I turned to face Mike and spotted Big Mama and Junior behind him. They were flying low over the green, patinated roof of Stephen Whitney’s Chapel. We were both too tired to chase them but were glad to know that they were still around.

Mike knew the route back to the main entrance so I let him lead. Knowing that there aren’t any straight roads in the cemetery, I asked Mike to point in the general direction. I suggested the we walk off of the paths and head directly towards 5th Avenue. We had only walked about 20 yards when we spotted Junior flying in from our right. We could see some kind of prey dangling from his feet. Then the unbelievable happened. He landed near the top of a cedar tree directly in front of us. I looked through my bins and saw that he was standing at the edge of a nest and Big Mama was sitting in it. I was overjoyed and then realized that both Marge, Joe and I had passed beneath their nest several times but never noticed it. I tried to take some photos but it was so windy that my tripod was vibrating.

Mike left while I was still fighting the wind and attempting to take a decent photo. On my way back to the bus I spotted Junior again. This time he was chasing a flock of pigeons above the new apartments that had threatened to block Minerva’s view of Liberty. Something suddenly occurred to me. For at least 5 years, Alice and Ralph have been building their nests at the tops of conifers. Like Junior, Alice has an extremely dark face. Junior had been hanging around Prospect Park in 2005 and hadn’t yet developed the signature “red” tail when he began challenging Split-tail for Big Mama’s attention. Ultimately, Junior won, but they didn’t breed until last year, when they took over an abandoned Red-tailed Hawk nest in the cemetery. The nest came down during a winter storm so Junior had to build his first nest from scratch. It’s curious that he would choose the top of a conifer. Could he be one of Ralph and Alice’s offspring?

Big Mama and her nest tree 04/05


(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

There are many Red-tailed Hawks hatched in New York City every year. Compared to truly wild locations the five boroughs have a very limited amount of green spaces that they can claim as their territory. Green-Wood Cemetery would seem to be a very highly prized location. It had been used by a single pair for at least 10 years. Now a feisty young male named Junior is the ruler. It will be interesting to watch the progress of this new dynasty.

-Click here for more info on Green-Wood Cemetery-

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Green-Wood Cemetery, 4/5/2007
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Double-crested Cormorant
Snow Goose
American Wigeon
Hooded Merganser
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Ring-billed Gull
Monk Parakeet
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Tufted Titmouse
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Pine Warbler
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

1 comment:

Pamela said...

the link didn't give the size of the cemetery. Your description sounds as tho it is enormous. What a strange idea that a place for the dead turns into a sanctuary for birds. Now I'll know where to look when I'm traveling.

I bought an owl box hoping that the little saw-whet owls that hang around would find it (their nest was cut down from the neighbors huge maple tree when the tree trimmers did what needed to be done to save the old monsters)

The very next day the house sparrows were in the owl box and removing all the wood shavings that came with the purchase.

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