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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Green-Wood Cemetery hawk update

Getting big (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

My wife and I rode our bicycles over to the cemetery this afternoon to check on the progress of the two young red-tails. We arranged to meet my friend Dave (aka “Big Dave”) at the 20th Street entrance. I met Dave in 2002 when Big Mama and Split-tail were building their first nest. It was across from the 3rd Street playground in Prospect Park. For the next few years Dave and I followed Big Mama as her nest locations and construction improved with experience. For various reasons, Dave has been unable to keep tabs on these incredible creatures. I’ve always tried to keep him informed about their latest developments, but it’s not quite the same. Today would be his reunion with Big Mama, her new mate and their offspring.

As we approached the best viewing spot on the hillside I noticed a scope on a tripod and a person down the hill, near the road. It was Ben Cacace, who I hadn’t seen for a long time. He had come to check out the nest with Lincoln, who was a short distance down the road photographing Big Mama. The large hawk was perched at the top of a cedar tree southeast of the nest. Ben and Lincoln were doing what, for lack of a better description, was a “New York City Eyass Big Day”. Using only public transportation, by the time we saw them, they had been to 4 of the city’s Red-tailed Hawk nests. Lincoln will probably have images from today’s exploits posted on his website by the end of the day.

Before I put my binoculars up to my eyes, it was obvious that this week the chicks had experienced an enormous growth spurt. Nearly all of their fluffy white down has been replaced by dark, rigid feathers. I say “nearly” because their heads are now a spiky combination of unruly fuzz and slicked back adult plumes. They appear to be having a really bad, bad-hair-day. Another big change is their advancement to the “hop flap” stage.

A bad hair day (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

I noticed that when the wind picked up speed, it would create an updraft rising towards the hawk nest. Instinctively, the young hawks would hold their wings opened to catch the breeze. Then they’d begin furiously flapping and hopping into the air. The nest is too small for both young birds to practice, so they had to take turns.

At 2:18PM dad arrived at the nest with food. We all thought that the dark, limp object in his talons was a rat or mouse. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at my photos that I realized who they had over for lunch. It wasn’t a rodent, but a bird. I can’t be 100% sure, but it looks like a Northern Mockingbird. Which would be ironic because, for nearly an hour, we had been listening to a pair of dueling mockingbirds singing tirelessly from somewhere behind us. They prompted us to began playing “Name That Tune”. Their repertoires ranged from the obvious (Blue Jay) to the obscure (Tree Swallow).

The hawks seemed to have mastered the art of feeding themselves as, after the dead mockingbird was deposited in the nest, they had no problem feeding themselves. I noticed that the nest and surrounding branches had trapped dozens of the eyasses shed down, as well as, feathers plucked from their prey. It looked like the results of a pillow fight gone awry.

Northern Mockingbird (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

With the food in the nest, one of the two birds began doing something that looked really funny. He was sticking his foot out in front of him and stepping down hard, like he was crushing a bug. A couple of times he jumped up into the air, coming down on the “bug“ with both feet. It took me a few minutes, but I think I figured out what he was doing. He was experimenting with his newly discovered lethal weapon, his talons. Like a cat pouncing on a rubber mouse, the nestling was ”killing” his prey by skewering it with his razor-sharp claws.

Next week will see the hawks in their final stage before leaving the nest. Their maiden flight is not an event that can be predicted with a great deal of certainty, but with a little luck I’ll be there as a witness.

Another interesting observation today was of a pair of juvenile Peregrine Falcons. Just as Ben and Lincoln were leaving, we spotted the falcons circling together over the "Hill of Graves". Both birds were brown and streaked. Adults would be gray and barred. Because of the cemetery's proximity to the Verrazano Bridge, I would assume that they are recently fledged from that bridge's aerie. At 693 feet above the water, a maiden flight from the top of one of the towers must have taken a lot of confidence.

This video was shot in Green-Wood Cemetery today between 2:30PM and 2:40PM (Quicktime required)


Pamela said...

for some reason I was unable to load the Flap Shuffle...
but the rest of the post was so much fun to read
... even thought the mockingbird met his/her demise.

Ben C. said...


Thanks for the posting the details from your trip to the Greenwood Cemetery nest site. It was good to see you again along with your wife Robin and Dave.

Just to clarify ... Lincoln and I were already at 1 site and were looking to visit 3 sites in total for the day. Sorry for the confusion.

The first was St. John the Divine with 3 eyasses that are slightly less developed than the Greenwood pair.

The second was Greenwood.

The last was the Triborough Bridge site with 2 eyasses that are the youngest of the 3 pairs visited on Saturday. Here we saw both adults.

Thanks again! Seeing the Turkey Vultures and young Peregrine Falcons over the cemetery was an added bonus.

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