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Friday, August 03, 2007

How my hawk days began

Last Friday, before work, Orrin and I met in Prospect Park for a little birding. It was the type of morning that you could tell just by looking out the window that it was going to be uncomfortable.

The air was heavy with moisture and the temperature rising as I descended through Prospect Park and down to the south side of the lake. The sky was blindingly, white making looking into the sky at passing birds nearly pointless.

When the lazy days of summer arrive, I become a lethargic birder. Rather than expend energy lifting binoculars to my eyes to identify a bird, I use my ears. Their songs or calls satisfy my birding cravings, as I can picture the source in my mind’s eyes. Friday morning was typical of one of those sluggish stretches.

I think that the birds were also a bit listless. There didn’t seem to be much activity anywhere on our brief meander from West Island, through the Lullwater and under the Eastwood Arch.

We parted company near the Carousel and I hopped on my bicycle to pedal around the north end of the park and home. The East Drive climbs a long hill from Battle Pass to Grand Army Plaza. From the top of the park the road then begins a long descent on the West Drive. I normally look forward to gliding down the west side, but Friday I started to fizzle out only a short distance beyond Battle Pass. Instead, I cut across the Long Meadow towards the Third Street Playground.

While I was standing at the crosswalk near the playground, I heard a robin making an alert call. I cannot describe, precisely, what the quality is of that particular call note, but I’ve come to recognize it as their “word” for hawk, although it can also mean cat or raccoon raiding my nest. I crossed the road and began to scan the trees for a hawk. It only took a few of seconds as she was sitting out in the open, facing the playground. I know what you are thinking and I assure you that Red-tailed Hawks do not stalk stray children (at least not to my knowledge). The large, 1 year old female has claimed the north end of the park as their territory. While she was preening, I noticed that her brown, banded tail had begun morphing into the brick red plumage of an adult.

The young female was perched in the same area as Big Mama, when I first saw her in 2002. That spring, she and Split-tail (her first mate) built a nest above the crosswalk. I had seen Red-tailed Hawks in Prospect Park, but that was the true beginning of my fascination and passion for these animals.

Below is an excerpt from my journal entry about the morning Big Mama’s first offspring left the nest:

Tuesday, 11 June 2002

It has been 108 days since I started watching the Red-tailed Hawks building their nest and 7 weeks since the two chicks hatched. My vigilance at the nest finally paid off on a morning that was both exhilarating and, at times, harrowing.

When I arrived at 8am the younger chick was in the oak tree adjacent to the nest tree. The older chick was nowhere to be found and I assumed it had fledged. Thirty minutes later I located it in an oak tree not far from where I was standing, a considerable distance from where it was when I left the park last night. By around 8:30am the adult male arrived with a White-footed Mouse and was joined by his mate at the nest. The female took the mouse in her bill and flew out to her usual perch where she could be seen by both chicks. The older, more advanced chick began squealing and she flew to a branch above her hungry offspring. As the drama unfolded a group of us were riveted by the two birds as the chick tried to maneuver itself into a position where it could safely take the rodent from its parent. At one point I stepped back from the group for a different perspective and, from the corner of my eye, spotted the younger bird soaring from its high perch in the oak tree down into the grass directly beside me. The chick made a soft landing and just stood there looking a bit confused.

Stephen Rudley and I immediately placed ourselves between the roadway and the young chick. Despite the fact that it was this bird’s first experience with terra firma it could run surprisingly fast. I was amazed at how long its legs were and how it looked more like an ostrich running than a hawk. As luck would have it Ann Wong, the head biologist from the Prospect Park Alliance, was present. Moments later, Tupper Thomas, the park administrator, arrived. Within 30 minutes a work crew arrived, put up cones to block one lane of the road and began quickly erecting a snow fence along the edge of the curb. As this was happening Stephen and I continued to follow the hawk herding it away from both the roadway and the open, and very busy, Long Meadow. At one point our little friend began bolting down the dirt
path while flapping its wings. When it couldn't gain altitude it just hopped up on a low boulder and looked around. The rock was in a very open spot next to the road and Stephen thought that he could gently coax the bird to perch on a large branch that he would then carry back up the hill. No dice. The hawk just sat down on its haunches as if in complete resignation. After a short rest it began running back up the hill towards its starting point. I followed it as it foraged like a chicken in the underbrush and was surprised when I saw it eating an earthworm (mmm, tastes like rat).

At the top of the rise is a small tree that leans over at a slight angle. The young raptor had checked it out a couple of times earlier but had trouble climbing up it, as the angle was perhaps a little steep. I had an idea that I thought might help. I located a very long log, dragged it out of the woods and leaned it against the tree at a lower angle. I hoped that our wayward friend would use it to climb to higher ground. It didn't take long but sure enough it climbed up on it and began making its way up the tree (that log has now become known as "Rob's Hawk Ladder"). As we were playing raptor herder momma Red-tailed Hawk remained perched above us most of the time. By about 12:30pm the little one had made a lot of progress and was about 12-15 feet back up in a tree. Meanwhile, the older chick (who we had completely forgotten about) had flown into a Sycamore Maple about 30 yards south of where we had been watching it earlier. It has completed the flying exam and passed with, well, flying colors.

As nervous as we all were when the younger hawk was running around on the ground we were relieved once it made it back up into the tree. The chick is probably only a day behind its sibling with regard to development and I feel confident that by tomorrow he should be fine.

1 comment:

Pamela said...

raptor herder momma

you made me giggle....

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