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Friday, January 25, 2008

A Look Back

After watching the two Red-tailed Hawks courting in the woods behind the zoo, I began to think about the first hawk nest that I closely observed. The year was 2002 and it was a pair that became known as Big Mama and Split-tail. For various reasons, many people more experienced with urban Red-tailed Hawks believed that it was their first nesting attempt, but they sucessfully raised 2 young. In the following years Big Mama and Split-tail reared 5 more offspring of which 2 died of the disease frounce. Big Mama went on to pair with a younger male named "Junior". They subsequently moved to a nest in Green-Wood Cemetery where they've raised three offspring in 2 years.

When I went home from Prospect Park on the 13th I looked at some old photos and read through my journal from 2002. Below is the entry from the most memorable event of that spring:

June 11, 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 tohigher 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 it should be fine.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

1 comment:

Brenda from Flatbush said...

Rob, I need your help to ID a hawk! My lousy blurry photo of him/her from Thursday morning on Quaker Hill in PP is on my park blog:
I was so excited!!!!! Never gonna go out without the binos again, I swear! (And I love this hawk release story, what a thrill...)

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