Sunday, March 30, 2008

Green-Wood Cemetery hawks

I took the B63 bus down 5th Avenue to Green-Wood Cemetery late this morning to check on the cemetery's resident Red-tailed Hawks. Last Thursday Joe and Marge confirmed that Big Mama and Junior had indeed moved into a new nest. We would meet at the main entrance and Joe would drive us over to see the hawk's new digs.

Several Monk Parakeets were feeding along the narrow grass border that parallels the walkway leading to the cemetery's Gothic Revival entrance. The resident colony that nests on the brownstone spires is vocal all year. Now that spring has arrived, they are chattering non-stop, foraging for food, collecting nest material and building or repairing their communal nests. It looked like the avian equivalent of a beehive, only louder. Close by, flocks of Common Grackles have joined the activity, contributing their unique collection of squeaks and squawks to the crescendo of Spring's background music.

We stopped at the "Sylvan Water" pond so Marge could deliver some cracked corn to her charges - the four wayward Snow Geese. They usually come running (or limping) the moment they see her, but today they stayed in the water a short distance from the shore. Marge could not understand why they were ignoring her food offering. After a few minutes, it became clear. There was a young Red-tailed Hawk sitting in a tree next to the pond. The hawk eventually flew off and the geese promptly left the water and waddled over to greet their adopted Mother Goose. "Stumpy" looked healthy despite his amputated foot, but was still smaller than the other three Snow Geese. I noticed that "Mommy" (Marge's name for the original injured Snow Goose) still harasses the little one, so he likely isn't getting as much to eat as the others. Joe mentioned that one of the young geese seems to be showing interest in "Mommy". It is a bit premature, but how weird would it be if Snow Geese began nesting in Brooklyn? Would hunting season be far off?

I heard the trilling song of a Pine Warbler, then spotted the brilliant yellow bird perched in a Magnolia tree next to the car. A second one, a short distance away, was hawking for insects from a pine tree. There were also several Eastern Phoebes ringing the pond. They were launching short feeding sallies from the pond's stone coping, low fence posts, mausoleum roofs and leafless tree branches.

A few minutes after we arrived, Steve and Heidi pulled up next to us. Steve rolled down his window and, with a wide grin said, "Have you seen the pipit?" I thought that he was joking, but, in fact, he had spotted a lone American Pipit feeding in the stubby grass that surrounds the pond. Besides the fact that Green-Wood Cemetery is not a typical NYC location where birders look for these small, brown birds, they are a gregarious species usually seen in the company of other pipits. They are often overlooked during migration, but can frequently be heard making their namesake "pip-it, pip-it" flight call as they pass overhead. The one foraging next to the cemetery pond reminded me of the single Snow Bunting I observed at Gravesend Bay last month. Another lonely arctic bird.

The new hawk nest is about two hundred yards south of last year's nest. Unlike their previous choice (a spindly cedar tree), the base for this year's nursery is near the top of a massive, mature European Elm tree. At the base of the tree is the cemetery's well-known drummer boy grave and monument. In addition to the more substantial base, their new nest is considerably larger than 2007's. Marge and Joe told me that the hawks started work on it last spring, but eventually moved into the cedar tree up the hill to the north.

We parked the car on Linden Avenue and Joe walked me to a viewing spot that he had scoped out last week. On a hill southwest of the huge elm is an unobstructed view of the nest. When we arrived, Big Mama was sitting motionless within the bowl of the over-sized twig and branch structure.

I had a decent view, but the high, harsh midday sun made taking decent photos impossible. At 1:05pm, Junior flew into the nest. He didn't bring any food and just stood over his larger mate, as if he was just checking in. He left after only a minute.

I walked around to the hill on the opposite side and located another vantage point that should allow good views of their hatchlings later in the season.

Big Mama left the nest at around 1:20pm, flying off towards the northeast. There was a brief, unseen exchange of vocalizations between her and Junior. Moments later, Junior flew to the nest to resume incubation duty.

Prospect Park's "Alice & Ralph" and Green-Wood Cemetery's "Big Mama & Junior" appear to be on the same breeding schedule. Barring any unexpected problems, we can expect to see signs of hatchlings during the week of April 28th. Those offspring will be ready for their maiden flights during the week of June 9th.

Green-Wood Cemetery, 03/30/2008
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Snow Goose
Northern Shoveler
Bufflehead
Red-tailed Hawk
Merlin
Ring-billed Gull
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Black-capped Chickadee
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Northern Mockingbird
American Pipit
Pine Warbler
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco,Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle

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

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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