The first time that I observed nesting Red-tailed Hawks was back in the mid-1990's. It wasn't until Big Mama & Split-tail began building their nest in Prospect Park during the winter of 2002 that I became a hawk devotee. I quickly learned that Red-tailed Hawks are intelligent, resourceful animals, but what I observed today was completely unexpected.
I had a doctor's appointment late in the afternoon and decided to leave early, so I could walk across the park. My plan was to check the Ravine nest, and if there were no signs of change, I'd walk through the Midwood looking for a second nest.
It's difficult to tell if Alice and Ralph have built up the Ravine nest, but I took a photo so I can compare it with Saturday's images. I walked along Center Drive and scanned the south end of the Midwood for hawks and nests. Alice was perched in a towering Tuliptree with something gray in her talons. At first I thought it was a rat, but it turned out to be a very young squirrel. Despite the fact the she was perched about 60 feet up, she seemed nervous while I was watching and jerked her head from side to side. After about a minute she moved to a perch near the top of the ridge at the west side of the woods. I walked through the Midwood forest and scanned for nests. The woods are dominated by mature tuliptrees and sweetgums. They have massive trunks and thick, spreading branches that would make an excellent platform for a hawk nest. I didn't find any and walked up to Rick's Place, turned left and followed the ridge above the Midwood to look across the treetops.
At the point where the ridge begins to descend back towards Center Drive there is an opening in the canopy. It's one of Ralph's favorite spots and I've photographed him there several times. I wasn't surprised to find him there today perched on a low branch, directly below his mate of 7 years. He preened while Alice ate her squirrel. Suddenly, they both took off flying towards the zoo near Park Drive East. I heard them making a chirping call that is part of their bonding behavior. Maybe they moved their nest closer to the zoo. I walked back down to Center Drive and followed the sound of their calls to the fence that surrounds the zoo.
Several years ago, Big Mama hatched three chicks in a nest near the zoo. Two became very ill and one of them died. The second one survived but was unreleasable, so they built an enclosure in the zoo for him where they use him for educational purposes. Last year the parks department announced that they had brought in a second Red-tailed Hawk which they placed in the same outdoor enclosure.
When I arrived at the walkway a few yards from the zoo's fence, I spotted Alice and Ralph perched in trees above the hawk enclosure. The source of the amorous calls was neither Alice nor Ralph. It was from a large, very dark (Western race) female Red-tailed Hawk within the Prospect Park Zoo's hawk aviary. The outdoor enclosure is constructed of a metal mesh that is suspended by cables, like a circus tent. I couldn't figure out if our resident hawks were "interested" in or just curious about the caged birds. The zoo was closed, so I stood up against the wrought iron fence, quietly watched and shot images through the bars. It only took a few minutes for me to decide what was on Alice's mind.
As I watched, Alice and Ralph began to fly to perches ever closer to the aviary. Finally, with Ralph directly above the cage, Alice dropped down onto the top of the mesh enclosure and tried to attack the calling female. She hop-flapped to several spots on the black metal mesh looking for a way to get to the other hawk. In one corner of the enclosure is a four-sided plywood shelter where the zoo's hawks roost in inclement weather. The top of the shelter is only about three feet away from the mesh that separates the captive animals from Alice's protective instincts. At one point, the zoo's red-tail hopped up onto the shelter and was met by Alice directly above. The chirping hawk flipped over and locked talons with Alice through the enclosure. She hung there for a second or two before releasing her grip. The intimidation by Alice continued for at least 30 minutes. There were times when she would stand above the caged female and, with her crown feathers raised, snap open her wings and lean forward. The other hawk would usually flinch and back down.
Ralph had flown to a low branch about 20 yards from the enclosure and just watched. Finally, at about 5:30PM, Alice flew to a perch near the walkway and above the zoo's fence. She silently stared down at the captive hawks. A moment later Ralph flew to her perch and mounted her. When I left they were still perched, shoulder to shoulder, staring down at the hawk aviary.
One unrelated observation was a Turkey Vulture soaring over the park at 5:40PM. I believe that it is the first migrating vulture to be seen in the park this season.
Watch closely at the 1 minute mark, you'll see the female inside the aviary hang upside down for a moment.