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Monday, June 09, 2008

Good News and Sad News

According to my "hawk calendar", this should be a big week for the Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery Red-tailed Hawk offspring. Based on the presumed start of incubation at the two nests, I estimated that the young hawks would fledge some time this week.

Marge and I arranged to meet and go check the progress of the eyasses at the two nests. The weather forecast predicted oppressively hot, humid conditions, so we decided to start the morning at the cemetery. Big Mama and Junior's nest is located just below the crown of a Little Leaf Linden tree and the chicks are well shaded. The best viewing locations for Marge and I, however, are in full sun. In Prospect Park, we'd be able to monitor the nest from within the cool shade of the forest, so arriving by late morning won't be too uncomfortable.

Marge parked her car in Green-Wood Cemetery at the intersection of Linden and Atlantic Avenues. Standing in the middle of the road on the west side of the nest, I discovered a fairly large opening in the foliage directly in front of the nest. Two of the three young Red-tailed Hawks were very active. One has considerably more head feathering than the other, but both were practicing hop-flapping. The older of the two began climbing up a branch that sticks up on the north side of the nest. I was moving my tripod to a better vantage point when I heard Marge yell.

She had been walking counter clockwise towards the north side of the nest, stopping periodically to scan for views of the hawks. "Rob, one of the babies is dead", she shouted. I looked up from my camera and saw her standing near the base of the nest tree.

Since 2002, I've been observing and writing about the progress of Brooklyn's resident Red-tailed Hawks. I've peered into their lives and been witness to the annual cycles of courtships, nest building, incubation, feeding, fledging, hunting and independence. This was the first time, however, that I'd encountered a death within their family.

Marge was standing a few yards from the base of the tree and nearly directly below the nest. The hawk was small, perhaps a male, but seemed outwardly healthy. His feathers were well groomed and there was no sign of injury. Perhaps he was climbing around outside of the nest and just lost his balance and fell to his death. There were no signs of predation and flies hadn't even discovered the dead bird. A small ring of downy feathers surrounded the patch of grass where he hit. I called the Brooklyn Park Rangers as they would want to recover the bird and send it to the state wildlife pathologist's office, to rule out disease as the cause. I moved him out of the sun after I hung up the phone. I expected the young bird's body to be rigid, but it was supple and limp. Could he have tumbled from the tree just before we arrived? Flight feathers were still emerging from the shafts on his wings. If he had fallen, they would have been of little use.

While we were still present, Junior flew across the road towards us. Looking more like a Merlin than a Red-tailed Hawk, his arrow straight path was only a few feet off the ground and he passed just yards from where I stood at my scope. He pulled up and perched on a tombstone. We left the cemetery a few minutes later and headed to Prospect Park.

Entering the shade of the Ravine was like walking into an air-conditioned office building. It felt 20 degrees cooler than the blazing sunshine at the cemetery nest. I was organizing my gear when Marge pointed out a large flying insect. Neither of us knew what it was, I mean, it's nothing like identifying a bird in flight. I stood in its path and let it land on my chest. The large bug was an Eyed Click Beetle. They're not particularly rare, but I've only seen them in Prospect Park a few times. After placing it on the sidewalk, Marge asked why they are called Click Beetles, so I flipped him onto his back. Like a wind-up toy, the insect snapped his head back, making a loud "click" sound and righting himself.

Unlike the shaded nest tree in Green-Wood Cemetery, Alice and Ralph's nest is at the top of a conifer, exposed to full sunshine. When we arrived, Alice was at the nest, her back to the sun and wings partially opened, shading her offspring. I could only imagine the stifling, midday heat on that nest.

We saw an occasional flailing of wings, but the Ravine Red-tailed Hawk youngsters remained inactive. At one point, when Alice was preening, I saw a young hawk stick his head up from behind his mother. The top of his head was streaked with dark brown feathers. The pine branches on the southeast side of the nest concealed a second hawk and, just as it has for the previous five years, prevented me from taking any decent photos.

We never saw two eyasses at the same time. I would normally presume that both young birds were still alive, just out of view. After this morning's experience, I don't suppose that anything can be taken for granted.

*Update - Marge called and told me that this morning she spoke with Alison Cobb, another Green-Wood birder. She had actually been in the cemetery checking on the nest prior to our arrival. She walked around the tree and all three young hawks were still on the nest. Based on the time frame, the hawk seems to have died between 9am and 10am.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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