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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Prospect Park hawk update

I had the day off yesterday and spent two hours in Prospect Park cycling and birding. Part of my agenda included finding out how Alice and Ralph's two youngsters were managing in the wilds of Brooklyn.

A massive European Beech tree recently fell on the eastern rise of the Vale of Cashmere. The resulting tangle of branches and rotting wood has become a magnet for birds and chipmunks. Several species of birds foraging within the fall included a surprising abundance of juvenile American Robins. Throughout my two hour amble in the park I noticed that these common thrushes where just about everywhere I looked.

As I pedaled passed Nelly's Lawn, I heard the "Tut, tut, tut" alarm calls of several robins in the distance. I thought, "red-tails on the prowl", and adjusted my route towards the east side of the Aralia Grove and the source of the sounds.

A couple of months ago I found a circa 1870s map of Prospect Park on the Internet. The map identifies the previously unnamed stretch of woodlands north of the zoo as the "East Woods". It is the patch of forest where Big Mama and Split-tail raised their second family back in 2oo3. As I rode beneath the beech tree that held the old nest, I spotted the object of all the robins concern - Ralph. Perched halfway up an old sweetgum, the pale-headed hawk scanned the ground for a meal. With dozens of pairs of robins in the park now raising their second or third brood, Ralph was a picture of a lazy hunter. As some of the adult robins made feeble strafing flights into the predator, he calmly held his ground, waiting for an unwary young bird to cross his sights. I shot a few minutes of shaky, hand-held video, then continued south through the park.

His cries sounded like the pained yelps of a puppy who had his paw stepped on. One of the fledgling hawks had progressed across the Nethermead Meadow and was flying back and forth through the woods of Lookout Hill. I've come to recognize the sharp, upslurred whistle as the desperate "feed me" call of recently fledged Red-tailed Hawks. As I rode up Lookout Hill's pitted asphalt road I caught glimpses of the hawk flying from treetop to treetop. The hungry bird was searching for his parents. I found him perched in a conifer north of the Maryland Monument.

While I was looking for a good vantage point to watch the hawk, two joggers and a dog walker passed me on the footpath. I wondered how they could have ignored the piercing whistles of the young hawk a short distance off the path.

A second hawk began calling from nearby, but unlike the begging juvenile, made a typical Red-tailed Hawk "keeerr" sound. It was Ralph and his hunting foray was successful. He arrived with a freshly killed young robin in his talons. Rather than deliver the meal directly to his offspring, he remained a few yards away, impelling the youngster to come and get it. At one point he dropped the prey and flew to the ground to retrieve it. Eventually, the juvenile hawk got the message and took the food from his father. One would think that that would end all the crying, but it didn't. Instead, I followed the small, male hawk around the edge of the woods watching him awkwardly trying to balance on a branch and pluck his meal at the same time. The poor bird continued to cry "feed me, feed me", but Ralph just monitored the young bird from several yards away. When I left Lookout Hill I could still hear his cries in the distance, only they had a more muffled quality, as if he was stuffing his face and complaining at the same time.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

1 comment:

Give Love said...

I've heard this same upslurred cry in the Nethermead recently (two nights ago around 8:20 and this afternoon at 3:15), with brief sightings of the hawk making it both times. The sound reminds me of those hard plastic straws that come with complimentary plastic cups and which, when blown through, make a fluty noise with abandon. All on one note until the last second of the cry and then it goes up in pitch a bit. Not an easy sound to forget!

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