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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Hungry Hawk

When we were children, my mother would say "your eyes are bigger than your stomach" if we filled our plates with too much food. Today I saw a hawk do something that brought to mind that expression.

I ran into Keir Randall at the north end of the Midwood late in the morning. We compared our songbird observations for the day then Keir asked me about my experience with Northern Goshawks. I've never seen an adult goshawk (which is unmistakable for any other raptor as it is all gray), but in 2007 was fortunate enough to get several good looks at a juvenile in Prospect Park. Juvenile Northern Goshawks are similar to juvenile Cooper's Hawks, but with good views are easily separated. The reason he asked was because he had brief looks of a very large accipiter on Lookout Hill that he thought could have been a goshawk. I shared with him the little I remembered about head size & shape, tail size & markings, as well as, the extent & shape of the underside streaking. We continued in opposite directions through the park and I promptly forgot about his raptor sighting.

On Lookout Hill I crossed paths with John Ascher, his wife and a birder visiting from France. They hadn't observed many birds so I mentioned that Keir had seen a bit of activity at the south side of the lake, where I was headed. The four of us made our way around the Butterfly Meadow, the top of Lookout Hill, then down Lookout's southwest stairway to the lake. As we were walking down the small hillside by lamppost J249, a large raptor flew out over our heads towards the edge of the lake.

Near the start of Wellhouse Drive, a short stretch of Prospect Lake's shoreline has become the park's unofficial duck feeding spot. Dozens (if not hundreds) of people visit this place to feed the park's swans, Mallards, Canada Geese and assorted, weird hybrid waterfowl. There is so much traffic in this one location that the ground has been stripped bare of any plant life, the soil is compacted to the consistency of concrete and exposed tree roots have been polished to a fine furniture sheen by all the human and animal feet passing back and forth. The inevitable excess of bread and bread crumbs has also attracted an ever growing flock of pigeons. For years, the park's Red-tailed Hawks have been aware of this arrangement and can frequently be seen perched nearby or making passes at the unwary birds. Two weeks ago I also spotted a Peregrine Falcon attacking the pigeons. Which brings me to today's experience. As we walked towards the lake a large unidentified raptor flew over us, headed directly to the "duck feeding spot". Hoping to catch a glimpse of the hawk,
we all ran down to the edge of the lake. We got there in time to watch a large accipiter with a struggling pigeon in its talons attempting to fly across the lake. The raptor was pretty big, smaller than a Red-tailed Hawk but big enough to snag a Rock Pigeon. Unfortunately, it seemed to be laboring to gain altitude and keep from falling into the water. The pigeon dangling below the hawk was actually skimming along, inches above the surface of the lake. She ended up releasing the pigeon after a few seconds which, amazingly, flew off, seemingly unfazed. I followed the hawk in my bins to a perch at the edge of the lake across from the Wellhouse. John and I ran after her to get a better look, and to determine whether it was a young goshawk or a Cooper's Hawk. The raptor stayed at the perch for a few moments and we agreed that it was just a very large juvenile Cooper's Hawk, not a Northern Goshawk, but one who's eyes were clearly much larger than its stomach...or at least its wings.

Here are some links to accipiter information and identification:

Raptor Recovery
Bedford Audubon
Bill Thompson's "Identify Yourself"

With hawk migration still upon us, I recommend Pete Dunne's "Hawks in Flight". It has a great chapter on accipiter identification.

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