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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Day After the Christmas Count

Saturday was the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count. I'll post a wrap-up tonight or early tomorrow. Yesterday, I spent the day wandering around in Prospect Park's wintry landscapes of snow and ice.

The snow began on Saturday afternoon while our team was winding up the surveys at Floyd Bennett Field. It didn't start to really come down hard until late in the evening. I woke up early and stumbled into my kitchen to look out the window. The wind had blown a two foot drift on the window ledge. Plows hadn't come down our block and cars were locked into their spaces by the drifting snow. I could hear children being pulled on sleds towards the park. My excitement at the thought of trudging around in the woods was as great as theirs for speeding down hillsides on plastic saucers.

At the ridge overlooking the Midwood forest, unbroken expanses of snow acted as a palette, tracing the activities of a flock of foraging birds. Dozens of tracks converged, looped in figure-eights and circled around the bases of trees. Above were Sweetgum trees. I imagined a large flock of White-throated Sparrows nervously picking up minuscule, tan seeds from the smooth blanket of white.

I descended into the Midwood, where I found more tracks. One trail began at the base of a leafless stalk sticking up from the snow. A bird landed, first on the stalk, then, when it seemed safe, hopped down to the ground. A pair of parallel dashes, from deep and wide, to thin and wispy, showed the bird's direction. Over the top of a log then disappearing into the forest.

Did this bird change his mind or snatch something from the surface of the snow? It left impressions, not only of its feet and tail, but also the ends of its wings. I pictured a medium-sized bird, maybe a Blue Jay, flying towards the shallow snow bank. Moments before landing, it began to flap its wings again, maybe even using its feet to push off the powdery surface. Notice that, as the bird approached the top of the small rise, the tips of its primary feathers rotated from a full forward position to straight out to nearly backwards. Was this bird chasing or being chased? There weren't any loose feathers in the snow, so perhaps it was neither.

I left the Midwood and headed towards the Vale of Cashmere.

Near the base of the Dongan Oak Monument I spotted a small mixed flock of birds feeding in the snow. The birds suddenly spooked and flew for cover. A large shadow passed over and a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a locust tree above the spot where the birds had been. I walked over to get a better look and take a photo. There was a Mourning Dove perched in a bare viburnum shrub to my right. As I was turning on my camera, the hawk flew from his perch and dropped straight down onto the dove, crashing through the shrub's branches as if they didn't exist. Neither the dove nor I saw it coming. By the time my camera powered up the hawk had flown to a tree next to the zoo with his prey. A young couple walking in the road had seen the entire incident and stood with the mouths opened. When I ran over to the hawk they followed. They thought I was a falconer and this was my trained hunting animal. Why else, they reasoned, would this have occurred only a few feet away from my face?

I have been observing the Red-tailed Hawks in Brooklyn for over ten years and have been fairly close to kills on several occasions. This was the first time, though, that I was close enough to feel the wind from the hawk's wings and be showered by the prey's feathers. I also wonder if I somehow had influenced the fate of the dove. The hawk knew that the dove wasn't paying attention. It was looking at me rather than scanning for other dangers. On the other hand, since it was looking at me, it never knew that a hawk was dropping down onto it, talons first. Death was immediate.

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