Saturday, December 05, 2009

Raptor Kind of Day

I had the day off yesterday and took a brief stroll around Prospect Park. I try to go out into nature with an open mind and little expectations. That approach sometimes results in wonderful surprises, sometimes not. Yesterday, however, I had a couple of interesting experiences.

As I pedaled my bicycle around the Nethermead Meadow I spotted the backlit silhouette of a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a Linden Tree. It was a smallish, male bird with a very pale face. He was the one I named "Ralph". In the center of the meadow stood an odd-looking dove. It was larger and taller than a typical Rock Pigeon. The feathering on it's nape faced backwards, creating a collared appearance. It also had deep red eye orbits. This bird was clearly someone's lost "fancy pigeon" and probably Ralph's next meal. I watched the hawk, expecting him to pounce on the bird. However, the Red-tailed Hawk flew across the field to a tree farther away from the pigeon. He cried, "keeerr" as he took off. When he landed I focused on him to see if his crop was distended, indicating that he had already eaten. It wasn't. My phone rang and it was my friend Marge, who was parking her car near 5th Street. I left Ralph and the "Helmet" and rode to the parking lot to meet Marge.

We went back to the Nethermead Meadow, fully expecting to find a pile of feathers where the pigeon had been standing. However, the Red-tailed Hawk was gone and the pigeon was exactly where he had been 15 minutes before. I began wondering if he was some kind of super-pigeon, impervious to raptor attacks. As I walked closer to the bird I noticed that it had a band on each leg. It also had a patch on its back where feathers were missing, a possible injury. I crouched down and spoke softly to the pigeon, as it seemed nervous. Suddenly, it turned and flew off towards Quaker Ridge. It had very long, tapered wings that reminded me of a falcon. As soon as the pigeon reached the trees that edge Center Drive, a Merlin appeared out of nowhere and slammed into it. The pigeon headed towards the safety of the forest and descended into the Ravine. The Merlin didn't follow.

Marge and I went looking for the pigeon but didn't find it. As we continued down Center Drive I finally understood why Ralph ignored the pigeon. Merlins are extremely aggressive, even to a hawk 10 times its size. I suspect that the Merlin was waiting in the trees and every time the Red-tailed Hawk attempted to nail the pigeon, he'd get harassed by the tiny falcon. The reason the Merlin didn't kill the pigeon on the ground is that they are "designed" to go after prey in the air. Their proportionally long toes and talons make operating on the ground very awkward.

A few minutes after the Merlin attack I received a call from Shane. He was out at Coney Island Creek where he found a rare Iceland Gull feeding within a flock of our common gulls. We turned around and bolted for Marge's car. Long story, short, we missed the gull by about 2 minutes. I was a little disappointed, but plan to go looking for it again tomorrow, after today's storm passes.

On the drive back to my neighborhood I made one last, unexpected discovery. We were waiting for the traffic light at the intersection of Ocean Parkway and Avenue J. Across the six lanes of traffic I noticed a bird moving in the bare branches of a large tree. On a whim, I took out my binoculars and looked. It was an adult Cooper's Hawk! It was such a large bird that Marge was able to spot it with her naked eyes as we crossed the intersection and turned onto the parkway. This image from Google Maps "Street View" will give you an idea how improbable the location was to spot this raptor:

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