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Friday, January 28, 2011

Hawk Feeders

During the winter months my friend, Peter, maintains several bird feeders at Breeze Hill in Prospect Park. This winter, because of all the snow cover, it has become the focal point of most of the park's bird activity.

I've been following the activities of our local Red-tailed Hawks for over a dozen years. During that time I've noticed that they tend to stray from the parks in the winter and can frequently be found hunting in the residential areas. I think I finally figured out why.

In Spring and Summer Red-tailed Hawks are the only raptor at the top of the food chain in the park. There are American Kestrels nesting outside of the parks, but these tiny birds don't compete for the same food. Over the winter, several species of raptors call the parks home. In Prospect Park this winter I've spotted a pair of Merlins, a Cooper's Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and, of course, our local adult Red-tailed Hawks and at least one of last year's offspring. It's no wonder that the red-tails are seen hunting pigeons in Park Slope and other surrounding neighborhoods.

Late afternoon on Wednesday I had an experience at the Breeze Hill bird feeders that drove home the point of raptor competition in Prospect Park.

When I first arrived at the feeders there were songbirds everywhere; perched on the 7 feeders, waiting their turns above the feeders, scraping in the snow below the feeders, plus, there was a near constant stream of chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, White-throated Sparrows, cardinals and Red-winged Blackbird flying back and forth across Wellhouse Drive. I spotted 3 Pine Siskins jostling with the goldfinches on the only 2 thistle feeders. Moments after I arrived, however, all the birds vanished, flying for cover in the surrounding trees and shrubs. A Cooper's Hawk landed on the snow right below one of the sunflower seed feeders. It was a huge female bird about the size of an American Crow. When she flew to a branch above the feeders I saw that she had missed her target...this time. The songbirds remained quiet and hidden. A few chickadees gradually began to emerge and returned to the feeders in full view of the hawk. I guess they thought that their diminutive size and acrobatic skills would preclude them as possible prey. Either that or hunger overpowered caution. The coops finally took off, flying towards Lookout Hill. The birds remained wary, taking about 15 minutes to return to the feeding frenzy that I had witnessed upon my arrival.

While I was scanning the feeding birds I realized that there was someone standing behind me. A young couple had arrived and were quietly observing the bird activity. They didn't have binoculars, but one did have a camera around his neck. I smiled and he said, "I just discovered this spot the other day and couldn't believe it." I supposed he meant the abundance of bird life. That was enough to get me started with a brief first lesson on the winter birds in the park. Those of you who know me, know what I mean. After a few minutes I mentioned that if they ever see the birds suddenly flush, to look around for birds of prey. No sooner had those words left my lips, then the birds all took off. I looked up for the coops or, maybe, a red-tailed, but couldn't find anything. Then this guy's girlfriend points to the ground and says, "Is that a hawk?" At first I didn't see it because I was looking too far in the distance. I finally realized that there was a small Sharp-shinned Hawk standing in the snow at the base of a cherry tree about ten feet away. There was a small opening in the tree near the ground, plus, Peter had piled up some black, plastic planters in that spot. The hawk seemed to think that there was a bird hiding within the tangle.

Right after I turned off my camera, a panicked White-throated Sparrow emerged from a spot inches in front of the hawk. The sharpy gave chase, but the sparrow flew into a dense multiflora rose shrub, barely escaping the raptors talons. The hungry hawk disappeared somewhere near the top of Breeze Hill. While we were scanning for him, the guy with the camera pointed to a locust tree farther up the road. I focused my bins on a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. It was getting almost comically dangerous for any birds near the feeders. Fortunately, the red-tailed took off flying towards the Boathouse, seeming to pay little attention to the small birds. A few minutes later the sharpie returned. He rocketed passed us, weaving a course through the tangle of rose bushes that line the fence adjacent to the feeders. The second attack was also unsuccessful. Like the big cats of the world, it reminded me that most terrestrial predators have a relatively low success rate when hunting. As carnivores, though, they don't need to eat as frequently as the seed-eating songbirds. This young Sharp-shinned Hawk wasn't about to give up and moved to a perch in the pine tree just above all the feeders. His location was in plain view, so I'm guessing that the birds never returned. As I walked back across the Terrace Bridge I spotted the Cooper's Hawk perched in a tree just south of the bridge. I motioned to the guy with the camera to come check it out. His girlfiend had mentioned to me earlier that it was his birthday and, with three close raptor encounters, I'm sure it was a memorable one.

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