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Friday, June 17, 2011

Hawks & a Whistle-Pig

Late Wednesday afternoon I biked over to Green-Wood Cemetery to check on the Red-tailed Hawk nest. While there I also stumbled on another interesting resident.

The air in the cemetery is so sweet with the fragrance of linden flowers that it reminds me of the perfume counters in Macy's. The Green-Wood Cemetery Red-tailed Hawk nest is near the top of one of these trees, which is now blanketed in clusters of fragrant, yellow flowers. The dense blooms obscure all but a single, limited vantage point for viewing the nest. When I arrived there didn't appear to be either of the young hawks on the nest or branches at the edge of the tree. I checked the pines to the south of the nest, periodically whistling in an attempt to get the fledglings to reply. Nothing. I then started up the hill beneath the nest tree and to the north. A screeching Blue Jay west of the nest caught my attention.

It took a couple of minutes of scanning the treetops, but I eventually spotted the Blue Jay. He was perched near the top of a mature London Planetree. Below him, at about 10 o'clock, sat one of the recently fledged red-tails. The jay's alert calls brought in a mockingbird and the two songbirds took turns diving at the young raptor, attempting to drive it off. The hawk stood his ground and the two smaller birds flew off in opposite directions. I've watched this mobbing behavior hundreds of times and newly fledged Red-tailed Hawks are usually easily intimidated. Some will go so far as to start whining for their parent's assistance. This bird, however, didn't even flinch. Instead, he positioned himself facing the nest tree, ready to return home if either parent showed up with food.

I settled down in the shade at the base of an adjacent planetree, hoping to see or hear the second fledgling. I estimate that it has only been a couple of days since these hawks had made their first flight out of the nest tree. They usually don't venture very far and still rely on their parents to bring them food. Within a couple of weeks they should be hunting on their own, but still not too far from their nest tree. The second fledgling never appeared and, after 30 minutes, I decided to go look in on the owls.

Over the last 4 years I've learned that the owls use several spots as daytime roosts during the Spring and Summer months. Once Autumn rolls around and the deciduous trees drop their leaves, the pair returns to favorite evergreen roosts.

I was gradually working my way across the cemetery checking all their known roosts when a pair of old, cast-iron lions caught my eye, so I stopped to take some photos. It was at that point that I noticed a brown, furry animal walking slowly between the headstones several yards ahead of me. He didn't appear to see me, so I backed up and positioned a headstone between us, to serve as a blind. On the few occasions when I've come across groundhogs in the cemetery, they have been very shy and scamper away the moment they see me. This animal was acting a little peculiar, though, so I decided to follow him.

The first thing that struck me about him was that he didn't seem to be moving in any deliberate direction. He was meandering and would periodically stop, turn around, as if looking over his shoulder, and circle in a counter clock-wise direction.

The headstones and monuments worked great as blinds. Each time the groundhog would move a few yards, I'd duck behind another piece of carved stone. The more I watched him, the more concerned I became for his health. In addition to his apparent random travel throughout an area about the size of a football field, he didn't seem very robust in size. All the other groundhogs I'd observed in the cemetery were, well, portly. Also, a couple of times I popped my head up from behind a blind to find that he was right in front of me. He would stare at me for a moment before slowly continuing on his way. I called Cathy and Bobby hoping they could shed some light on this animals behavior. Cathy didn't sound very optimistic. She and Bobby have received sick groundhogs at their facility in the past and once these animals begin behaving erratically, it's usually too late to save them. The main cause for their illness is related to raccoon feces. I continued to follow him despite the bad news.

As I watched him it occurred to me that perhaps he is relatively small because he is still young. Groundhogs are solitary animals, so maybe this is a teenager who is heading out on his own for the first time. Could I have caught him looking for his own territory? At one point, I had to come out from behind my "blind" and startled him. He ran a few yards, then ducked behind a granite headstone engraved "Bacon". I stood behind a pine tree and waited for him to emerge from the opposite side of the stone. When he didn't come out for a few minutes, I slowly walked towards "Bacon". What I observed when I peeked out around the stone was very sweet and made me smile.

The groundhog had found an opening at the base of a tree that he was exploring as a possible den. I guess he found it acceptable, because he began marking the outside of the tree with the glands on the sides of his face. Inside the tree, he started digging a hole. Between short bursts of digging he would lie down at the entrance to his new home and rest his chin on the ground.

I was able to capture the moment on video:

I hope the little guy is, in fact, healthy and happy in his new apartment.

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