Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Red-tailed Hawk Journals

Excerpt from "The Red-tailed Hawk Journals: A City Birder in Brooklyn":

Chapter 1: Nest Building

Saturday, February 23, 2002

This morning I watched a pair of Red-tailed Hawks working on a nest in an unlikely location.

As you enter Prospect Park at the 3rd Street entrance there is a playground just to your right. On the hill above it sits the Litchfield Villa, home of the park’s administrative offices. If you continue past the playground towards the interior of the park to the loop drive you'll reach a traffic light and pedestrian crosswalk. Without crossing the road look across the street. About 7' from the left edge of the crosswalk and 7' from the curb is a young Linden Tree. The hawks are building their nest in this tree only about 25' above the roadway.

The Linden Tree is located within a narrow north-south ribbon of woods bounded to the west by the park’s interior road and to the east by the sprawling Long Meadow. Through the strip of woods and parallel to the roadway is a dirt path created by thousands of runners, walkers and cyclists who prefer trees and squirrels to asphalt and automobiles.

Beginning at the north entrance of Prospect Park, the Long Meadow stretches eighteen blocks south along the west side of the park. The forests of Payne Hill and Quaker Ridge mark the field’s eastern border. Like the surface of an ocean low, gentle rolling hills on the north section gradually swell in size and pitch as the meadow flows south. Whitecaps of mature oaks, elms, maples and lindens crown the taller waves. The meadow gradually flattens out at its extreme southern end and transforms into the flat, sandy infields of baseball diamonds.

Both the male and the female hawks returned to the nest repeatedly with various sized twigs and sticks. They would meticulously weave the new piece into the nest after carefully assessing the ever-growing structure. Sometimes the hawks would fly a short distance to one of the trees bordering the road in search of building material. Sometimes they'd fly off and I wouldn't see either bird for 10 minutes or more.

I tried to find some identifying marks on the birds but could only tell them apart when they were side by side. The female (presumably) was noticeably larger than the male and the males tail looked a little tattered.

I watched as the female hawk looked for branches only a few yards from me. She'd use her talons to step on a small branch and if it didn't easily break, she'd try another one. One time she tipped her head to check out the possibilities above her. Stretching her neck out, she used her bill to snap off a branch and then flew back across the road to the nest.

Hundreds of pedestrians, runners, rollerbladers and cyclists must have passed under the "construction zone" but only four people actually noticed the hawks. Those folks were excited and extremely curious about hawks in the park and I gladly shared my limited experiences with them.

I think one possibility for the raptor’s choice of location is its proximity to the playground. With small children comes stray bits of food and with those bits of food come lots of squirrels and other rodents. In fact, for years I've noticed that a Bald Cypress between the Litchfield Villa and the playground has been a favorite perch for Red-tailed Hawks. Location, location, location. I guess now they've decided to move in.

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