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Friday, April 06, 2007

Searching Green-Wood Cemetery

Cemetery entrance (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

I spent several hours at Green-Wood Cemetery on Sunday. Green-Wood, the second urban cemetery in the country, is the final resting place for many historic figures - famous and infamous. It’s also home to Brooklyn’s largest Monk Parakeet colony nesting on the towers of the Gothic Revival front gatehouse.

Monk Parakeet in Green-Wood

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Big Mama and Junior have still managed to keep the location of their new nest in the cemetery a secret. Joe and Marge spend a lot of time birding there but have been out foxed by the seasoned female and her young mate. They have seen the pair of Red-tailed Hawks throughout the winter and observed courtship behavior but these huge birds have been very discreet when it came to their nest tree. I called Marge and arranged to meet her and Joe to help with the search.

It wasn’t an ideal day for any kind of search. The sky was darkened by a thick veil of clouds. Any perched birds appeared as monochrome silhouettes against the bleak sky.

Our first stop was Sylvan Water (one of the small bodies of water within the cemetery). They wanted to scan the dozen or so waterfowl hanging around that spot. Mixed in with the common ducks were a pair of female Hooded Merganser and several American Wigeons. A Double-crested Cormorant in full breeding plumage had very pronounced tufts protruding from either side of his head. Around the outer edges of the pond were approximately 10 to 12 Eastern Phoebes. As they darted back and forth to snatch insects near the pond, they returned to an interesting array of launch pads; cherry trees, benches, headstones and mausoleums.

Joe and Marge had asked a few of the groundskeepers if they had noticed the Red-tailed Hawks during their daily routines. Some directed them to an area along the terminal moraine that bisects the cemetery. When we finished looking at the ducks and geese we headed off in that general direction. As we were pulling away from the pond I noticed a familiar shape in a towering tree and yelled for Marge to stop the car. There was a granite mausoleum blocking my view so she backed up. Near the opposite side of the pond and up a steep rise was a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a large sweetgum. She parked the car and we walked up the rise to try and determine the hawk’s identification. Before we could get close he took off, flying over the pond, slowly circling and ascending out of view. From his rusty-red tail we knew it was an adult. It was impossible to discern any patterning details but we agreed that he didn’t seem large enough to be Big Mama.

Minerva saluting Liberty from cemetery (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

I haven’t spent much time birding in Green-Wood Cemetery and the few times that I have, someone always lead the way. Unlike most parks, towns or cities, the roads and paths in the cemetery don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason for their direction. Joe was leading the way so I felt like a passenger in the back seat of a car. I had no reference for my position at any moment. A map of the cemetery’s pathways looks more like a complex model of the brain’s neural network than a deliberate set of trails designed to get one quickly from point A to point B. Joe and Marge advised me to give up on trying to navigate by the roads. Instead, they recommended that I use headstones, memorials and mausoleums as landmarks. Perhaps the cemetery’s designers wanted people to get lost as they ambled throughout the facility’s grounds.

It has been unusually cold with winds blowing, primarily, out of the north. For that reason I didn’t expect to find many new spring migrants. One species we located that I hadn’t seen yet this year was a Field Sparrow. He was feeding within a flock of White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and Song Sparrows. It was almost his last spring as, while we were watching, an American Kestrel swooped in from our left, making a very low pass at the sparrows. They narrowly escaped by flying into a small shrub. The kestrel kept on going. We also spotted an Osprey flying over the park on his way north.

American Kestrel

(Photo credit - Rob J)

On Saturday Marge was searching for the hawk nest when a flock of squawking Blue Jays caught her attention. She thought, “a-ha, the hawks” and followed the sound to its source. Peering under the drooping boughs of a dense conifer she expected to see Big Mama or Junior. Instead, she found herself gazing into the fierce, golden eyes of a Great Horned Owl. They stared at each other for a moment then the owl flew off, Blue Jays in tow. I don’t know if Marge was more startled or excited. Either way, she called me on her cellphone and the elation in her voice was infectious. She had never seen a Great Horned Owl in the wild and coming face to face with one is an introduction that she will remember for the rest of her life.

Any owls are extremely rare in the cemetery plus I make it a point not to mention any owl’s location online. However, at nearly 500 acres it’s very unlikely that, if you decided to try, you’d find him. Also, the cemetery’s 24 hour security patrols would ensure that nobody harassed the bird if they did find it (cemetery management has been alerted). We have since learned that the groundskeepers had discovered a dead Great Horned Owl back in November. Whether it was one of a breeding pair is impossible to know, as is how it died because the carcass was disposed of by the groundskeepers.

While we were walking near the old nest site we spotted Junior in the distance. He appeared to be carrying a large rodent in his talons. His crop was distended, meaning he had already eaten. We assumed that he was bringing food to Big Mama as she incubated their eggs. Running as well as we could up a steep slope, we lost sight of him. He appeared moments later, off in the distance, and without the rat. I assumed that he had dropped it. About an hour later we spotted him again. This time he was carrying nest material, which he also dropped. It didn’t make sense to us. Was he just going through the motions and that there wasn’t a nest?

We continued searching in, what seemed to me, a haphazard pattern. I suggested using a grid pattern to systematically hunt down the hawk nest. Joe thought that it would be too difficult to find enough people to commit to that process. He was probably right.

It was nearly three hours into our quest when I spotted Junior perched in the distance on the Bishop Ford Central High School radio tower. One look at his face through my scope and we were certain that it was him. His unusually dark head and cheeks gave him the hooded appearance of a Peregrine Falcon. It seemed like we only looked away for a second, and he was no longer on the tower. Seconds later he was streaming passed us, wings pulled in for maximum speed. He disappeared behind a cluster of trees, then Big Mama appeared. We watched her circling, gaining altitude then disappearing behind the tree line.

As spectacular as his descent from the tower was, Junior’s subsequent disappearance was an act that rivaled Houdini. I was sure that we saw exactly where he went, and when we topped the hill he’d be right there, on the nest or perched in a tree. But he wasn’t. We continued searching until we ran out of steam and went home.

In Prospect Park it was easy to keep up with the hawks by bicycling, but the cemetery doesn't permit bicycles. I've got to come up with a better strategy.

Baby Huey in Green-Wood Cemetery

(Photo credit - Michael Zablocky)

- - - - -

Green-Wood Cemetery, 4/1/2007
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Snow Goose
American Wigeon
Hooded Merganser
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Monk Parakeet
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Fish Crow
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, House Sparrow


Larry said...

500 acres!-That sure is a big cemetery.-Cemeteries can be good spots.-I've seen Lark Sparrows a couple of times and both times were at a cemetery.-A nice list of birds you ended up with for just one location.

Yojimbot said...

Believe me dude, I know the feeling! Sounds like your really close to finding it though. Any high buildings in the area you can gain access to?

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