Saturday, August 13, 2005

Perseids --It's not too late

While I'm still writing the report of my Perseid-viewing adventures, I'll pass along a photo and a tip from Charlie Ridgeway, one of the amateur astronomers I spent the [very very early] morning of August 12th with. In an e-mail on August 10th he wrote:

While August 12th is best [for viewing the Perseids] , the days before and after the 12th are good, too. Even now, sky watchers are seeing occasional bright Perseids before dawn. Jim Tegerdine of Marysville, Washington, photographed this one streaking beneath the planet Mars on August 7th:

This means that IT'S NOT TOO LATE! Check out the sky on the next clear night, and you may still see shooting stars. You'll probably see more of them than I saw on August 12th.

City hawk kids are different than their country cousins: Blakeman

The photos of the two immatures "playing" are most interesting. For those of us who know the species in the wild, the birds' tolerance of nearby humans is remarkable. The Central Park red-tails regard humans very differently from their wild cousins out in the countryside. I'd be fortunate to get within a hundred yards of a wild red-tail. Here, the little tikes cavort together within a stone's toss of the hundreds of humans in the park. They don't regard humans there as much of a threat. Very nice.
But I was interested in the spread-wing postures of the two "playing" birds on the ground. One bird, with its wings elevated, is also sitting back upon its tail. This is usually done to allow a defensive forward thrust of the legs, to fend off the adjacent interloper. In the upper photo, both birds have assumed this combative posture. Altogether curious. I can't readily explain this, as I've never been close enough to watch any wild hawks engage in such behaviors.
I noted with interest several of Lincoln's recent photos, where the immatures exhibited rounded, or nearly full crops. It is very clear that these birds are getting an abundance of daily food. My concerns that things would get tough for them in August is (once again) unfounded. These birds are not much motivated by hunger. They are extremely well fed and their "play" is prompted by instinctive but immature reflexes, not by deliberate attempts to kill or gain food.
For this red-tail pair, all is going exceptionally well. That seldom happens with golden eagles, however. Golden eagles commonly lay two eggs, and both hatch. But in virtually every case, the larger eaglet will reach out and kill its slightly smaller brother or sister while still on the nest. This is known as the Cain and Able Effect. It happens with golden eagles and some other large raptors. Bald eagles, like red-tails, are more accommodating of siblings and seldom kill each other.
Sooner or later, the two Central Park immature red-tails will have to get off the ground and begin some serious hunting on their own. Right now, they are living rather carefree lives of prey abundance. Let's see when or if this changes.

John A. Blakeman

Friday, August 12, 2005

Our Perseid Adventure

Please tune in tomorrow [or perhaps the next day] for an account of how four would-be viewers of an annual meteor display saw a lot of mysterious, exciting and intriguing things, though not necessarily the Perseids.

A new Central Park Mother??with an added postscript

Is that a moth I see in this eager fledgling's beak? If it is, I guess we'll have to acknowledge him as an honorary member of our moth-loving society. [I just hope it wasn't a rare Underwing.]

Photo by Lincoln Karim
August 9, 2005

PS [a few hours later]: Just learned that it's not a moth. It's a Cicada. Well, at least it's in the same class -- Insecta -- as a moth, and not in the usual classes redtails associate with: Mammalia and Aves. Cicadas, by the way, are in the Order of insects called Homoptera, while moths, together with butterflies, are Lepidoptera.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


A group of us will be watching the Perseids from Central Park at 4:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Hope you catch the show too, wherever you are.

The 2005 Perseid Meteor Shower

Mars joins the Perseid meteor shower for a beautiful display on August 12th.

July 22, 2005: Got a calendar? Circle this date: Friday, August 12th.[Note from Marie: That's TOMORROW] Next to the circle write "before sunrise" and "Meteors!" Attach all of the above to your refrigerator in plain view so you won't miss the 2005 Perseid meteor shower.

The Perseids come every year, beginning in late July and stretching into August. Sky watchers outdoors at the right time can see colorful fireballs, occasional outbursts and, almost always, long hours of gracefully streaking meteors. Among the many nights of the shower, there is always one night that is best. This year: August 12th.

The source of the shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle. Although the comet is nowhere near Earth, the comet's wide tail does intersect Earth's orbit. We glide through it every year in July and August. Tiny bits of comet dust hit Earth's atmosphere traveling 132,000 mph. At that speed, even a tiny smidgen of dust makes a vivid streak of light--a meteor--when it disintegrates. The shower is most intense when Earth is in the dustiest part of the tail. Perseid meteors fly out of the constellation Perseus, hence their name. The best time to watch is during the hours before sunrise when Perseus is high in the sky. Between 2 a.m. and dawn on August 12th, if you get away from city lights, you could see hundreds of meteors. Scouts, this is a good time to go camping!

Really, it could hardly be better. The Perseids come on a warm summer night. (Note: This is a northern hemisphere shower.) Other familiar meteor showers like the Leonids of November require a parka to enjoy. All you need for Perseids are light pajamas.And there's a bonus: Mars.

In the constellation Aries, right beside Perseus, Mars is shining like a bright red star. Step outside before sunrise, look east, and you'll find you have a hard time taking your eyes off Mars. There's something bewitching about it, maybe the red color or perhaps the fact that it doesn't twinkle like a true star. It's steady. You stare at Mars and it stares right back.Earth and Mars are converging for a close encounter on October 30th. Consider August 12th a preview. Mars already outshines every star in the night sky, and it's getting brighter every night. If you like August, you'll love October.And you will like August. Picture this: It's four in the morning. The sky is dark. The breeze is pleasant. Mars is beaming down from the east while meteors flit across the sky.Maybe you should go circle the calendar again.

Editor's Notes: (1) The Perseids are a northern hemisphere meteor shower. Southerners can see Perseids, too, but at greatly reduced rates.
(2) All times mentioned in this story are local, so, e.g., "2 a.m." means 2 o'clock in the morning in your time zone.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
| Credit: Science@NASA

Fall Walks in Central Park

People often write to ask me to recommend bird walks in Central Park. Every spring and fall I post the schedules of two excellent walk leaders -- Starr Saphir and Jack Meyer. Here is Jack's schedule. I'll post Starr's when I get details from her.

From Jack Meyer:

My fall birdwalks in Central Park will begin Thursday, August 18. Here are
the details:

Walks will be Thursday through Sunday, from August 18 to October 30.

Walks leave at 7:30 AM from 72 Street & Central Park West. (NE corner.)

The cost is $6. No reservations are needed.

If there are any questions, you can reach me at:
212-563-0038 (Not after 8 PM please)

Looking forward to seeing all my birding friends again.
Jack Meyer

Hawks at Play

Hi Marie,
After reading some of the discussion on your site regarding the young hawk's
playing, I thought I would pass on the following pictures. This is something
I witnessed a few days ago where both hawks would chase after each other
(running in the fenced area) and then face each other in such a position. It
seemed like they were comparing size and speed and basically having some
sort of competition.

Blakeman responds to dissent about "play"


Eleanor's suggestion to lighten up is well taken. I don't think I explained myself very well regarding the nature of the young hawks' "playing."

Eleanor is accurate in her characterizations of the play of both kittens and children. It's serious stuff, a required element of growing up. And so is the jabbing of sticks and leaves by young red-tails.

But the killing “play” of red-tails is different from mammals. Red-tailed hawks are birds, and the size and organization of their cerebra, the “thinking” parts of their brains, are very different from mammals. Hawks think more like dinosaurs than mammals. Their brains are decidedly non-mammalian, and the killing “play” of inanimate objects derives from very different. brain regions or circuits.

I've personally experienced this with a young, newly-trained falconry red-tail sitting on my gloved fist. For no reason whatsoever, the bird instantly shoots out a foot and tries to grab my other, un-gloved hand. Falconers are aware of these propensities in young hawks, and take appropriate care. When the hawk is young and inexperienced, like our Central Park pair, they spontaneously engage in these attack attempts from time to time. But they learn that they are unproductive and soon give them up.

Are these behaviors “play?” Generically, of course they are, as Eleanor suggests. But my intent was to suggest that, specifically, they are not mammalian. They are a bit more reptilian, a bit more reflexive and less cerebral or calculated than the play of either children or kittens.

This is a major point of understanding regarding the red-tails of Central Park (and elsewhere). These magnificent animals are best understood as the unique species they are, not merely as winged caricatures or representations of other, better-known animals. They are not representations of either children, kittens, nor any other animal. Unto themselves, alone, they are red-tailed hawks, nothing more nor less. For me, the assignment of human or mammalian traits to explain these noble birds inaccurately diminishes them. Personally, I prefer to understand the species on its own regal terms, not in convenient reference to other, distantly-related species.
I especially appreciate the cerebral “play” we can all engage in here. Everyone, as Eleanor did, keep thinking playfully on the Central Park red-tails. Only we humans can do that!


John A. Blakeman

Hawk Play vs. Child's Play

Here's a letter I received regarding John Blakeman's essay on 'play" posted yesterday. I totally agree. As I writer [in the past] on early childhood issues, I have often noted that children's play is a very serious business involving practice of adult skills, both physical and social -- just like hawk play.

Subject: So what, really is "play"!
From: Eleanor Tauber


So what, really is "play"! John Blakeman writes [on your website]:

" The hawks will even just grab a clump of turf, prompted perhaps by grass's similarity to the fur of prey animals. Don't confuse any of this with the playful activities of young children. This is not play in any human sense. The birds simply aren't able to much distinguish authentic prey (live small animals) from objects sitting on the ground. The instinctive behaviors to pounce and kill are profound, and after a period of seeing no moving prey, the young birds will be compelled to "kill" something. They drop onto a stick and squeeze it to "death." From our intellectual perspective, this seems to be either play, or misdirected and ineffective hunting. From the hawks' perspective, it is perfectly normal and effective. They birds are continuing to hone timing and muscle/nerve reflexes used in their daily killing. It's not play."

....And “playful” kittens practice non-stop killing. And human children play “King of the Hill” and many games where there are winners and losers, attackers and victims.

Lighten up, John! :-)


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Early Birders

A report of today's Early Birder walk. Note SEVEN species of warbler.

Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Location: Central Park
Reported by: Ardith Bondi

Double-crested Cormorant
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Canada Goose (Ramble-flock flyover)
Red-tailed Hawk (Pale Male perched between Azalea Pond and the Oven,
mobbed by many birds)
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Warbling Vireo (Lower Lobe)
American Crow
Blue Jay
White-breasted Nuthatch
Wood Thrush (imm., Ramble)
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird (Ramble and Maintenance Field [3 imm. together])
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler (Lower Lobe and Waterfall, Azalea Pond)
Yellow Warbler (several)
Chestnut-sided Warbler (Ramble)
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart (several)
Ovenbird (Ramble)
Northern Waterthrush (Upper Lobe and Laupot Bridge)
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle
House Sparrow

Mothers Nights

An incomplete group portrait of the
Central Park [non-maternal] Mothers
rejoicing after finding a new species
of Underwing moth. [One of us missed it.
Guess who?]

Below, two more photos of Underwing moths new for 2005.

Oldwife Underwing

Darling Underwing
Photos by M.Winn

Answer from powers-that-be about rats

At the suggestion of a number of Trump Parc hawkwatchers, I sent a note to Neil Calvanese, V.P in charge of Operations for the Central Park Conservancy, and to Regina Alvarez, the park's Woodlands Manager, informing them about the redtail family now ensconced in the park's southwest quadrant.

I received a friendly reply from Regina. She wrote that in spite of a chronic problem with rats in that area, exacerbated by the demolition of the Mayflower Hotel at CPW and 62nd St., "we will immediately curtail baiting." She ended by asking: "Do you have more specific locations where the fledglings are spending their time? If we know that, we can more effectively pick the best areas to stop baiting."

I wrote back with some more details.

Through my affiliation with the Woodlands Advisory Board I have been working with Neil and Regina for more than a decade. There has always been a warm and cooperative relationship between the park administration and the "nature community" -- those involved with the park's wildlife. We have solved many problems together, over the years. I was glad to receive their quick and cooperative response.

Meanwhile, for those continuing to be anxious about the rat-baiting problem, be sure to read John Blakeman's latest response, below, to a correspondent's fears about a fledgling eating a poisoned rat.

Rats, why fledglings fly low, and other subjects: Q&A

Another question and answer exchange with John Blakeman:

Q. from Mai Stewart

Dear John,
I've been reading with interest your correspondence w/ Marie re rats and redtails -- I don't think our RTs will ever lack prey. The greater danger, it seems, is of a hawk eating a poisoned rat, but hopefully, thanks to Marie and others, the rat-baiting, at least in specific areas, will be discontinued (or at least paused). And it will also be interesting to see if the fledglings will begin catching pigeons (or trying to).
I've noticed on the website a couple references to the eyasses doing "a lot of low flying" among the trees, but not going about the treeline. I wondered about this, esp. since from birth, they've had experience high above the treeline. And these particular fledglings seem to have an affinity for the grass! (And twigs!) (Well, maybe something they recognize from their nesting days.)
I was wondering whether this is normal, and whether after awhile the young hawks will become more adventurous and begin to fly higher and higher, eventually soaring in the sky, the way we've seen PM, PMJ and their mates do. Is this a kind of learning curve, as hunting is? Or a matter of "growing up," of maturing? Will they do it on their own, or will their parents "teach" them? Or at this moment are they so intent on being fed, and they know the food arrives down about where they are, that they don't want to go too far away from it?
Thank you,
Mai Stewart

A: from John Blakeman

Most rats that die from poisoning end up dead in a "rat hole," back under cover where no red-tail can discover the dead carcass. I'm not overly concerned about this, although rat poisoning in environments like Central Park has little real effect. When one local rat population is wiped out by some poison, it merely opens things for adjacent populations from down the street. Unless the entire park and all adjacent buidlings can be simultaneously poisoned, the rats will persist. I'd much prefer that poisoning not occur, but I think it's a minor threat.

About the hawks' low perches, you nailed it exactly in the last sentence. Once again, food is everything to a red-tail, much more than having a good perch to sit on, more than having a good view of the landscape, or even of being able to fly high in the sky. The bird's entire existence depends on procuring fresh flesh to eat each day, and from experience the birds know that's not always easy.
Consequently, they go to where food is, and for first-summer Central Park red-tails, it's not up in the sky, nor even high in trees. It's primarily running around on the ground. The young hawks have learned that if they want to capture a wholesome (to them) rat, they better be perched low in a tree to be able quickly pounce on an exposed rat. By the time a young red-tail drops down from a hunting perch high on a building or tree, a rat is likely to escape back into cover.
Out here in rural northern Ohio, I see this from time to time even with experienced adult red-tails. A few weeks ago, I discovered an Ohio Pale Male sitting on an isolated fence post along a major highway. This red-tail was sitting just four feet above the ground. But it knew that the vole family in the grass below couldn't be preyed upon from any height. From the low perch, the hawk could grab a running vole before it got back into its hidden runway. So even adults will sometimes hunt from very low perches.
For the Trump Parc youngsters, they will continue to stay low in their hunting. But as they continue to gain experience, they will attempt to pursue other, more difficult prey such as pigeons. Eventually, they will take high tree and building perches, after they've learned to consistently take prey each day. But for now, they've got to play the hunting game only as they know it, and it's close the ground, where the rats are.
Many have surely noticed that the young birds incongruously pounce onto sticks and leaves, "killing" them. The hawks will even just grab a clump of turf, prompted perhaps by grass's similarity to the fur of prey animals. Don't confuse any of this with the playful activities of young children. This is not play in any human sense. The birds simply aren't able to much distinguish authentic prey (live small animals) from objects sitting on the ground. The instinctive behaviors to pounce and kill are profound, and after a period of seeing no moving prey, the young birds will be compelled to "kill" something. They drop onto a stick and squeeze it to "death." From our intellectual perspective, this seems to be either play, or misdirected and ineffective hunting. From the hawks' perspective, it is perfectly normal and effective. They birds are continuing to hone timing and muscle/nerve reflexes used in their daily killing. It's not play. It's serious perfection of motor neuron reflexes and hunting techniques. Don't discount or misrepresent it.
But in time, the birds will have to start getting up in the air. As days begins to shorten,
the reduced period of light prompts instinctive motivations to start migration. Hawks don't migrate down Park Avenue. They will instinctively soar several thousand feet into the sky, where they can then start to drift southward, well above everything below, even New York City. When Big and Little are seen soaring above the tops of nearby buildings, they may be learning to feel the air up there, preparing to drift off to the south for winter.
That, of course is normal for typical rural red-tails. But the Central Park red-tails have violated normal red-tail behaviors time and again. After first learning of this wonderful population last December, I won't be surprised at all if the two immatures decide to stay in Central Park for the winter. It's another six to eight weeks before the migration begins, before the birds would likely depart. If food gets short, they could fly off to some marsh or wild area in New Jersey in a day. I'm not trying to be alarmist in any way. But immature red-tails are almost always driven from their summer haunts by either a) their parents, b) by unmitigated hunger from a lack of local prey, c) by instinctive migration behaviors, or d) by a combination of these. Don't be surprised (or alarmed) if the Trump Parc immatures just "disappear" in the next few weeks.

John A. Blakeman

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Orthoptera and Coleoptera report [very partial]

Here's a report from a few weeks ago I forgot to post and left sitting as a draft until now. All insects mentioned are still around.

Snowy Tree Cricket
Photo M. Winn

Snowy Tree Cricket:

A few weeks ago I took a picture of this orthopteran, probably the most audible contributor to our Central Park night soundscape these days: A Snowy Tree Cricket. Here it is, to the left . [Sometime last year I bought my first camera, a Canon Powershot S410 and a few weeks ago I finally figured out how to transfer pictures from that camera to my computer. It was not at all the formidable procedure I thought it would be and I'm sorry indeed I put off doing it so long. A technophobe metamorphosing into a techie ...]

Fireflies are everywhere, flashing their greenish taillights throughout the park. In late July we spotted several pairs of fireflies mating on the trunk of an oak a little south of the Moth Tree

According to Brad Klein, a colorful member of the CP nature community , there are probably as many as 170 species of the firefly family [Lampyridae] in North America, and certainly at least two of them show up in Central Park. Brad went out firefly hunting the other night and wrote:
It seems the ones I caught are probably "Photinus pyralis", undoubtedly
males. I'd like to try and find the females, who lurk in the grass - and
see if there are any other species or genera.

The female Photuris is the infamous Aggressive Mimic who eats gullible
Photinus males. That would be an exciting 'discovery'.
Fireflies, by way, are members of the order Coleoptera -- Beetles.

Now on to a new order -- the Homoptera, an order that includes cicadas, plant and treehoppers, aphids, mealybugs and others. In early July cicadas began to be heard, mainly in the day. But at night on the way to the Moth Tree the Central Park Mothers have been seeing increasing numbers of Cicada nymphs emerging from their cases -- a beautiful sight only available to those who habitually scan tree trunks with flashlights at night.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Of Men and Rats and two postscripts

When John Blakeman acknowledged that "It's becoming clear that rats are the missing prey, substituting for the voles of rural areas," I replied:
Well, it makes sense. Rats are extremely clever animals, it seems to me, and there's a great deal of human food consumption that goes on in the park on a large scale during daylight hours only. People purchase hot dogs and pretzels from the numerous [year-round] vendor carts, leaving crumbs and more behind. Another factor, I'm sure, are the various bird and animal lovers in and around the park who deliberately feed critters -- People bringing sacks of grain for pigeons every day, [the redtails know these regular feeding spots and perch nearby], all the squirrel feeders who feed their bushy-tailed friends almonds and walnuts as well as peanuts daily. I'm afraid the Bird Feeding squad [I'm on it] that fills feeders for the various titmice, woodpeckers, sparrows, etc. once or twice a week in the fall and winter may contribute to the rat feast as well.

John sent me a letter in return:
As I've contended from the beginning, the continued presence of red-tailed hawks in Central Park (as elsewhere) is utterly dependent on a reliable, accessible prey base. And those prey are almost surely rats, not pigeons. But rats don't venture out into the daylight unless lured by food -- which is provided by humans. If humans weren't spreading pound after pound of seeds, nuts, and their own food scraps, the rats wouldn't be out in the daylight and vulnerable to hawks.
I now think red-tails are in Central Park because humans indirectly feed the park's rats. Red-tails are in CP because humans are. At the base, it's the people, not solely the rats, pigeons, trees, buildings, or anything else. It's the abundance of human-provided food for both rats and pigeons that causes the hawks to inhabit and breed in Central Park.
The unique field biology of the Central Park red-tails is becoming much clearer. Were humans to stop providing food for the rats and pigeons, especially the rats, the hawks would leave the city for more typical rural areas where voles are the essential prey base. Like so much of the rest of everything in New York, it's the activities of the people that allow red-tails to occupy Central Park. It's not any obscure natural history. It's the animal-feeding and food discarding habits of people that inadvertently provide the essential food base for the hawks. This is not so for any other hawk population that I know of. Curious and unique.

John A. Blakeman

PS from Marie:

No, I wouldn't say Central Park is unique. There are Redtails nesting in other New York City parks --Prospect Park, Inwood Park, etc. Elsewherethey nest in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge MA, on the Boston Common, and probably in many, many other public places that have the mix of people-that-eat-and-feed and grass, trees, shrubs, water --habitats for hawks and rats to use for their purposes and to intersect with each other.

Second Postscript:

This exchange between me and Blakeman prompted me to send a letter to Neil Calvanese, Vice President of Operations for the Central Park Conservancy. He's in charge of everything, including the periodic rat-baiting [poisoning] that is done in the park. Just in case he hadn't heard, I informed him of the Trump Parc family, and requested an immediate suspension of rat-baiting in the southwest quadrant of Central Park.

The Conservancy has always been responsive to public concerns about the park's wildlife. Rat-baiting was always suspended in Pale Male's hunting territory during the Fifth Avenue hawks' breeding season. I am expecting a favorable response to my request, and will post it here when it comes. [I'll post his response whtever it is.]

[For those of you who believe that rat-baiting should be ended everywhere in the park -- as I do -- please don't write to me. I have come to see this as an unrealistic goal. The public is too freaked out about rats to tolerate such an action. If you must -- and I'm not recommending it -- write directly to the Commisioner of Parks, Adrian Benepe.]