Friday, December 02, 2005

Grackles attack a Redtail

Common Grackle - Sept. 18, 2005
Photo by Lincoln Karim

When I take beginners for bird walks I find they have trouble telling starlings from grackles. Both birds are dark, somewhat irridescent, and both come in big flocks. Here's a fool-proof way to tell them apart, I tell them: Grackles have a BLACK BILL and a YELLOW EYE [see picture above. Starlings have a YELLOW BILL and a BLACK EYE. Experienced birdwatchers can hardly understand how anyone can confuse birds that seem so different. But they've forgotten how difficult the sport of birdwatching can be, at the beginning.

Though grackles are very common and consequently not held in high esteem by most birdwatchers, I consider them one of the most beautiful birds in the park. Perhaps that's why I've been focussing so much attention on the flock of grackles that have been roosting at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel , together with an equal number of starlings, for the last few months. But the sheer number of them is most compelling. The numbers are beginning to dwindle, but until a few weeks ago I'd say there were at least a thousand birds roosting in that single area.

I had thought they'd be gone by now. The ten Bradf0rd Callery Pear trees surrounding the fountain have finally turned a burnished gold-brown. The remaining leaves look dry and wrinkled, and almost half of them are gone. Yet the flocks of birds are still roosting there. They arrive a little before sunset -- 4:29 tonight -- and keep arriving for the next ten or fifteen minutes. Since the fountain has been turned off and little Christmas trees with lights now stand where the water once flowed , the bird din is very audible for passers-by.. And of course the visible traces of the roosting birds-- whitewash on the cobblestones below their roost trees -- also give evidence of birds' presence.

I can't imagine they'll be there much longer. Within a week the trees will be leafless. Then, I guess, it's off to their winter roost in North Carolina or thereabouts, where I'm told unimaginable numbers of grackles spend the winter. It will be time to pay more attention to the park's year-round residents, red-tailed hawks for instance. The redtail breeding season is almost upon us. This should be a very suspenseful winter and spring, considering the wild events of 2004.

Yesterday I saw a great flock of starlings and grackles harass a hapless redtail who happened to sail over their roosting trees just as they were beginning to converge for the night. Though the hawk was hugely bigger than each individual one of them, as a unified flock they managed to pursue him -- it was probably Pale Male or Junior --and drive him deep into the park. Then the flock returned, victorious, and tucked in for the night at the Pulitzer Fountain pear trees. Power in numbers indeed.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

It's December -- Owl Season

You've seen many photos of the red-phased Screech Owl that has been roosting in a tree hollow up the hill from the Boathouse. It's been there for the last month or so. Now a new Screech Owl has been discovered -- near the area Central Park Birders refer to as The Riviera. [ If you want to find this owl you must locate a regular birder in the Ramble who will lead you to the spot. Your Open Sesame will be your binoculars, rvealing you as a birder, not a potential owl-harmer.]

Here are two thrilling photos of the Riviera Owl, taken yesterday. Each photo is so expressive it is tempting to make up cute captions. So far I have manfully [or womanfully] resisted.

Photo by Lloyd Spitalnik -- Nov. 30, 2005

Photo by Cal Vornberger - November 30, 2005

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How to find Pale Male and Lola

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the rail outside the Delacorte Theater

The Beresford -- 81st and CPW

78th St. and Fifth Ave.
All photos were taken by Bruce Yolton in November, 2005

Bruce Yolton, one of the most dedicated watchers of the Trump Parc nest last spring and summer, offers some advice to Central Park visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of our famous hawk couple:

I'm always running into tourists who arrive at the Hawk Bench [near the statue of Hans Christian Andersen at the Model Boat Pond] looking for Pale Male and Lola. They should know that these days the redtail celebrities usually hang out a bit further north and west (77th - 82nd Sts, anywhere between 5th Avenue and Central Park West). So be prepared to take a short walk.

Head north from the Hawk Bench past the Alice in Wonderland statue and up to Cedar Hill. That's around 79th St. After checking the 5th Avenue buildings from the top of Cedar Hill, scanning the rooftops, TV antennas etc. for the hawks, take the path up the hill, cross the East Drive and head for the Great Lawn, passing the Polish Statue. Follow the path to Turtle Pond . Once there, you can check the buildings visible on Central Park West for the hawks, then check the Castle directly above Turtle Pond, and the lighting towers of the Delacorte Theater. Look in the trees along the Great Lawn. Over the past few weeks, I've almost always found at least one of the hawks on this short circuit.

If you don't find them, spend a little time looking for the Red Squirrel in the Black Locust Grove directly west of the Great Lawn, and then venture off to the Reservoir just north of there to look for ducks. Come back in an hour and retrace your steps back to the Hawk Bench, looking for Pale Male and Lola along the way. You'll probably find them.
In summary, possible places to find the Fifth Avenue Hawks are:

On the 5th Avenue buildings south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
On the Beresford Building on CPW either in the oval window or on the north tower on top of the construction riggings
On trees just north of Turtle Pond or on the southern edge of the Great Lawn
In the lighting towers of the Delacorte Theater
On top of Belvedere Castle
On the Metropolitan Museum of Art (SW corner) or on trees near the Obelisk

[The photos above show some of these places]

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

As winter approaches

Black Swallowtail chrysalis

Common Witchhazel [Hamamelis virginiana]

On October 4th in the Shakespeare Garden [see archives] we watched a Black Swallowtail caterpillar metamorphose into a chrysalid. Today after the weekly filling of the bird feeders at the Evodia Field another member of the Feeder-filling Squad and I checked to see how the pupa was doing. We could hardly find it, though I knew exactly where it had attached itself to the latticework fence, for it no longer resembled a living creature. It looked like a little piece of wood. Only when I stared at it for a few moments did I notice the delicate little threads by which it attached itself to the fence.

The next act of this drama should occur next May, when the butterfly is due to emerge from its winter refuge. I'll keep you posted.

The second photo shows a paradoxical plant, the common witch hazel. Just as the trees are becoming bare and wintry, a mere three weeks from the winter solstice, this lovely plant begins to flower throughout Central Park.

Squirrel Power

A reader writes:
I bought a bag of organic black walnuts from ebay. Try as myself and my family might, we couldn't open them. Our attempts included laying them in cloth on a concrete slab and hitting them with a hammer! Nothing. We planned a trip to Key West, and decided to bring these walnuts, in case we saw some squirrels. At a park, a TINY, and I mean TINY baby squirrel happened near us. We offered it (her?) a black walnut, and she took it, ran to a nearby branch, cracked it open with not the least bit of trouble, and came near us hoping for another. It was truly amazing. She was about 4 times as big as the walnut. A tiny, cute powerhouse.
Thank you for your web site & all your work. It's a pleasure to read.

PS The Central Park Red Squirrel is doing fine. He seems to be moving his cache of nuts and acorns to a new location. The photo above was taken by BRUCE YOLTON.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Cal Vornberger sends photos

Wood Duck as Narcissus

Bufflehead as Charles Lindberg

author of recently published book The Birds of Central Park
In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the book's Introduction

Cal writes:

Hi Marie:

Attached are a couple of photos taken over the weekend at the Harlem Meer. It's amazing to watch (and photograph) the Buffleheads getting a running start in order to build up enough speed to get airborne. The two female Wood Ducks continue at the Meer. Their favorite food seems to be the acorns of the oak trees on the east side of the Meer. Yesterday I watched them hop out of the water and root around on the ground for acorns (in the company of 1/2 dozen Mallards.)

I would also like to tell you about the new and improved Birds of Central Park forums (See link below) There is a new photo gallery where people have been uploading their shots of Central Park (not just birds) and a numer of forums where I have been posting news and information about birds and birding in the park. There is a Pale Male and Lola forum where I started by placing a link to Jim's genealogy. There is a Pale Male and Lola gallery in the photo section too!

I have added some news feeds from the New York Times, NPR, and other places. The feeds are mostly science and photography related and there are some interesting gems there. Anyone can become a member---it's free and easy to sign-up!



Sunday, November 27, 2005

Two great duck pix and a PS to posting about Pale Male and Lola

When the migration is over over OVER -- though there was still a yellow-rumped warbler in the park last week -- and when winter is around the corner, Central Park birdwatchers' attention swings to the many different ducks that show up on the park's waterbodies every fall and winter. Among them are the two below. If you wonder what these ducks find to eat in Central Park, check out Lloyd's amazing photo of the Bufflehead..

Bufflehead -- November 25, 2005

Hooded Merganser - [female] - November 25, 2005

POSTSCRIPT to the previous posting discussing Pale Male & Lola's Fifth Avenue nest. To compare photos 1 and 2, it helps to click on each photo. That will enlarge it and make the difference in nest thickness easier to see.

Pale Male & Lola update

PM and Lola in nest, May, 2005

Pale Male in nest - November 26, 2005 [yesterday!]

Lola feeding chick, May 2003
photos by Lincoln Karim

During my week away, Pale Male and Lola were noted spending more time in the nest than in previous months. They have been bringing sticks to the nest sporadically for months, as they have done in previous years during the period between the end of one breeding season and the beginning of the next. But this does not signify that the real nest-building season has begun. Nest-building is a hormone-driven stage during the hawks' breeding season that begins in late January or early February. During that stage the hawks make hundreds of trips from park to nest with twigs. What we have been seeing in recent months you might call the "home decorating" stage, when the hawk pair seem to bring occasional twigs just to retain a connection or for some other reason of their own.. This year it appears to us that they have been bringing more twigs during this stage than they normally do.

If indeed the nest failure last spring was caused, as I believe it was, by an insufficient number of twigs covering the anti-pigeon spikes that form the base of the nest, then perhaps some sort of instinct has been encouraging the hawk pair to bring a few more twigs than usual before the breeding season begins.

Though it's a bit hard to make out, if you compare the first two photos above you might be able to see that the twigs rise a few inches above the wooden support structure in the second, more recent one. If you look at the third photo, taken in 2003, you'll see that they still have a ways to go. By the end of the actual nest-building phase nest February the nest may be thick enough for ... a happy ending in 2006.