Saturday, February 25, 2006

Redtails and Grackles: Veronica reports

Junior with new twig at nest--photo by Bruce Yolton

Veronica Goodrich, you may remember, is the woman whose apartment offers a view into the Trump-Parc redtail nest. She also happens to work at Bergdorf Goodman, the elegant New York department store on Fifth Ave and 58th Street. The dressing room where she meets her clients [she is a "personal shopper"] has a direct view of the trees surrounding the Pulitzer Fountain in the grand plaza across the street from Bergdorf's. That's where a large flock of Common Grackles have been roosting for the night since last October. A few days ago I asked her for a report on the hawks and the grackles. Here is her reply:


About Jr and Charlotte.....always new twigging in the early morning but have not seen them " doing it" as I had in the early part of this month. I did see on Bruce's blog that he photographed the"deed" and claimed that spring was in the air!

Since last weekend lots of stuff getting piled up on their little perch... snow didn't seem to take anything away.......looking forward to warmer weather to set up outside.....

You will be interested to know that your grackles did not return to their perch at the Plaza for three days during the snow storm. I was worried my total entertainment was done, but on the fourth day they came screaming back with greater numbers!! Quite impressive.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Sweet fly-out last night

West Drive male just before fly-out - 2/ 22/06
photo by Bruce Yolton

The fact that the female screech owl is flying out regularly every night makes the owl-watchers conclude that it is unlikely there are already eggs in the nest. Indeed, the beginning of regular song and conversation between the two owls makes it appear that they are now in the courtship and romance stage. That should be followed by egg-laying and incubation in a few weeks. Here is Jean's report of last night's fly-out. An excellent description of the events of the previous night are on Bruce's website

Marie -

Very sweet flyout tonight - (he went at 5:52, she 10 minutes later) - some moving around from here to there in usual area, sometimes in adjacent trees; then she called and called; finally he responded: pair, together, 4 inches apart on one branch - only for a few seconds, then he took off north and she headed west over the wall.

The calling is so sweet, gentle - just hauntingly beautiful: who named these creatures SCREECH Owls???? What an idiot.

Nice crew there to watch: Bruce, Lee, Noreen, Kathy on a bike who stopped on her way home (she was entranced, and will come again, I'm sure).

Jean Dane

Thursday, February 23, 2006

In [modified] defense of Anthropomorphism

Pale Male and Lola in close proximity - Jan 8, 2006
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Interesting letter from a reader reacting to John Blakeman's recent comments:

As a scientific observer, John Blakeman has some obvious and well appreciated strengths. Your readers, myself included, through his comments which you’ve regularly posted on your site, have been able to greatly enhance their knowledge of RTH’s. I’ll have to say though, that his vigilant efforts to keep your readers from muddying the waters of scientific objectivity by ever attempting to dissuade them away from finding behavioral traits in common between hawks and humans can sometimes be amusing.
In the Sunday, February 19th post, for example, after going on in some detail to dismiss the validity of the word "like" in any connection with the bird’s relationship, emphasising the importance of the word "mate" in its place, he notes how the birds hang out together all year round, declining to view each other as intruders into the nesting territory once the reproduction phase has concluded for the year.

Then Blakeman says; "Can we see how non-mammalian, how non-human this arrangement is?". Speaking for myself, I’d have to say respectfully, "Well no Mr Blakeman, No we can’t see this". In fact, the arrangement he describes has so much in common with how many human couples conduct their relationships, it could be said to be identical in some respects to that of humans.

It seems obvious why RTH’s wouldn’t want to establish a practice resembling the human social ritual of smoking jackets, cocktail dresses and martinis with out-of-towners. Outsider hawk presence seems to stem only from an interest in moving in on a territorially established pairs' good thing. They’ve got to work too hard to be coming over just to visit. Hawks confronted by outsiders, seem to have this figured out while in many instances, humans' behavior demonstrates they have not.

Blakeman’s insistence on the idea that RTH pairs' close proximity to each other in their territory has absolutely nothing in common with human relationships seems extreme. They have a big territory, after all, and good eyesight. If they really had no interest in each other beyond cyclical mating, why would they ever have occasion to come any closer than 50 to 100 feet of each other? The watchers seem to find them sitting next to each other often.

Just by noting Blakeman’s own observations about RTH behavior, and the nature of humans and other animals in general, it seems wrong to presume the complete absence of affection or other emotion between the two hawks. Hawks and other animals shouldn’t be portrayed to children and gullible people as humans in animal bodies. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous to outright dismiss the existence of certain kinds of experience in species with whom we are unable to directly communicate as a means of confirming or denying the presence of that experience.

Darrell A. Tuffli

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Will the 5th Ave nest succeed this year?John Blakeman answers one of my questions

I wrote John Blakeman with some questions about the prognosis for this year's Fifth Ave. nest. I particularly mentioned people's anxieties about the new "cradle" structure at 927 Fifth put up after the nest and spikes were removed in December, 2004. Here is his reply:

I'm not concerned about the space beneath the nest support structure (the cradle) at all. I've seen a number of tree-crotch nests in the wild that were simply meager in depth. At this time of the year we can often look up through the bottom of nests and see the sky above. This all gets fixed when the birds start hunkering down in the central bowl of the nest and start wiggling around, arranging the nest lining. Before laying, the female will start to pluck out inner down feathers on her belly and chest, creating the "brood patch." In the nest, she puts this naked skin right on the eggs, conducting heat directly to them. Most of the loose breast feathers go wafting away in the breeze, but some are tucked into the accumlating lining material at the bottom of the nest.

When an adult is sitting with its bare breast or belly skin against the bottom of the nest, any whiff of cold air is attended to immediately. This is a primal instinct, to keep the eggs warm. The birds will carefully line the nest with all sorts of fine material and down feathers to keep out the wind. They will take care of this. The opening you see under the nest plays no part in this. The nest is very, very tight just under the sitting female. That's why she spends so much time sitting on the nest and re-arrangeing things before eggs are laid. She's not just passing the day up there. She's making certain that the eggs will be able to stay warm (unless they happen to rest on a metal prong -- which this year we hope doesn't happen, if or when the nest is built higher).

Red-tails have a strong instinct to bring twigs to the nest, even when none are needed. That may be why in rural territories red-tails commonly build a nest and use it only one or two years, then go off and build a new nest elsewhere, when a previous one is still quite usable nearby. We'l have to watch in the next few weeks how strong the stick-bringing behavior plays out this year.

It's still early.

John A. Blakeman

Owl and hawk news

The Master

The little wife
Photos by Bruce Yolton


After years of attendance at owl fly-outs, I know in my bones the level of daylight owls choose for leaving their daytime roosts: not quite dark, but on the way there; more night than day; only enough light left in the day to show post-sunset pink clouds . Everything else gray.

It was 5:55 when I emerged from the subway at Central Park West and 72nd Street on Sunday, but I could tell I was late without looking at my watch. It was getting to be just that exact level of darkness--the fly-out moment. Maybe it had already happened.

I walked quickly down the path through Strawberry Fields, and as I rounded the corner from the West Drive I could see the little group of owl-watchers off in the distance a few blocks to the north. A quick scan with binoculars relieved my anxiety.

Everyone's gaze was fastened on the London Plane tree roost hole. There they were, the faithful owl-watchers, Lee in a funny hat, Bruce peering into his scope, Martha and Fred and Gabriel and a few others I didn't immediately recognize, all facing east, all staring intently at the tear-shaped hole. I made it, I thought happily and broke into a little trot.

I was almost at the owl tree when the scene changed. Though they were standing just as before, suddenly each owler was facing the opposite direction, looking at something in the woods. It was exactly 6 pm. I hadn't exactly missed the fly-out. Just the owl.

* * * * *

Note: Besides the two photos above, the first taken just before the male's take-off, the second a moment afterwards as the female peeked out, perhaps to see where her mate hads flown, Bruce has some astounding photos of the pre- and post-fly-out owls. His series on screech-owl facial expressions will make you laugh.

Also on his website are up-to-the-minute photos of Junior and Charlotte, as well as pictures of Pale Male and Lola sharing [more or less] a rodent dinner.

Here is a link to Bruce's site. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cooper's Hawk at the owl fly-out: Blakeman comments

Second-year Cooper's hawk - 2/18/05
Photo by Lincoln Karim

As I'm sure you know, the Cooper's hawk photo you posted on Thursday, February 19 (a fine image by Cal Vornberger) is an immature, a bird in its first year. The associated article refers to an adult Cooper's. Adult Cooper's have brilliant red eyes and a slate gray back. This specimen is in typical first-year plumage, with a yellow eye and brown vertical chest markings.
The Cooper's hawk in Lincoln's photo yesterday [see above] is a second-year bird. It has adult breast plumage, but the eyes are only yellow-orange. In the third and following years, the eyes will be fiery red.

Observers might also notice the thin legs and feet, used to snatch fleeing birds from the air. The Cooper's hawk, along with the smaller, closely related sharp-shinned hawk, feed almost exclusively on captured birds. You described such an attack perfectly.

Twenty-five years ago, Cooper's hawks were rather uncommon everywhere, and were virtually absent in urban and suburban areas. Because they fed on birds, they were reduced in number by the effects of DDT, which they accumulated from their avian prey. My favored red-tails, because they eat primarily mammals that didn't accumulate DDT, were never reduced in population.

Today, because DDT is no longer used in North America, Cooper's hawk populations have exploded, and this formerly uncommon and wary hawk is now quite frequently encountered, now even in cities. It has learned that cities and suburbs now have dense concentrations of easy-to-catch small birds so vulnerably feeding at bird feeders. There is now some indication that urban Cooper's hawk populations may even be reducing urban song bird numbers in the winter around bird feeders, which artificially concentrate they choice morsels for the hawks.
. . .
It's nice to have Cooper's hawks back in profusion. But I get a lot of phone calls of consternation from people alarmed by watching these birds kill and consume songbirds at backyard feeders. As delicately as I can, I commend the feeder owners for feeding all of the birds, predator and prey alike.
Like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, two other raptors formerly on the way out, Cooper's hawks are back -- in profusion. It's nice to have some conservation efforts work out.

John A. Blakeman

Donna's Hawkwatching Prep #5

Dr. Fisher's [below]-- closeup of terraces [right]

Just south of the nest building, 927 Fifth Avenue, to your right, is the building we call Dr. Fisher. Named for the gentleman hawk watcher who lived there. See the three large center terraces with the black railings, seemingly one on top of the other mid-building? Dr. Fisher's was the third one down. Many of the grand close up photographs that people have seen were taken from that terrace.

And just why is that THE place for photos? Why couldn't you get good shots from the other terraces? After all they are higher. Look carefully at the close up. The top two terraces are inset, the nest can't be seen from them. Only from Dr. Fisher's terrace is the nest visible from anywhere on that building.

Why can't we see when the eggs are laid, and how many there are, and when they hatch, and all those other tantalizing bits of information that we never seem to have? Because Dr. Fisher's terrace is just slightly too low to see into the bowl of the nest, that's why. Pale Male is no dummy. He's chosen a very private site.

And how is The Dr. Fisher Building used by the hawks? They use it for just about everything at one time or another. There's copulation on the water tower cover. It's good for circling above and gaining altitude. And just look at all those perching possibilities with the numerous railings. I also understand Pale Male's newly fledged youngsters have been known to spend a good bit of time on Fisher when they first come from the nest, as well.

I can hear the question forming as it's sometimes asked by visitors to the Hawk Bench. "You said, that the buildings were named for a descriptive element so it would be easy for people to find the hawks. How does naming it Dr. Fisher fit in?"

To the original hawk watchers, it is perfectly descriptive. That is where a friend lived.

And for the rest of us, it's a legacy of remembrance for a kind man and enthusiastic hawk watcher who no longer watches from The Bench.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Jean braves an icy fly-out

A few minutes after Friday's fly-out
Photo by Bruce Yolton

Marie -

Too cold again for much standing in doorway of tree-hole: male ESO did not appear until 5:33. And when he did, it was only his head - chin resting on bottom of entrance, eyes closed, ears drooping - clearly not ready to start his day (I hope Bruce got a picture of that). He pulled himself together after a few minutes, stood up and began to look more like his usual spiffy self - "ears" went straight up for a passing horse carriage, and a little later he seemed enchanted by a toddler being dragged northward - maybe it was the screams that got him.

Flyout was at 6:02, followed less than a minute later by his mate: he went low, same patch of bushes as last night, but didn't stay there long and then we lost him; she headed northwest and disappeared off the face of the earth.

Just out of curiosity I checked for pellets around base of tree, whilewaiting for owls to wake up - found some tiny vertebrae and one slightly larger bone: I don't think, though, that they were from a dissolved pellet,as they seemed to be lined up in the right order....

That's all the news that's fit to print -

Jean Dane

Linda and Ugly White Condo: #4 of a series

Linda [L] and Ugly White Condo [R]

close up: Linda 1, 2, 3, 4 [Note hawk on Linda 3]

To the right, south of Dr. Fisher is The Linda Building. Why Linda? Look at the second from the top row of windows facing you. That's Linda's apartment. And if you look hard at the close up, you'll see that each of that row of windows has a semi-circular metal railing which is perfect for hawk perching.

The windows are numbered from the left, Linda 1, Linda 2, and so on through Linda 6. A particular favorite place to perch in the afternoon sun for Pale Male. He spent some time on Linda 1 just this afternoon. It is also frequented by Lola but not as often. In the close up see Lola, looking in the window at Linda 2, watching TV perhaps, and Pale Male facing out at Linda 3, sun gleaming off his white breast.

Last season the northwest corner of the roof was very popular for copulation. I can remember on one occasion when Lola was perched there, tail out, leaning over in an inviting manner. Pale Male appeared with a rat gift. He dumped it over the edge and onto the roof and then immediately went to business with Lola. She ate her rat afterward.

Look further right to the white building in the same block, and yes, that is The Ugly White Condo. No explanation necessary. The corners of the white cube on top were pretty popular in the hawk sex department last season as well.

Note that between Linda and The Ugly White Condo is a third building squeezed between the two. On the roof are some vertical exhaust pipes with vented tops and a railing. On one day only last season, I saw the hawks make use of those accoutrement's. While writing their movements as fast as I could, I came to a dead halt, I realized that building had no name. And there really isn't much to distinguish it in the way of descriptive terms.

Therefore to save me the dead halt this year, just in case, any suggestions?

Next up, The Lion Building and The Crows.

Donna Browne

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Unlike humans, hawk mates don't fight: Blakeman

Photo by Cal Vornberger

Website correspondent Jan Lipert sent in the following question and asked me to forward it to John Blakeman:

You have mentioned the hawks' nonsocial behavior, and I have often read about it in my bird books. Yet Pale Male and Lola seem to 'hang out' together all year long. Do you think that perhaps the abundant prey has reduced their need to be competitive, and allows the bonding to have more of an influence on them even when it's not mating season? Do you think that their isolated location might also have something to do with it?

Blakeman responds:


A very good set of questions. I don't think I've been completely clear with my descriptions of red-tails' social behaviors in the fall and winter, when they aren't directly prompted by sex and breeding hormones.

We all understand that a pair perches together, hunts together, feeds together, works on the nest together, and often "mates" (well, I mean here "copulates") in winter, spring, and into the summer under the strong influence of behavioral hormones that pour out when days are lengthening.

But what keeps the big female from attacking her smaller mate in August through January, when breeding activities are generally nil? In fact, the mated (I mean here, "pair bonded") birds continue to perch together and share the territory. In these later seasons, they often don't sit so closely, and they seldom work on the nest and almost never copulate. But to even the most inexperienced observer it appears that the pair is bonded. To be anthropomorphic (dangerous), the two birds appear to "like" each other. They hang around together and seem to be mutually contented in the territory.

Here's where I wasn't clear. By "non-social" I meant that the birds just don't like the presence of other members of their species to which they aren't pair bonded. But the pair bond tends to last, in varying degrees of strength, throughout the entire year. Once bonded, the pair never considers any aggression against the other pair member. That's what's so interesting. If a new, unidentified red-tail flies into a mated pair's territory, it is usually driven off quickly and decisively. Mated pairs never have internal aggression. They never fight (unlike many of us humans). But they will often aggressively drive off a new territorial interloper.
And that, I think, is the essential and interesting explanation of a mated pair's internal non-aggression. It appears that the mated birds are mated both to themselves (anthropomorphically, they "like" each other), and also to the territory (they accept and like where they live -- and at the same time allow just the other member of the pair to live there, too).

So it's also a territory thing, a "stay out of my yard" expression. The other bird in the pair is instinctively permitted "in the yard," on the property. But no other bird during the breeding season is.

Can we see how non-mammalian, how non-human this arrangement is? The two hawks abide the presence of each other within the territory, but any other red-tail that drifts in is very non-socially driven off. This is the remarkable aspect of the pair bonding I referred to.

To summarize: mated (pair bonded) red-tails never, at any time of the year, fight or have aggression to each other. Both birds perceive they have a biological right to be in the territory, while at the same time acting as though any other red-tails don't. This delicate social arrangement works, a remarkable feat for a species that is otherwise so non-social.


John A. Blakeman

Hawk and Owl News

Central Park Hawks 18 Feb 2005
Temperature: 30F
Wind Chill: 14F and sinking.
Wind-Gusts to 25MPH
All times PM.
1:35 Little Hill, 58th St., Columbus Circle, favorite perches, nest, and environs. No Red-tails in sight.
2:20 Finally. Charlotte circles above big silver globe in Columbus Circle, gains altitude,
2:24 Charlotte glides east into the park trees, once in the trees, curves north, perches in tree near wall.
2:26 Charlotte dives out of view behind the wall, Grackles flush up.
2:27 Charlotte flies back into view, heads toward ball fields, northeast.
2:31 Stella calls and reports Pale Male is perched on The Beresford.
2:43 No RTs on nest or Hampshire House chimney.
2:48 RT circles above Cobs Cot. Pigeons flush. I head into the Park.
2:53 Cooper's Hawk flies across park southwest to northeast.
3:19 The Hawk Bench, No Rik. Stella, avid hawk watcher and surgical nurse, is in residence, but hardly recognizable in her wool mask that shows only her eyes. It is very cold.. She reports a Cooper's Hawk was perched low in a tree at the north end of the Model Boat Pond for a good while earlier. No Lola or Pale Male currently.
4:03 We're dreaming about hot beverages. Reverie broken, Pale Male and Lola suddenly converge on the nest and land. Pale Male brings a twig with him. He turns cocks his head repeatedly looking down.
4:05 Lola off to ?. Pale Male up and to the top east corner of scaffolding on The Stovepipe.
4:07 Strong wind doesn't just ruffle PM's feathers, it blows them sideways,up, and down, he sits alert. Numerous passers-by look at him through the scope.
4:12 A male and female Peregrine appear above Pale Male, trading off dives at his head. (Peregrines are capable of killing Red-tails.) Pale Male hunches his body down and crooks his head back to watch them, ducking when appropriate. His beak works. At several points he raises his wings. I've seen Charlotte defend herself from Peregrine attack on the wing by rolling in the air with talons up just as the Peregrine's dive almost gets to her head. In order to avoid the talons the Peregrine then veers off. I wonder, if the Peregrine attack becomes too serious, if Pale Male is capable of throwing himself off the scaffolding backwards to get his talons up in time to protect his head. Then continuing the roll into flight. Timing.
4:20 The Peregrines have given up. Pale Male stands alert in the cold wind.
4:25 Pale Male is up, he flies south, perches Linda 1, in the sun. [An explanation of Linda 1 to follow tomorrow]
4:30 Pale Male to nest. Are the Peregrines giving Lola a hard time out of our sight and PM is doing nest protection duty?
4:33 Pale Male off nest to Linda 1.
4:35 Pale Male up and toward the Lake. Two birders come by, an immature RT has been hunting rats in The Oven. He's nabbed one and is eating heartily. The few hawk watchers start to disperse, including this one. Heading west, I consider whether I'll get frostbite if I try to wait for the West Drive Owl flyout. My feet won't bend, they've gotten to the lump of wood stage.
5:10 West Screech Owl Tree, not an owl or human in sight.** The wind is blowing hard up the drive.
5:15 Exit.

Donna Browne

**Note from Marie: I arrived at the West Drive owl tree at 5:30. Jean, Lee, and new Owler Connie arrived soon afterward.. The male Screech-owl popped into the hole entrance at 5:35, unusually late for first appearance, flew out at 5:52. It was dauntingtly cold, for humans certainly, for owls possibly. The temperature was in the low 20's. The female owl flew out at about 6:05. [We were too cold to look at our watches.] The owls stopped briefly at two perches and disappeared to the northwest. We disappeared shortly after they did.