Saturday, March 11, 2006

Hawkbench Geography Lesson

From left to right in the photo , it is Linda,
The Squashed Building, Ugly White Condo, The Lion, and
The Crows. In foreground, Samantha Browne-Walters.

Close-up of The Lion

To the right, south, of the Ugly White Condo is the
building called The Lion. Why The Lion? Look
carefully at the closeup. See those trilobite shapes
between the windows on the second row from the top?
In real life those are decorative lion heads. Honest.

The near corner of The Lion is a handy spot for
copulation, or hunting, and the roof is sometimes used
for stashing prey. A careful look will also show a
nifty vented chimney for higher perching as well.

Abutting The Lion to the south is The Crows. I'm told
that in the early days of hawk watching in Central
Park, a family of crows considered that building
theirs when it came to territory. Therefore if the
Red-tails ventured into the personal space of the
crows, the hawks would be mobbed. Last season there
were no crows protecting The Crows, and Pale Male or
Lola could perch on the roof antennas without fear of

Get out your magnifying glass. There are two antennas
centered on the water tower cover.

Last season if both Pale Male and Lola happened to be
out of the immediate area, a little male Kestrel would
perch quite brazenly on an antenna in their absence.

Who's the little blonde that's been pressed into note
taking service in the fore ground? That's Samantha
Browne-Walters. She's often recognized by visitors as
the actress that played the daughter on the ABC sitcom
"Life With Bonnie". She has her own website:

That's it folks. Now you know. Those are the
buildings and the names that keep coming up repeatedly
in the field notes.

Donna Browne

Friday, March 10, 2006

Donna's minute-by-minute

Lola on nest - 3/6/06
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Pale Male and Lola, 3 Mar 2006
Sunset: 5:50PM (Farmers' Almanac)
Temperature: High 40s F
Wind: 5 to 10 MPH
Low Humidity
All times PM unless otherwise noted.

3:05 Before I even get to the Hawk Bench, Lola is visible standing center, staring down into the bowl of the nest. She sits tail to bench. Pale Male is not in sight of the bench though Elizabeth tells me he has just previously been perched on The Oreo antenna.

3:17 Pale Male lands on the north end of the nest.
Lola does not move. Pale Male lowers his head, beak to twigs. A little bow, that in the past has suggested he's there if she wants a break. She doesn't move.

3:18 Pale Male is off, flies north within the Fifth Ave. tree line.
3:19 Lola stands, scratches, preens belly, preens wing, fleas mid belly. It is suggested that she is pulling fluff for the nest. I see none in her beak.

3:22 Lola sits half down. That with her previous staring into the bowl of the nest are good signs that there are egg/eggs there but that the clutch is not yet complete.

Pale Male flies directly to north end of nest, flapping vigorously. Lola stands very alert. Pale Male's beak is working continually. He turns north, then west. People stop talking; the wind is right. I hear a faint cee, cee, cee,cee. (It's disorienting at first because the sound doesn't match the movement of his beak. Is it coming from somewhere else? No, I'm looking through the scope at his beak. Light travels faster than sound. It is him.) Pale Male hunches his shoulders, head slightly lowered, wings an inch or two separated from the body, all feathers standing at half erect. Stance of aggression. He is scary.

3:35 Pale Male and Lola are both focused on something directly in front of them. PM and L watch something go over their heads. I take my eye off the scope to see, as it's focused down too small. Whoa! There is another Red-tail standing on the edge of the roof of 927, just a few feet south of the nest. It has a heavy belly band, coloration close to Lola's. Tail coloration not visible. Pale Male is off the nest and standing in aggression mode on the edge of the roof, a few feet from the visitor. PM jumps at the visitor, it takes flight. Lola flies to the second from the top level, south terrace railing of Fisher. Pale Male flies after her, lands on her, they copulate. (???) Both stand on terrace railing facing Bench.

3:37 Both back to nest. Pale Male center, the feathers on the top of his head are standing totally on end. Lola on right. Both very alert. Pale Male moves left. Vigilant.

3:38 Blue Jay alarm calls heard from the southwest. PM and L very alert and focused.

3:39 Pale Male up, flies north, flapping, above Fifth Ave. tree line.

3:48 Lola low in nest, almost invisible, facing north, eye seen through twigs.

3:50 Pale Male to Oreo antenna.

4:00 Lola stands.

4:08 Remember the building north of Rusty Top and south of The Villa that I said wasn't named because the hawks never use it? Well...Pale Male is using it. There is a rectangular structure on the west side of the building, with a slightly raised long narrow brown top, that's use, no one seems to be able to figure out. It looks like a giant balance beam. The kind of thing used in female gymnastics. So it's now called The Balance Beam and Pale Male is perched on it. Cameras start clicking madly. It's an archetypal Pale Male pose. He's erect, feathers sleek, sun gleaming off his fair breast. He's looking down, hunting.

4:12 Lola looks down into bowl of nest, then sits half down.

4:31 Lola perks up a couple inches, vigilant. Pale Male is gone from Balance Beam.

4:33 A crow lands on Oreo antenna.

4:37 Pale Male is on the previously mentioned terrace plucking dark feathers off prey.

4:38 Pale Male to nest, lands, prey in feet, backs off to right.

4:39 Both hawks backs are turned to Bench. Both have the seasonal dark spot on the back of their heads discussed last year. Lola stands over prey looking at it. She lifts it, takes it further left. Dark feathers possibly Spread color morph Rock Dove/pigeon. She stares at it. PM stares at her, head slightly lowered.

4:41 Lola is up flies to Fisher terrace Pale Male just vacated, without prey, anterior to bench. She isn't hungry? She doesn't like the prey preparation? She wants to "do it' again?

4:42 Pale Male moves center picks up prey in beak. It is a Spread color morph Rock Dove.** He moves it north, lays it down further left. Looks down at it. Takes a tiny bite.

4:44 Pale Male is taking bigger bites, eating larger chunks. Lola still on Fisher railing.

4:47 Pale Male moves right, leaves prey left.

4:52 Lola to nest, lands left side. Stands on prey with gripped talons.

4:53 Lola eats wad of large feathers, then continues eating meat.

4:55 Lola plucks off flurry of small feathers, continues eating. Pale Male still nest right. Alert, scanning area.

5:06 Pale Male up and toward Ramble. Lola eats.

5:15 Time to head for Screech Fly Out-Exit.


Yes, yes, yes, I'm well aware that the American
Ornithological Union made a decision to conform to the
British Ornithological Union's checklist in regards to
the common name of Columba livia. Changing it from
Rock Dove to Rock Pigeon. I'm not out of date, I've
just dug in my heels.

Why is there a need for this conformity? I may be old
fashioned but I'm also well trained. A shared name
for all species no matter the national speech is the
reason for scientific names.

Have both countries deleted the use of genus and
species from their checklists?

In my opinion, decisions pressing for conformity and
dumbing-down when it comes to common names whatever the region or commonality of language is pedantic and a complete waste of time.

We already have a universal name for all discovered
species. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. Have a
question? Use the scientific name.

(Of course I don't mention what also rankles.
The change from a lovely elegant name to a clunky one.
Pigeons need all the help they can get.:)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Hawk and Owl report

Photo by Lincoln Karim

West Drive owls:
Fly-out on Tues.: 6:10 pm
Fly-out Wednesday: 6:09 pm

both nights only one owl seen, the female adult.

Fifth Avenue Hawks:
Lola is eggnant.

3. Trump-parc Redtails:
Very active. Charlotte may not have begun to incubate, but is spending much more time in the nest.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Here's the news, via Jean, who heard it from Bruce, who heard it from Veronica, whose apartment looks out on Junior and Charlotte's nest:

Charlotte is sitting.

West Drive owl report

Screech-owl before flyout - 3/5/06
Photo by Bruce Yolton

From: JRDane
To: Marie Winn
Subject: Tuesday flyout
Date: Tue, 07 Mar 2006

Marie ­

The little cat-faced owl, the one we've been calling "she," was in doorway of hole as usual when I got to the tree at 5:40. Richard had been there for 10 minutes already, and said he had seen her earlier in the afternoon as well. She was fairly deep in the hole, only the head showing, with chin resting on sill, until right at 6:00 one of those street-sweeping machines went by ­ slow, roaring, the vibrations must go right up the trunk ­ and she immediately stood up, one foot draped over the edge. Flyout was about 10 minutes later, very low, and slightly more southerly than usual.

There was a small group of watchers by then: ­ Liz, Martha, Gabriel and one or two others ­ and everyone kept a pretty careful watch on the hole, waiting for owlets to show, but no one saw any movement at all. People began to head for home around 6:30. Liz and I stayed another 10 minutes, then took a little walk around by the horse path to listen for possible fledgers hissing for breakfast: nope, pretty quiet. General feeling is they're too young to be out yet....

Oh, by the way ­ remember that afternoon when the female Cooper's Hawk hit the streetlight, and we thought she might have caught something? Well, somebody does live in that lamp, though don't know who. ­ Saw just a quick sparrow-size movement out of corner of eye.


PS from Marie--Never heard of anybody but House Sparrows nesting in those lamp-posts.

Blakeman on redtails and pigeons

Pale Male with pigeon 3/5/06
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Dear Marie,
Sally Seyal posed once again some cogent questions regarding pigeon-hunting by Central Park red-tails (below). How pigeons are captured in CP is very important. My comments follow Sally's questions.

Sally's letter:
I think I remember reading Blakeman's discussion of the unusual behavior or red-tails taking pigeons as prey in Central Park, whereas they do not normally do so in the wild. He had described the possibility of "brush crashing" into the trees to get roosting pigeons unaware. However, I noted Lincoln's observation of Pale Male chasing down a pigeon and catching it just after takeoff, definitely not brush crashing. Perhaps Central Park pigeons are so used to the commotion and hubbub and people and dogs that they are less wary of true predators and take flight too late? I can imagine a hawk stooping after a bird on the ground that is unaware due to the commotion around it.
Just a thought.

Sally Seyal
Blakeman replies:

Sally's questions touch upon crucial issues. Like all predators, red-tails in Central Park must capture sufficient prey to support their normal life activities. All along, I've had two related questions. 1) What are the Central Park red-tails feeding on? It's certainly not the normal wild rodent prey of rural areas. And, 2) just how are they capturing their Central Park prey? Because they aren't taking many mice, their capture methods differ from those used in the wild.

It's now abundantly clear that NYC red-tails survive on two species, the common Norway rat, which is rather common RT fare where available, and the rock dove, the common urban pigeon. It's this bird that raises all of my questions.

Every authority on the red-tail, and everyone who has watched this species, knows that red-tails seldom, if ever, take healthy, free-flying birds of any kind. Rats are easy catches. Red-tails are "made" to capture rodents of all sizes. The hawks just drop out of the sky on to the rat and quickly dispatch it with piercing talons and a few flesh-ripping bites. Rats are rather nearsighted and can't run very fast. They are easy pickings for red-tails. Early on, I presumed that rats were the primary prey for the CP red-tails. Rats are common in big cities, and I presumed that at least a few would poke their noses out into the daylight, particularly around dusk. I presumed that dusk-active Norway rats would be the primary food for the Central Park hawks. But like so many other Central Park red-tail life history factors, I was wrong on this. Pigeons comprise an unexpected, inordinate fraction of daily prey captures.

None of us who know red-tails in the wild, either from observational studies, or from actually hunting with them, as I do as a falconer, would ever predict that pigeons could be consistently caught by these big, not-so-fast hawks. I still marvel at the pigeon-hunting successes of the Central Park red-tails. Unless it were seen and well-described (as it is now), raptor biologists would have summarily dismissed frequent pigeon killings by red-tails. Red-tails can't capture healthy, free-flying pigeons. period. Pigeons fly much faster than red-tails and are far more maneuverable. A pigeon should be able to easily escape any red-tail pursuit.
But obviously, in Central Park that's not the case. How so?

First, I've never been to Central Park and can only report my secondhand understandings, based upon my extensive experiences with red-tail hunting techniques. It appears that CP red-tails take pigeons in two different ways. The Pale Male video showed one of these, where the hawk soars over a tree that has a pigeon perched within the tree's foliage. The pigeon feels safe there, as the pigeon's ancestral avian predator, the peregrine falcon, will never dive into brush or limbs to capture prey. In doing so, the peregrine would break its wings. Peregrines take prey only in open sky, and pigeons instinctively know this, so for safety, they occasionally retreat to safe inner tree branches.

That keeps them perfectly safe from peregrines. But pigeons are an alien species, "new" to North America originally from the arid lands of the Middle East where peregrines and other large falcons have been chasing them for millennia. There are no red-tailed hawks in the Old World, and pigeons have never had to be concerned about them, so they have no instincts to avoid these big Buteo hawks. Unless directly attacked, NYC pigeons pay no attention whatsoever to the red-tails, as they are not perceived as any threat.

I've noted before, however, that red-tails are cunning, intellectual hunters, and the CP hawks have figured out how to consistently take pigeons. The red-tails are winning. The pigeons are losing (but only a few a day, so it will be a while before natural selection takes place and all the remaining NYC pigeons start paying attention to red-tails).

A red-tail perched high on the side of a Park Avenue building notices a pigeon that flies into a tree far below. The hawk notes exactly where the pigeon sits and the hawk then figures how she can plunge into the tree and snatch the hapless pigeon. As in the video, the hawk drifts over the tree and then executes a typical "brush crash," a unique red-tail hunting maneuver we falconers thrill to. The hawk folds its wings, or more typically flares them, diverting her forward speed directly downward. Powered by both the diverted forward speed (now instantaneously downward) and by gravity, the hawk plunges at 50-70 mph straight down into the foliage of the tree, into the "brush," It's not a random, let's-see-what-we-find plunge. The hawk knows exactly where the pigeon is sitting and exactly how it will drop right on top of it. Combined with its plunging speed and the pigeon's inattention, the hawk plucks off the sitting pigeon.

That's one way CP red-tails take pigeons, classic "brush crashing." I saw that in the video, and I smiled, having seen my own falconry red-tails take rabbits fleeing under brush on the ground in exactly the same way.

But I don't think most CP pigeons are taken by brush crashing, because I don't think many pigeons spend much time perched in trees. I think the CP red-tails have learned something new, devising another method to consistently take rock doves. Here, I'm speculating, and request that anyone who sees this post their observations in detail. This is new red-tail biology, and it needs to be observed and described.
In this, the more frequent pigeon hunting technique, the red-tail likewise begins its hunt while perched. The hawk telescopically zooms its vision down on to flock of pigeons feeding on the ground. The hawk is extremely patient, waiting as much as several hours as it closely studies the individual behaviors of the pigeons. We tend to see just a flock of pigeons, a large, fluid mass of these common birds. But our red-tail looks at every single bird down there, searching for the slightest nuance of disadvantage. In exactly the manner of cheetahs pursuing a herd of fleeing gazelles on the Serengeti, our red-tails will search for the animal that appears to have some slight physical or behavioral disadvantage.

I think the hawk is eager to watch the pigeon flock take off after some alarm, perhaps when a dog wanders too close. The hawk wants to see which pigeon in the flock has an inflated culinary sense, staying too long on the ground trying for the last peck of grain before finally leaping into the air with the rest of the fleeing flock. The red-tail wants to learn which two or three pigeons in the flock are the culinary lingerers, the few who value eating above fleeing.

With this knowledge, the hawk's next move is to figure out a course of attack. After repeated tries much earlier in it's life, usually in its first summer, when the hawk was learning its hunting skills, it has now come to know that it can't just fly up to a sitting flock of birds and catch anything. The hawk is far too slow. The birds just fly up and away, leaving the lumbering hawk embarrassed and empty on the ground. The hawk learned long ago that a bit of avian stealth is required.

Therefore, the hawk drops off its perch, gaining speed in a straight, steep, non-flapping glide. It wants to slice into the pigeon flock from the lowest angle, skimming across the ground at high speed. Again, peregrines can't do this, so instinctively pigeons keep looking up in the sky for falcons. A red-tail zooming in at 45 mph on fixed wings just three feet above the ground isn't so easily seen.
But a few older, attentive pigeons will see the approaching hawk and they will instantly leap away into the air, quickly accelerating to full speed and swing back around to the right or left of the hawk's trajectory, an instinctive trait they use to successfully avoid peregrine dives. Pigeons instinctively want to get above and behind a pursuing hawk.

For the majority of pigeons in the flock, this escape technique works flawlessly with the approach of a relatively slow red-tail. But our hawk lives in New York. It takes smarts to do that, and our bird has been plotting this meal all morning. Our raptor hasn't been sitting up on that building watching merely the general scenery, nor even the general flock of pigeons. It has been focusing -- literally -- on just one pigeon in the flock, a bird that seems to have its head down on the ground most of the time. And when that dog jumped over toward the flock, this pigeon was the last one off the ground as the flock leaped up, swung around, and landed again as the dog's owner called it back. That lone pigeon will be the hawk's target.

With an attack all figured out, the hawk drops off her high perch, glides around a distant tree, dropping again down at increasing speed to just a few feet above ground, and plunging not into the pigeon flock in general, but directly at the lingering target pigeon. In an instant, another fine NYC red-tailed hawk dining experience, at the expense of the pigeon's life.

I believe that most of the pigeons captured in this way are probably young, inexperienced pigeons, newly on the wing in the last few weeks. The CP red-tails are exploiting the inexperience of the young pigeons, particularly those who linger in the restaurant after the other guests have left (in a quarter-second or so).
Again, I'm speculating on all of this from what I know about red-tails and the cursory descriptions of open-ground pigeon captures that have been posted. If anyone there, on site, can post more detailed observations, please do so.

Red-tails will seldom, if ever, capture a pigeon in full flight. If this is ever seen, the captured pigeon had some severe disability. It was either sick or injured. Out in the open sky, no healthy pigeon has anything to fear from a red-tail. A pigeon can fly literal rings around a red-tail. But on the ground, if it's not paying sufficient attention and is tardy in getting into the sky when a red-tail zooms across the ground, the last pigeon up is likely the hawk's target and consequent meal. Pigeon mothers should be telling their offspring in Central Park to never linger on the ground. Jump up into the air instantly with the rest of the flock. To linger is to be lost.

John A. Blakeman

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Donna'sTrump-parc report

The Trump-Parc nest - 3/5/06
Photo by Bruce Yolton

Southern Hawkwatcher Report
6 Mar 2006

Though Pale Male has begun to spell Lola on the Fifth Avenue nest today, Pale Male Jr. and Charlotte are still in the nuptial gift stage.

This afternoon, Junior was seen near the previously fenced in playground area with prey, calling to Charlotte with a short high pitched repeating, ee, ee, ee. Whether Charlotte made herself visible to Junior by high circling or by calling in return is unknown, but Junior took flight and went to Columbus Circle with his pigeon gift. Both hawks were seen circling in Columbus Circle, then disappeared behind the Time Warner Building. A further search did not rediscover them.

Submitted: Donna Browne

Great walks in Central Park

Every year I post the schedules of a couple of bird walk opportunities in Central Park. Below is this spring's schedule for the legendary Starr Saphir's walks. Highly recommended.

StarrTrips Spring 2006
April 1 - June 10

Saturday mornings 7:30 a.m. [sharp]
103rd St. and Central Park West - park side.

Mon. and Wed. mornings 7:30 a.m. [sharp]
81st St. and CPW, SE corner

Tues. mornings 9:00 a.m. [sharp]
103rd St. and CPW - park side

Walks end when we run out of birds.

Fee: $6.00
$3.00 for students

Leader: Starr Saphir

For further info, please call 212-304-3808

No registration necessary.

All walks non-smoking.

Monday, March 06, 2006

First Baby Picture

Two of the West Drive owl babies -- Saturday, March 4, 2006
Photo by Bruce Yolton

Note: We're trying to figure out a time frame. The eggs were probably laid during the last week of January. The incubation period is 26 to 30 days. The hatch may have been during the last week of February, since the owlets look to be about two weeks old [NB: ALL THESE FIGURES ARE VAGUE GUESSES] The nestlings leave the nest after about 28 days. SO, if we are close to being right, the young should fledge in about two weeks.


For those readers of this site who live in NYC and plan to visit the West Drive screech-owl nest for the first time or have done so once or twice, and also, for those who are already regular owl-benchers,

PLEASE consider that this is a very vulnerable stage for these creatures. PLEASE be silent as you watch. PLEASE do not use flash cameras!!! Please do not bring your dog with you to watch a fly-out.

And please do not go into the wooded area where the owls hunt after fly-out. I know many of us have done this in the past. And I know this may actually make no difference at all. But JUST IN CASE...

Incubation seems to have begun at the Fifth Ave. nest

Lola on nest yesterday [March 5, 2006]
photo by Lincoln Karim

Jim Lewis, an important and reliable Regular at the hawk bench who has provided many of us [including the New York City Audubon Society] with up-to-date histories of Pale Male's life and loves, has just sent in the following exciting bulletin:

Lee, John, Nancy, Noreen, John L. and I stopped by the Hawk Bench this afternooon. Ric [the photographer whose pictures are often on display at the bench] said that Lola is sitting. She has been there a while. He saw a food exchange. Pale Male bringing food to her. I am going to go by the pond tomorrow. Fingers crossed!

Anthropomorphism: another defense

Dash & Lilly in their nestbox last spring
photo by Kestrelcam

Steve Watson of Pasadena throws his knowledgable oar into the anthropomorphism debate. You may remember Steve. He's the guy who put a videocamera on his kestrel nesting box and let the world in on the secrets of kestrel family life.. He's now waiting to see if a new pair settles into the box this year, [
Last year Dash, the male kestrel, had a fatal enounter with a Sharp-shinned hawk before the eggs had a chance to hatch.] Steve's made the box more sharpie-proof this year, I understand, and is waiting for a new pair to move in. Below is a link to his website and kestrelcam:

Hi, Marie!

I have to comment on the anthropomorphism-vs-incidental behavior topic...I submit that it is very UNscientific to assume that animals do NOT have emotions (be they mammalian, avian or even reptilian). After all, if you view things from a "selfish gene"-centric viewpoint (for those who've read Dawkins), the entire organism is merely a conduit for the genes to be passed to the next generation (and that applies to Homo sapiens as much as to any other species). Thus, emotions, complex though we may think they might be, are simply another in evolution's bag of tricks for enabling that to happen. It works well for some organisms (like people), but perhaps less for others, to have feelings such as love, longing, hatred, etc. But I don't think there's any innate reason that species other than humans (or even other than higher-order mammals) can't have something we might think of as emotions.

Few pet owners would tell you that their pets (dogs, cats or even some birds) do not experience emotions (albeit most of them would agree that, if they do, it's probably different from what we experience, if only in intensity). Certainly other closely related species do (anyone who saw the tape of Koko the Gorilla crying when her kitten was killed by a car can't deny that she was deeply saddened...some would say heartbroken). What about less closely related species? Why not?

In the end, people are just animals...and if we have emotions, then why not other animals (why can't other mammals? and if mammals, why not other classes?).

To me, anthropomorphism is assigning *human* motivations, emotions, behavior and such to non-human species. I'm not advocating that, and I think it would be erroneous to do so. All I'm suggesting is that there may be more to what an animal "feels" than we can know. Perhaps some form of "love" or "like" is less "human" and more universal, with humans only experiencing a much more deeply felt version of it?

Okay, that was apologies! :) Anyway, here's hoping both coasts are successful in nesting this year...may Pale Male and Lola have a nest full of eyasses (is that the right spelling?), and that we attract another pair of kestrels!