Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Washington Square redtail

A reader named Brian Dube, whose website is very worth checking out, wrote in a few days ago:

We have our own red-tailed hawk now in Washington Square Park. I got an amazingly close photo of him on my air conditioner on 2/6/07 at 8:28 AM feeding on a pigeon. Check out my posting at

PS from Marie: then click on the headline at the top of his hawk posting to scroll through the whole blog.

Red-headed woodpecker update

Yesterday [Friday] Karen Fung sent in a woodpecker update:

The Redheaded Woodpecker continues near 92nd Street, mostly on the
park side of Riverside Drive. When I watched it from 3:40-4pm it was
busy distributing its cache of acorns to various tree cavities and
crevices. It's showing much more red on the head, especially on the
throat. It called once.

Friday, February 09, 2007

News Flash from down south: Junior with a twig

The Trump Park nest
Photo by Bruce Yolton

Irene Payne, who lives on Central Park South next door to the Trump Parc hawks, writes:

Hi --

Finally got to see what looks like "moving right along!" About 8 AM this morning, both Junior and Charlotte were perched on antennae on a Broadway building, facing east in the sun. Not as "intimate" as Pale Male and Lola - but pretty close. They left after the sun moved on. And about an hour later, Junior was flying about with a twig. He flew right over me on his way, I presume, to the nest.

Looks like we are on our way down here.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Why do they perch so high? Is it pigeons? Or is the photo a clue?

One of the Trump Parc redtails to the right of the X of the Essex House sign on Central Park South
Photo by Bruce Yolton - 2/06

Jack Meyer, on Blakeman's surprise that NYC redtails choose such high perches:

Reading John Blakeman's comment about the Red-tails' choice of high perches made me wonder if it is because the pigeons hereabouts also often use high rooftops. Has anyone ever seen them actually catch a pigeon on a high building?

Only 39 days! (to Phoebe)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Blakeman about a juvenile redtail

Mai Stewart sends a letter to John Blakeman about a juvenile redtail in Central Park:

Dear John,

Lincoln's website today posts a pix of what appears to be a young RT -- yellow eyes, don't think I see any red tail feathers (the second-last pix, a great one of the hawk in process of eating a pigeon). I was a little surprised -- didn't know there were any young RTs still in CP. Could he (she) be just passing through?

However, having mastered the art of catching pigeons (and the taste for same), do we think this one is taking up residence in PM's territory?? I'd love to hear any thoughts you may have

Thanks so much for all your commentary!

Best, Mai

Blakeman relies:


For me, the appearance of an immature red-tail in Central Park in the winter is not unexpected. This is a bird that while passing through in migration in November, or perhaps while just wandering around the area in December or January, happened to notice the large flocks of pigeons.

Of course, except in Central Park, for hawks who have learned to expertly take pigeons, these numerous birds are not common red-tail fare. They fly way too fast and except for sick or injured pigeons, red-tails by winter have learned not to waste any time or energy trying to capture one of these fleet-winged wonders.

But as I've mentioned before, red-tails spend inordinate amounts of time sitting around and diligently watching everything that moves in the landscape. Some time in late fall or early winter while passing through, this red-tail parked herself in Central Park and couldn't fail to notice the flocks of pigeons on the ground. As a diligent (and surviving) young red-tail, she scrutinized the flocks she saw down on the ground. As Pale Male and his cohorts did previously, she probably discovered that a few young, inexperienced pigeons tended to be inattentive and tardy in rising with the flock when it flew away. The hawk may have then learned to sweep in with rapid stealth to grab the pigeon.

Or, contrarily, the hawk more naturally first noted an abundance of day-active rats that any hawk, experienced or not, could merely drop down upon and take with ease.

Either way, the hawk found Central Park habitable with its abundant prey. So, it’s spending the winter. Many of us both in Ohio and New York, if we can, often want to spend our winters in Florida or in warm parts to the south. Red-tails don' mind the cold at all. They seem to relish the thicker, cold air. Their only winter concern is available food, and this young red-tail has found that in the Park. She’s a dedicated winter resident.

Which of course, raises the question of territorial defense by both of the established pairs, the hawks at 927 Fifth Ave. and the other pair down at the Trump Parc nest. How does it happen that those birds allow the presence of this young interloper?
In wild areas, especially ones with lots of prey (which out here, are field mice, also called meadow voles, not rats or pigeons), resident adults will be quite tolerant of other, non-resident red-tails during the winter. If there is plenty of prey, territories are not strongly defended in early and mid winter. (I might add, contrary to the theme of my most previous post---that red-tails aren't very social---loose winter aggregations of red-tails can be actually a bit social, sometimes with several unrelated hawks of all ages sitting around a large field that is filled with voles. They all just tolerate each other, the lowest form of social behavior for territorial predators.)

This inter-social winter tolerance, however, will soon begin to dissolve. Very soon, the breeding hormones of the adults will be flowing, and neither pair is likely to abide the presence of this young hawk in Central Park. I predict that it will soon disappear, having been driven out of the park by some strongly suggestive adult body language. No adult is likely to actually attack the youngster. She'll get the message by the way Pale Male or Lola flies in her direction. "Git along now, little one!" will be the message. (Well, this is New York City. The language, perhaps might be, "We don't believe you should be here anymore. We're paying the rent now. It's been nice for the winter, but it's time for you to move along!")

So, I'd be pleased if CP hawkwatchers could keep us all posted on how long the immature stays in the Park. I think it will be displaced by March 1st, if not before.
And one last note here. Many will wonder if this winter residency might incline the bird to return to CP as an adult. It very well might, but in the interlude, it's likely to drift off many miles. Next summer, it will attain its red tail feathers and next fall and winter become a "floater," an un-attached young adult looking for a new mate, nest, and territory. If any of the CP adult red-tails meet their demise, this bird could be a replacement. In the meantime, however, it could drift all across the Eastern Seaboard.

As before and always, wonderful questions and observations. Keep them coming.

--John A. Blakeman

P.S -- By the thickness of the tarsus ("ankle") and toes of the hawk, I'd guess (just a guess) that it's a female.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Photo by Lincoln Karim - 2/4/07
For any readers in warm climates, just wanted you to know how cold it is in NYC and Central Park.

1. There were big stalactites formed around a leak in the Times Square subway station of the 1, 2, 3 lines this morning. Smaller stalactites at the Union Square Q, N, R, and W line.

2. Tomorrow's Early Birders walk cancelled on account of cold, first time in 12 years. [Maybe I'm just getting, well, not exactly young...]

3. And along the same line: Didn't go into the park today to help fill the feeders. Brrrrr. Met Dan Weaver [a young guy now in charge of the feeder-filling enterprise] at the 86th St subway entrance and handed over the weekly package of SUET for the birds. Whole Foods at Union Square generously gives it to me for free every Tuesday morning.

PS Dan reports a sapsucker [see above] at the suet feeder yesterday. Haven't seen that before.

Blakeman on redtail smooching

Pale Male & Lola "smooching" on the Beresford 2/4/07
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Yesterday Bill Trankle of Indianapolis sent in a question for John Blakeman:

Marie, the recent photos by Lincoln of PM and Lola "smooching" brought to mind a question: With Lincoln's excellent and constant coverage of our pair, why is it he's never snapped pictures of them preening each other? Typically, bird pairs will preen each others' heads, the one area they cannot reach themselves, but I don't know if this is a typical behavior in the more solitary raptors. I suppose they may just use their talons, but those things are HUGE and would seem a bit cumbersome for the task. Just curious. Bill

As ever, Blakeman replied quick as a wink, with, as ever, a most interesting letter:

Bill, this is a good question, especially from anyone who is familiar with the delightful mutual preening done by truly social birds.

But red-tails are not very social. I've had experiences with over a hundred red-tails, kestrels, and other North American raptors in captivity, in breeding trials, in rehabilitation efforts, in physiological studies, in falconry, and a few other encounters. North American raptors simply don't engage in mutual preening in any real sense. The extent of their "mutualness" is expressed by Lincoln's photo of the pair sitting shoulder to shoulder at the Beresford.

Alone, this is a rather remarkable photo, which I think more accurately reflects the curious perch the birds are sharing, not any particular mutual social behavior. No, I can't deny that there is a strong element of pair bonding that allows both birds to sit so closely together there. But out in the open countryside I don't recall ever seeing a pair of red-tails perching so close together, save for a few seconds before or after (Shall I state it?) copulation. That's not involved in Lincoln's photos. And none of the captive birds mutually preen, either.

The real deal here is that both the view of the Central Park landscape from way up there at the Beresford, and the ease of landing on that perch, are apparently just about as good as they can get. The view must be stunning. Pale Male and Lola can see every pigeon, rat, or other animal of any kind over most of that region of the park. Nothing that would interest them can go unseen up there.

Here's an important concept. There is the thought that raptors tend to be more "mated" to their respective territories than to each other. The raptor pair-bonding process provides for the occupation of a territory by the other selected and tolerated hawk. But both birds may be more psychologically connected to the territory and its perches and prey, etc. than to each other. They essentially tolerate each other and come together physically only when copulating. Nest building, incubation, and eyass rearing require close encounters, of course.

But red-tails and most other diurnal raptors are decidedly non-social predators. Preening each others' feathers just doesn't fit into the genetically limited social scene these great birds engage in. Lincoln has labeled his photographic sequence a "kiss." That's nice, but it wasn't a kiss in any mammalian or human manner. Nor was it mutual preening.

We must---as you have with your intelligent question---attempt to understand these hawks for what they are...uniquely red-tailed hawks, nothing more nor less. In my mind, the assignment of human or pstticine (parrot) behaviors to these magnificent creatures merely substitutes arbitrary (and false) traits to this great species. That works in fiction and children's stories. But Pale Male and Lola present the public with authentic raptor biology, for tens of thousands to see first hand, were they only persuaded to look up and take in the live wildlife spectacle.

One last note here. At the start, I questioned the hawks' use of the 927 nest site. It seemed way too high, as does the Beresford perch. Our rural red-tails never sit or nest at these great heights. They have no opportunity. Our trees are no taller than those in Central Park. But the Central Park red-tails have elected to perch and nest at heights not seen elsewhere in the wild. They have the ability to "get above it all," and for whatever reasons, have chosen to do so.

Thanks for the observant question.

--John A. Blakeman

Monday, February 05, 2007

Coming up -- the Saturn Show

Saturn from Voyager I

This is worth going out in the cold and looking up at:

The Moon and Saturn Get Together
by Joe Rao Skywatching Columnist

Watching the full Moon rise over the east-northeast horizon on Friday evening, Feb. 2, you will probably notice a rather bright yellowish-white “star” shining sedately just above and to the Moon’s right. That object is not a star, however, but the planet Saturn

Currently, Saturn is at its best for 2007. It can be found to the west (right) of the famous “Sickle” of Leo—a backwards question mark-shaped star pattern, which contains Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, at the Sickle’s base sky map].

On Feb. 10, Saturn will be at opposition to the Sun meaning it will be rising at sunset, reaches its highest point in the southern sky at midnight then drops down below the west-northwest horizon at sunrise. In other words, it’s now available for viewing all night long.

Galileo's footsteps

Saturn is the telescopic showpiece of the night sky thanks to its great ring system in all of their icy, glimmering elegance. In small telescopes, they surprise even veteran observers with their chilling beauty even though it is expected. Certainly they will delight anyone this winter who received a telescope as a holiday gift. Any telescope magnifying more than 30-power will show them.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the first to view the rings in 1610 although what he saw through his crude telescope left him completely baffled; his crude, imperfect “optick tube” revealed Saturn as having an odd pair of appendages or companion bodies on either side. He couldn’t make them out clearly and thought that Saturn was a triple body, two small orbs on either side of a large one.

Galileo announced this discovery in 1610 with an anagram written in Latin. The jumbled letters could be transposed to read: Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi (“I have observed the highest planet to be triple.”) Later, when the rings turned edgewise to Earth and the two companions disappeared, Galileo invoked an ancient myth when he wrote, “Has Saturn swallowed his children?” Galileo lamented that his mind was too weak to comprehend this strange phenomenon.

Actually, it was his telescope that was too weak; a better telescope would have revealed Saturn’s companions , as ancients regarded Saturn as the “highest” planet, occupying the outermost or highest sphere before that of the fixed stars. Since Saturn requires 29.5 years to orbit the Sun, its progress through the zodiacal constellations is quite slow, averaging about 2.5 years per constellation. The last time this planet was located in Leo was in 1979.

In mythology, Saturn closely resembled the Greek god Cronus, but he’s more usually recognized as the Roman god of agriculture. The name is related to both the noun satus (seed corn) and the verb serere (to sow).

But why would the planet Saturn be linked to agriculture? Perhaps a clue can be found from the ancient Assyrians who referred to Saturn as lubadsagush, which translated, meant “oldest of the old sheep.” Possibly this name was applied because Saturn seems to move so very slowly among the stars; it may have also reminded sky watchers of the slow gait of plowing oxen or cattle.