Archive for the ‘Hawks’ category

Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch, Kestrel Edition

March 25, 2014
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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

My neighbor Janet had an astonishingly beautiful, if rather ferocious visitor for lunch yesterday.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

She was working in her kitchen at midday, when she heard a strange repetitive banging sound coming from the living room. She moved to the doorway, and saw a bird on her air conditioner. This is nothing unusual in itself. Pigeons and mourning doves often perch there.

But this little bird was no dove.

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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

It was a tiny male hawk, or rather a falcon, no bigger than a blue jay, called the American Kestrel.

Kestrels are the smallest raptor in North America with a range from Mexico to Canada. Their populations are in decline in many parts of the continent due to habitat loss and pesticides that kill off the insects they feed upon. Yet the little raptors seem to be thriving in New York City.  Like other hawks and falcons that have adapted to urban life, they find that man-made structures serve their needs quite well. While their big cousins, the peregrine falcons, nest high on skyscrapers and bridges, the little kestrel prefers to raise its young in the broken cornices of old brownstones and mid-rise apartment buildings. Their prey includes insects, small mammals and birds, like the sparrow Janet’s visitor brought for lunch.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

The banging Janet heard was the sparrow’s head flopping up and down on the metal air conditioner as the kestrel pulled with its beak while holding the body down with its feet. (To move more quickly through the slideshow below, hover over the image, then click on the arrows that appear.)

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When the bird had had enough, it flew off with the body in its talons, leaving behind only the beak and part of the head.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

 I couldn’t tell if the brain had been eaten or not, although I rather guess it had, since brains are apparently chock full of nutrients. Perhaps the kestrel ate a quick blast of brain food before carrying off the rest of the sparrow to feed a nesting mate.

The abandoned head reminded me of another dramatic wildlife story that unfolded on my block. One day a few years ago, I noticed a fledgling sparrow hopping about inside the large planter of a nearby building. The little bird was clearly not yet able to fly, and was probably being fed by a parent hiding in a street tree. I made the decision not to intervene, since the planter seemed as safe a spot as any on a city street for a still earth-bound baby bird. Early the next morning, the decapitated dead body of the baby sparrow lay on the sidewalk. The head was nowhere to be found. (I wrote about the fledgling’s predicament, and my own, in Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help.)

Had Janet not witnessed the kestrel eating the sparrow, she would be left puzzling over the mysterious appearance of a bird head on her air conditioner.

What a city we live in, my friends. What a city.

What a world.

All photos in this post courtesy of Janet Rassweiler.

Urban Wild and Feral Life in Spring

March 21, 2014

Spring is officially here. Red-tails are nesting, peacocks are showing, and male mallards are acting downright crazy.

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Trees are still mostly bare, which means you can more easily spot wildlife.

And feral life. The feral cat colony in Morningside Park seems out of control this spring. The cats are everywhere around the pond, stalking  ducks and other birds.

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But that’s a topic for another post.

For now, let’s put away the ice rescue ladder, and celebrate the arrival of another spring.

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Below are links to a few of Out Walking the Dog’s odes to springs past:

Two-Eyed Prophecy of Spring

It’s Spring; Everybody Sing!

Spring Fling in Morningside Park: Be Still, My Heart

Spring in Three Cities

NYC Signs of Spring: Red-tails Nest and Mr Softee Sings

How to Tell a Hawk from a Handsaw

March 17, 2014

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

But Hamlet, dear, this is easy.

Hawk.

Hawk.

Hawk with squirrel, Riverside Park, NYC.

Handsaw.

Handsaw.

Handsaw.

More difficult in low light and at a distance is to know a hawk from a handbag, or more specifically, a plastic grocery bag.

Many is the perched hawk I’ve seen that, upon closer approach, has resolved itself not into a dew, but into plastic caught in a branch. (Click each photo to enlarge.)

More rarely the process reverses, and a plastic bag metamorphoses into a hawk, and flies.

These metamorphoses from animate to inanimate, from hawk to handbag, and back again, are among the peculiar pleasures of watching urban birds.

Red-tail at Work

March 10, 2014

I’m not sure what to make of the collection of twigs amassed by the Cathedral Red-tailed hawks atop Saint Peter’s canopy.

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I posed the question on Twitter, and love the response I received from Robert of Morningside Hawks: “If they were predictable, they wouldn’t be wild. And sometimes they do weird stuff because they know you’re watching.”

For now, at least, the hawks seem to be focused on refurbishing the old nest on Saint Andrew’s mossy shoulders.

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When I arrived at the nest this morning, it appeared empty. But as I crossed Morningside Drive to enter the park, I looked back toward the Cathedral in time to see a hawk swooping in from the north to disappear from view behind the saint’s head.  Although I could no longer see the bird, I could see twigs moving as the hawk rearranged nesting materials.

Then the hawk hopped onto the old man’s head and looked out over the park and nearby streets.

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What a view.

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Somehow, the poor saint looked especially sorrowful this morning, and the hawk, well, hawkish.

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After a few minutes, the big bird spread its wings and soared off to the southeast.

Black Snow and Nesting Red-tails

February 22, 2014

This morning, a stunningly beautiful, spring-like day popped out of a snowy winter.

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The sky is blue and the snow is, well, black.

How does the pristine and elegant substance of a week ago …

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… metamorphose into the dark, satanic mountain range of today?

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When urban snow reaches this stage, it doesn’t even melt. My theory is that there are now more solid filth particles than there is water in this Substance formerly known as Snow. As most New Yorkers know, these mini-Himalayan ranges will diminish only to a point.  The remaining black metor-like blobs hang around long after the surrounding street snow has melted. A particularly notable example was a giant blob that threatened to become a permanent resident of 108th Street in 2010.

Today was a good day for hawk-spotting. Over on Morningside Drive, one of the Saint John the Divine red-tailed hawks perched above a saint near its picturesque nest before sailing west out of sight.

Last winter, daily hawk sightings led me to found New York City’s Hawk-A-Day Club. This year, fellow New York nature blogger, Matthew Wills of Backyard and Beyond, has seen peregrine falcons for five days straight in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. But my Morningside Heights sightings have been surprisingly scarce this winter.  So I was delighted to see a red-tail on the Cathedral.

The Cathedral nest, which has been occupied since 2006, undergoes renovation each year by the nesting pair. Last year was an especially active year of redecoration, albeit with some questionable design choices. Long, dangling pieces of string kept me worrying all season long that one or another member of the growing family would become entangled. (Look to the right below.)

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But it was the sight last spring of a hawk wrestling with an unwieldy cardboard box or large paper bag that really led me to question the red-tail pair’s eye for design.Below the hawk flies toward the nest with its catch.

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For more on hawk cardboard-wrestling, visit last year’s How to Build an Urban Hawk Nest.

I’ll be keeping an eye on the nest, along with my trusty walking companion, who would rather be scrounging for food. (Mysteriously fallen street strawberries don’t count, in his book.)

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Next week I’ll once again have a camera that will allow me to take some more detailed shots than has been possible with the iPhone that has been my sole camera for the past six months.

That will be fun.

NYC, Again with the Snow

February 3, 2014

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Again this morning, snow.

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Here are a few images from our snows of the past month.

Esau waits for me in Riverside Park.

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Dog prints on the retaining wall high above the park.

Who's been walking on the wall?

Who’s been walking on the wall?

In Morningside Park, a feral cat makes its way along the cliff near the iced-over waterfall.

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The cat’s white legs look like little ice falls.

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The pond in Morningside Park is sometimes frozen.

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Other times, some kind of bubble machine prevents it from fully freezing.

Bubbling pools in Morningside Pond.

Bubbling pools in Morningside Pond.

After the snow, the sky clears and a hawk flies over the snowy landscape of Central Park.

Red-tail after a snowfall.

Urban Peacocks and Red-tails in Winter

December 9, 2013

Last night we saw tiny snowmen on the top of the retaining wall in Riverside Park.

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It wasn’t much of a snow, but it gave a mysterious look to the park at night.

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This morning in the drizzle, a Red-tail Hawk flew low over our heads as we were crossing Amsterdam Avenue. We tracked it as it soared into the animal gates that lead to the grounds of St. John the Divine.

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The hawk soared along the path of the grounds, then suddenly swooped upward. We found it perched with a second hawk towards the back of the cathedral.

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I have only my iPhone camera these days, so I can’t zoom in for a close look. But here it is with a slightly closer look.

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Moments later, as we continued to watch the hawks, Phil, the Cathedral’s white peacock, wandered past us, looking rather bedraggled.

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He was completely unfazed by a boisterous group of schoolkids who almost walked right into him as they came around the corner.

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Phil simply moved aside with no fuss or hurry.

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The dog, on the other hand, was definitely fazed by the sight of Phil. He moaned with frustration and strained at the leash.

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The poor fellow has been trying for a taste of peacock ever since he first encountered the three neighborhood peacocks five years ago.

Ah, well. We all have our dreams.

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Ospreys on Long Island

October 14, 2013

For several days, high winds buffeted Flying Point Road in Watermill. The winds did not daunt the local ospreys. Here are two ospreys hunting, soaring, and hovering over Mecox Bay.  Note the power of the birds’ wings as they continually adjust to the winds while looking down into the water for prey.

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See you soon, beauty.

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Fledgling Red-tailed Hawks in NYC (video)

June 19, 2013
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Fox and dog: the iron animal gate at St John the Divine

Oh my readers, I have so much to tell you, so much to show you. All through the spring, Esau the dog and I have been walking, looking and listening. I’ll try to catch you up on some of the curious, intriguing, and amusing things we’ve seen. But where to begin? Let’s start with the hawks that nest on the back of the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

Here is a fledgling hawk on the move this morning.

A fledgling hawk on the move in NYC.

A fledgling hawk on the move in NYC.

But let’s back the story up a little. In April, three eyasses (baby hawks) hatched.

About two weeks ago, one youngster could be seen practicing its flapping skills on the fingers of good Saint Andrew.

Almost fledged.

Almost fledged.

A second fledgling had left the nest too soon, landing on a ledge far below the nest. There it stayed for a few days, not ready to fly, calling to its parents.

Calling for food and attention.

Calling for food and attention.

 It called and called in its high voice, but appeared active and healthy. It’s not unusual for baby birds to fall out of a nest before they can fly.  Most of the time, the parents will continue to feed and care for their young, as they did with this fellow. (Morningside Hawks has documented visits by the parents, including the delivery of a dead pigeon to the hungry baby.)  On the day of these photos, the hawk stayed for a while in one spot, on the ledge.

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Nice pantaloons.

Then it started to move around. It studied the stained glass window.

Studying the art work

Fascinating.

It climbed the walls.

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It worked its way along the narrow window ledge to a difficult spot.

IMG_2205There it seemed to lose its footing, which led to some serious flapping.

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And then, after returning to a better perch, more yelling.

IMG_2174And yet more yelling.

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Here is a short video of the young hawk, listening to a siren from St Luke’s Hospital, looking around, preening, and calling.

More on the young hawks soon.

1 Rm Riv Vu, NYC Wildlife Edition

April 5, 2013

New York City’s wildlife sometimes hit the real estate jackpot. Yes, while many humans can no longer afford to live in Manhattan, the birds and raccoons are doing just fine. Many even enjoy sunset views like this one over the Hudson River.

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Some animals prefer traditional pre-war living environments in which to raise their families.

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Others enjoy a more modern situation. Some sparrows prefer the bustle of Mondrian-inspired scaffolding. (Sadly, the birds are not visible in this photo.)

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Others find that modern materials can be used to create a cozy, neighborly feel.

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And for the lucky elite, luxury urban dwellings abound. The beautifully detailed statues adorning the entry way to the Synod House at St John the Divine provide temporary housing for generations of house sparrows.

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Look for the nests.

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And for private living with sweeping city views, the red-tailed hawks of St. John’s have it made.

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NYC’s Hawk-a-Day Club

March 18, 2013
Atop the head of Saint Andrew high on the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

Atop the head of Saint Andrew high on the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

I’m a charter member of NYC’s Hawk-a-Day Club. Anyone can join, and the entrance requirements are, well, not too tough. Basically, all you have to do is spend some time outside, preferably in or near a park, and look up. Because these days, the city’s raptors, particularly its burgeoning population of red-tailed hawks, are pretty easy to spot.

Over the course of the past six weeks or so, I’ve regularly – even, yes, daily – seen red-tails…

in Riverside Park.

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Red-tail in Riverside Park at dusk.

On the back of the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

Nesting on the shoulders of St Andrew.

Nesting on the shoulders of St Andrew.

In Central Park.

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Red-tail (Pale Male?) near Fifth Avenue.

On a high-rise near Morningside Park.

High above the city.

High above the city.

On another high rise on Broadway between 109th and 110th Streets – on the same spot where I recently watched a pair of hawks copulate.

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On a tree near the statue of General Franz Sigel at 106th and Riverside.

Hawk above 106th and Riverside.

Hawk above 106th and Riverside.

On a water tower, looking over 110th Street.

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Beautiful.

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NYC Red-tails: Nesting on St John the Divine

March 12, 2013

Seen from the front, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue is a lovely, forever unfinished hulk of stone.

A lovely, perpetually unfinished hulk.

A lovely, perpetually unfinished hulk.

But for now I’m more enamored of the Cathedral’s less commonly appreciated back.

St. John the Divine, as seen from

St. John the Divine, as seen from Morningside Drive

Because on the shoulders of a long-suffering saint (well, aren’t they all?) high on the back of the Cathedral is one of the most picturesque hawk nests in the city.

Nest resting on the shoulders of a saint.

There a red-tailed hawk often perches atop the saint’s head and gazes east over Morningside Park and Harlem Valley, as it did a week ago when I showed the nest to Kelly Rypkema, biologist and host of Nature in a New York Minute. (Thanks, Kelly, for letting me use your camera that day!)

Red-tailed hawk on saint's head. (Thanks to Kelly Rypkema for letting me use her camera!)

Red-tailed hawk on saint’s head. (Thanks to Kelly Rypkema for letting me use her camera!)

Esau and I visited the nest again last Thursday as a light March snow fell.

Hawk and saint in the snow.

Hawk and saint in the snow.

A pair of hawks has been nesting and raising young here since 2006. Robert of Morningside Hawks gives a fine history of the nest. For two years, the female, known as Isolde, nested with a male known as, you guessed it, Tristan. When Tristan died in 2008, a male called Norman, for (possibly ecclesiastical) reasons beyond my ken, paired with Isolde. According to Morningside Hawk’s history, the pair has successfully fledged a total of nine babies since 2008.

Look at how the wind is blowing the hawk's feathers.

Another view of hawk and saint.

Sadly, Norman is rumored to have died during Hurricane Sandy. But in the past month, I’ve watched two hawks at a time bring twigs to the nest. I never learned to identify Isolde or Norman as individuals, so I can’t tell you which hawks I’m seeing. I assume one is Isolde, and the other a new male. Whoever they are, I’m thrilled that nest-building is going on apace.

In fact, NYC’s upper Manhattan hawks have been incredibly active over the past month. I watched a pair copulate on a building at 109th Street and Broadway, and have been seeing at least one raptor almost every day, whether in Riverside Park, Central Park, or outside my window. Red-tails are by far the most frequently sighted.

Red-tail at 106th and Riverside Drive.

Red-tail at 106th and Riverside Drive.

But I’ve been lucky enough to spot my first Merlin zooming north along Riverside Drive, and two peregrine falcons, one a mature male perched on a water tower, the other a juvenile perched on a school.

So look up, New Yorkers.

Raptors are all around us, perched on water towers and tree limbs, soaring overhead and swooping low, mating on high-rises and nesting on bridges. Keep your eyes open, and LOOK UP.

A Riverside red-tail.

A Riverside red-tail.

Red-tails in Winter

January 10, 2013

Red-tailed hawks seem to be everywhere I walk these January days.

We tend to think of winter as a quiet, even a quiescent, time for the natural world.

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And so it is for many plants and animals. But for others, including NYC’s Red-tailed hawks, mid-winter actually signals the start of breeding season. In the coming weeks, our local hawks will go a-courting. After all, for us to watch eggs hatch in early spring on NYU’s Bobst Library or a Fifth Avenue apartment ledge, the hawks have to lay those eggs a full month earlier, sometimes as early as late February or early March. Before laying eggs, new pairs need time to build a nest, while established pairs must renovate the old nest. And before they start working on the nest, the hawks have to pair up, bond, and mate.

Red-tails mate for life, but even experienced and bonded pairs engage in elaborate courtship behavior each year as they enter the breeding season. Red-tail courtship often involves dazzling paired flights, when the two birds swoop and circle together, and sometimes grasp each other’s talons as they spiral down through the air, separating in time to spread their wings and soar again.

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In late winter and, indeed, throughout the breeding season, unpaired hawks, whether juveniles or adults that have lost a mate, will be on the look-out for potential partners.  In NYC over the past few years, several hawks have died from rat poison at various points in the breeding season, and we’ve seen the remarkable swiftness with which a new hawk appears and mating begins again.

So look up as you walk in the city this winter. Scan trees, building ledges, statues, and water towers for unusual lumps and bumps that may turn out, on closer inspection, to be a hawk perching and watching for prey.  And if you are lucky enough to spot two broad-winged birds soaring high in the sky, circling and swooping, spiraling and climbing, they may well be a pair of red-tails declaring their devotion and preparing to mate.

Woodpeckers in New York: Beautiful Redheads

January 4, 2013

Woodpeckers are such stylish animals.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo: Melissa Cooper

And, yes, clearly it was a red cap and nape that I saw on New Year’s Eve Day, not just a red cap. Which means the bird was, without a doubt, a male Red-bellied woodpecker. (In Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood, I made the case for calling it the Little Red Riding Hood Woodpecker.)

How can I be so sure today when I was unsure two days ago? Because I saw the little devil again yesterday morning.  And this time, in case you haven’t noticed, the view was unobstructed and I got photos.

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The bird was less active yesterday, remaining on its perch for several minutes, looking around from side to side, and up and down.

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The little bird was probably sitting so still and alert due to the unusual amount of hawk activity overhead.  Three Red-tailed hawks were passing overhead, soaring, then swooping low through the trees.  Birds and squirrels tend to go into lock-down when the hawks are flying nearby, trying not to call attention to themselves through movement. Of course, once the hawks perch, they are no longer much of a threat since their hunting technique involves stooping from the air with great force at their prey.  Birds and squirrels can often be quite bold with a perched hawk. I’ve seen squirrels seem to taunt a perched hawk, and the sight of crows or jays mobbing a hawk is fairly common. In rural areas, Red-tailed hawks dine mostly on rodents, but here in the city they are frequently seen eating pigeons and songbirds in addition to rats, squirrels and mice.

  One of the hawks perched for a while in a neighboring Sweetgum tree, looking much like the piles of leaves, known as dreys, that squirrels build as nests.

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After a few minutes, the hawk unfolded its great wings, and soared off to the southwest.

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The woodpecker then did the same, swooping across the promenade to a higher branch on another tree.

The handsome little bird is a charming addition to the park, easy on the eyes and easy to spot. In winters past, I’ve sometimes seen a sole Red-bellied woodpecker in this area of Riverside Park. Now I wonder if it is the same bird returning year after year. In any event, I hope he sticks around, and continues to evade hawks, cars and other urban hazards.

For more on woodpeckers in Riverside Park:Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood
Who’s Eating What in NYC Parks

And for other New York woodpeckers:
A Visit To Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Sapsucker Woods: My First Pileated Woodpecker

Top Posts of 2012, Part One

December 28, 2012
The dog and I thank you.

The dog and I thank you.

As the end of the year approaches, the dog and I would like to thank our loyal readers for their regular visits to Out Walking the Dog. And as our community continues to grow, we’re  delighted to welcome readers – and commenters – from all over North America as well as Great Britain, Italy, Finland, Spain, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and beyond.

Here is the first installment of Out Walking the Dog‘s Ten Most Popular Stories of 2012.  These stories, all written and published in the past year, cover topics that include waiting dogs and feral cats, the effect of human-generated trash on wildlife, the arrival of coyotes on Staten Island, squirrels, and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. (Oddly, the most popular story of all remains a post I wrote in 2010: Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got its Spikes. It has received far and away the most hits each and every year for three years now. Go figure.)

Most Popular Stories, Ten through Six

White kitten, Randall's Island, NYC.

White kitten, Randall’s Island.

10. Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral explores the lifestyles of NYC felines from cats that work to keep delis and bodegas mouse-free to feral cats that roam urban parks and streets. Free-roaming cats, both domestic and feral, cause a surprising amount of ecological damage as they kill birds that evolved without defenses against these efficient non-native carnivores. Are Trap-Neuter-Release programs a humane response to feral cat colonies or part of a larger ecological problem?

NYC Red-tail Eats Rat.

NYC Red-tail Eats Rat.

9. The Trash of Two Cities: How Our Trash Kills Our Hawks is a favorite post of mine. In it, I trace the 2012 deaths of NYC raptors to NYC’s overabundance of trash. Secondary poisoning kills raptors that consume rats laden with rodenticides (see post #6, below). All animals, including rats, seek food, water, and a safe place to rear their young. NYC provides all three in abundance, with trash providing most of the food that sustains our sizable rat population. The key to effective pest control is keeping our trash off-limits to animals. A visit to Philadelphia leads me to compare that city’s solar-powered compacting trash cans with the open cans and dumpsters of New York.

8.  The Waiting Dogs of NYC is a photo essay of New York’s ubiquitous waiting dogs. Dogs wait for their owners outside restaurants, shops, post offices. Some wait in pairs, some wait alone. Some wait happily, some wait anxiously. My dog, too, waits. But the bond between an urban dog and its owner is strong.

Esau waits.

Esau waits.

NYC coyote: Mark Weckel.

NYC coyote: Mark Weckel

7. Another NYC Borough Falls to the Coyote muses over the first documented sighting of a coyote in Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill. How did the coyote get to Staten Island? What research is being done in NYC to find out more about where our urban coyotes are living? “As I’ve been saying for a couple of years now, coyotes are coming, people. In fact, they’re here.”

6. Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail documents the community reaction to the demise of a red-tailed hawk known as Mom who nested each year in Riverside Park.  Over the years, Mom survived a string of bad luck, including the death of a mate from secondary poisoning (see post #9 above) and the destruction of her nest with three nestlings in a storm.  But last year was a tough one for NYC’s hawks with at least four dying from rat poison. We visited the charming memorial put up in the park at Mom’s nesting site.

Riverside Park Memorial

Riverside Park Memorial

Check back before the new year for the top five stories of 2012.


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