NYC Red-tails: Nesting on St John the Divine

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2013, Birds, Hawks, In the City, Morningside Park, NYC Parks, Riverside Park, Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History, Winter

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24 Comments on “NYC Red-tails: Nesting on St John the Divine”

  1. Publius Ovidius Naso Says:


  2. […] NYC Red-tails: Nesting on St John the Divine ( […]

  3. Two words: raptorous, saintlinesting! And nice to see you’re back :)

    • Ouch. Nice word play. Thanks for the welcome back, Nature on the Edge. It has been a long stretch. Of course, during my time away nature was out there, and I was even out there in it (not to mention being, necessarily,of it) – but it’s nice to be sharing again with others, yourself included.

  4. Daniel Says:

    Such neat photos!

  5. Robert Says:

    The statue is St. Andrew, as evidenced by the fact that the cross he is holding in his right arm is X-shaped.

    Norman got his name because when he first appeared he was young and hyperactive and “a little psycho”. Despite some people later calling him Stormin’ Norman, no one was thinking of Genl. Schwarzkopf at the time.

    • Thank you, Robert, for clearing things up! I love Norman’s etymology, very amusing. Readers, be sure to visit Robert’s Morningside Hawks blog for regular updates Isolde and her beau. He also has a page with a superbly labeled map, showing you exactly where to find the nest.

  6. Charlotte Says:

    Yay, to seeing you back. What camera did you get? And what healthy looking birds. I remember walking here with you and observing you observing; you were intently focused up!

    • Thanks! I got a Canon Powershot SX260. I was actually very happy with my Powershot S95, but once it broke, I decided I’d get something similar but with a more powerful zoom. I’m still getting used to it. But I’m already happy:being able to photograph the hawk on the statue from so far below and have the hawk look like anything more than a tiny unrecognizable blip is a great improvement. If all goes well at the nest, there should be nestlings when you visit NYC later this spring.

  7. Tricia Says:

    Can you tell us which saint Isolde is nesting on?

  8. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    Love that hawk on the saint’s head.

  9. Thanks for sharing Melissa. I love that they nest on the saint. Seems appropriate. The pictures are lovely. Another spot to add to my “places to go on the east coast” list! :)

  10. Wonderful photos and such a great story – I love that red tails and other raptors are making homes in your big city! Such a treat to see them.

    And spring is on its way to central Ontario – we had 14 red-wing blackbirds at one of the feeders this morning. Seems awfully early and I hope they aren’t harbingers of another disasterously early spring. Last year we lost almost the entire apple crop on which much of our local economy depends… we produce 25% of Ontario’s apples. So here’s to a long cool spring filled with fabulous bird sightings.

    The neat thing about the photos you’ve offered is the way the elderly saint seems to be holding the twigs for the hawks to pluck and stick in the right spots! Just love it.

    • Hi Barbara, thanks for finding your way back here. The tale of raptors in NYC is an astonishing success story. I too hope your spring is long & cool and good for the animals and the people alike.

  11. Donna Says:

    Sure was glad to see your blog again. I’ve missed it for the past several weeks. Hope the weather hasn’t been too harsh on you.

    • Aw, gee, thank you, Donna. Yes, I;ve been on an internet fast for many weeks, trying to get some other work done. It’s nice to be missed, and its nice to be back. As for the weather, nah, its been a snap.

  12. Who would ever have thought that Red-tails would become common in NYC? Did you get your new camera yet?

    I saw a Peregrine too! This weekend, I visited Jamaica Bay for the first time, and amongst the gulls, who were dropping clams from great heights to crack the shells (so cool!), came a Peregrine cruising through and back north to the rest of Queens/Brooklyn.

    • Happy for your peregrine sighting – they certainly make my day. Yes, I got my new camera after being without since my last one froze. Well, I always have the trusty iPhone, but it’s no good for zooming in a hawk!

  13. p hoey Says:

    Great photos, Melissa!

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