Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sally of Kentucky Does Central Park, Plus Turtles, Sandhill Cranes, and Black Bears

The Model Boat Pond (or The Observatory Waters) and 927 Fifth Ave

Long time blog reader, birder, volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center and contributor, Sally of Kentucky arrives in New York City in search of everything she's read about including Pale Male and Lola--

Dear Donna,

Last weekend I was in NYC with my husband while he attended a conference. I had planned to visit Central Park while he was in a conference, and was considering going on Starr's Saturday morning walk since I had read and heard so much about her over the years, but faced with light packing and a 41 degree forecast for the morning, as well as my first solo subway ride, I chickened out, and I am sure I missed a wonderful experience. However, I did take a cab up to the 72nd street entrance to the park around 8:30 on a quest to find Pale Male! Although I did not need it, I found it interesting that the Manhattan Concierge map provided by the Hilton has "Pale Male and Lola's hawk nest" location printed on it!!

I have never walked in Central Park, except once briefly on a tour and I frankly did not know where we were at that time. I was amazed at all the people with their dogs as I walked down toward the model boat pond. I looked up at the 927 nest with a strange feeling of longing, longing to see them up there with babies in the spring!

I was hoping to see a hawk soaring over the pond, but no luck. I wandered over and got coffee and a scone at the boathouse- my goodness it was crowded!

Also I have never seen so many joggers-it was almost as intimidating to cross the "street" in the park with all the joggers and bicycles, as it is to cross the street in midtown with all the taxis! I had my trusty map, and I decided to try wandering into the Ramble to see what I could see, heading in general toward the Great Lawn, thinking perhaps Pale Male would be hunting breakfast.

It was a lovely walk, and I wandered up and down the trails marveling that I was in the CITY in an ARTIFICIAL, man-made park that looks and feels as real as any ravine and woods I climbed in when I was a child in Illinois!

I asked a couple of nice people who appeared to be bird watchers if they knew if Pale Male had been seen that morning, they smiled and said, oh, he’s' around somewhere. (Silly tourist!)

I saw a lot of sparrows- the English sparrows seem much paler than the ones here and I didn't recognize them at first. Also white throats, although I saw another kind with a gray head and beige stripes that I frankly do not know what it was, I didn't have my book, perhaps it was just a female.

I got to the Castle, climbed up one level for a look, and then went down around the theater and to the Great Lawn. I was thrilled to be walking around the landmarks in the park that I have read about in various blogs for so many years, and stunned by the size of the space I was in! No wonder this area of the park was home to such a regal bird- a vast expanse of woods with a gazillion squirrels, I looked on the towers at the theater where Lincoln has photographed Lola.

Then, as I came out to the path around the lawn, I looked across just as a flash of red tail and a pale hawk rose from the grass up into a tree! I was both thrilled and dismayed; it was a long way across, and there was a fence so I could not just run straight to it. I had to walk around, all the time trying to keep an eye on the tree I saw "him" disappear into.

By the time I got to the tree, I was no longer sure exactly which one he had flown into, and looked and looked. I listened for complaining birds that might be mobbing him, but no luck! I kept walking in the area, and heard some birds making quite a racket down the path. I walked further around the lawn and found a juvenile Coopers Hawk being harassed. Not Pale Male but nice to see anyway.

I wandered to the east and found Cleopatra’s Needle! I have seen shots of Pale Male up there- but this time it was a pigeon. And I thought, well either that's a dumb pigeon or Pale Male isn’t nearby.

I kept walking and circled the Museum, checking all of the roosting places, but no hawks. LOTS of pigeons though.

The Beresford from Central Park

As I entered the park again at 79th, I heard loud bird calls and walked north toward the reservoir. But then the birds moved on and I never saw anything, so I wandered back toward the lawn. I got a great view of the Beresford where I have seen so many pictures of Pale Male and Lola perched.

I put up my binoculars...nothing in the windows where they sit but wait! What was that shape on the left tower near the spire? Sure looked like the back of a brown bird, a BIG brown bird. I was actually wondering if a juvenile eagle would ever perch in such a spot, it seemed so large. I could not see a red tail; as the tail was tucked under the wingtips.

IT HAD to be one of our hawks!

I tried to get a zoom from my poor little camera, but so blurry it didn't help. I asked a man who had a big lens on his camera if he could tell what it was up there- he couldn't find what I was looking at first, but then when I showed him the picture I had taken he pointed his camera up there and was stunned to see a bird! But we still could not see a red tail.

I began walking back toward the Castle, watching the tower, and then the bird flew! It soared over the lawn, I saw the red tail, then it disappeared behind trees beyond the castle. I got to the castle and climbed the tower, and I saw that there was again a bird on the Beresford in just the same spot. With a good view I again tried to get a picture but it was still too far away. Then the bird took off, soaring behind the trees. I got a few glimpses, then it soared out across the lawn and was joined, high up, by a second bird. I saw two red tails soaring over the great lawn! It HAD to be Pale Male and Lola but they were so high I could not really see color or markings.

I was thrilled. What a place to live!

After the hawks circled slowly south and I lost them behind the trees, I decided to try to find Bow Bridge. While walking that way back toward the boat pond I can across a slender lady with long reddish hair, binoculars up and studying birds in tree near a little pond. She had on comfy warm clothes and a floppy hat, and looked like a serious CP birder. I thought it might be YOU! But of course it was not. She said her name was Ricky. When I asked what she was looking at she pointed out a wood thrush and some other birds, warblers I think, and a sapsucker. I told her I was trying to find the Gil, and she said she was walking that way and I was welcome to come along.

We walked through the lovely woods, along the stream in the Gil, the Azalea pond, to the point where we saw wood ducks-she was thrilled-and warblers among other birds. It was a lovely walk. She said she had a class to teach, theatrical sword fighting, which I found interesting, and I walked back to the boathouse for a bit of lunch as I realized I had been walking around for over 4 hours! I got a sandwich, checked the boat pond again for signs of Pale Male perched on any of the Fifth Avenue buildings then caught a cab back to the hotel. My feet had had enough!

It was a wonderful experience and I hope to be able to come back, perhaps in the spring! I would love to see Pale Male and Lola, and perhaps meet some of the people I have come to "know" through books, movies and blogs!

Sally (of Kentucky)


I so wish I'd been in town so I could have met up with you. A couple of weeks more and I would have been.

Your timing on the day was great, as was your eye. Any number of people come to the park looking for Pale Male and Lola and never get a glimpse of a hawk at all. It isn't that the famous pair isn’t there somewhere; it is rather that the people just don't see them. And I admit, some days they are just extremely hard to find for whatever reason.

Sally, if I see a decidedly pale Red-tailed Hawk in that part of the park, I'm completely comfortable ID-ing him as Pale Male. It sounds to me like you saw the Monarch of Central Park.

And the "large" bird on the Beresford? Now I suppose there is a small chance it was a juvenile eagle, which would be a somewhat rare sighting but not totally unheard of, but considering the perch and time of day, it was very likely Lola.

I'm very glad you ran into Ricky. She took up the banner of courtesy to birding strangers in the park of many years standing. We've often told people that if they're attempting to get someplace in particular in the park, most birders will be happy to give them directions, if not just go ahead and lead them there.

I'm very pleased that that continues to be the case. And for others who might visit, if the first birder you run across is one of the rare grumps, just ask the next one you see. You’ll get there.

Oh, by the way, “English Sparrows” in the City appear to be indistinctly marked because they aren’t as clean as the sparrows you are used to seeing. It isn’t that they don’t bathe but rather that city grime without soap is very tough to get off.

And Sally, I do hope to see you in Central Park in the Spring.

Next Up from Rhode Island's Karen Anne Kolling, she of the Gonzo Deck and now rump butting skunks--


I don't allow bad behavior on the deck. Usually it's the raccoons trying to bully the skunks, so I turn on the light and shake my finger, which calms them down.

But lately I've noticed some skunk to skunk bad behavior. Some of it is a tussle over a food dish (there are three dishes, but only one with peanuts, although subsequently I've started putting some peanuts in all three dishes at night), but I saw it in the yard this afternoon.

A skunk will push against another skunk with his (or her?) bottom. I wasn't sure what I was seeing at first, but I'm pretty sure it's aggression, but of the sibling rivalry level, not violent. In the yard one pushed another's head against a deck post. At the food dish, one is apparently trying to push the other away from the dish.

I'm guessing they use their bottoms because maybe their heads are sensitive, or using the front would bring into play those dangerous claws, and I'm also assuming this is a family of skunks, that's why, although there's a lot of determination involved, it looks fairly benign.


P.S. By the way, in the yard confrontation I also saw one thump its front paws. I remember you telling me about that.

Absolutely fascinating Karen, I've never seen or read about bottom bumping skunks. Thanks so much for the observation. It just goes to show, you don't necessarily have to head out to Alaska, or even leave the house to see things you've never seen before.

One can be taken out of the ordinary completely, with just what appears outside a patio door.

The other evening around midnight, I flipped on the back light, looked out, and there was a fox foraging around on the patio, three feet from the back door, eating some grapes I'd saved back from my grape vines to put out as the weather got colder.

She was seemingly unfazed by the sudden illumination or my back lit figure through the glass. Or even when I moved to grab my camera.

Though as I couldn't get a photo through the glass I went for broke and cracked the patio door.

That, she wasn't going to stand pat for. Instead of streaking off as I'd expected, she rather gently loped into the darkness gradually disappearing from sight.

More from Karen-
The bad news is the population is declining. The good news is people are trying to help.

An adjunt to this-- there is a new paper out, which finds that 20 percent of all vertebrates are in danger of extinction, most due to habitat loss.

As the comic strip said, "We have seen the enemy and he is us."

Therefore Gentle Readers, we just have to keep chugging along doing what we can and gently educating everyone we run across.

Next, in answer to Anthony of Nevada's question as to why we haven't heard about Jamie, Claire and the kids lately-

The fields that the family of Sandhill Cranes were foraging in, unfortunately from our point of view anyway, were plowed in order for winter wheat to be planted. Therefore most of the tidbits the cranes were browsing on were turned under the soil in those visually accessible fields.

There are still many corn stubbled fields that the Cranes can feed in around the area. But as those fields tend to be private property, and also not often readily visible from public roads, I can't follow them. I am keeping an eye on a corn field that Jame, Claire, and family fed in last year after they'd tired of the fields at Thresherman's Park in hopes of photographically checking in on them one more time this season.

Not to worry, I've sighted them in the air passing over, and they appear to be doing well. Though it is conceivable that they have or will go south early this year as last week I saw Sandhill Cranes forming up into migration flocks. C and J did stay longer in 2009 than did some other Sandhill groups so it isn't by any means definite that they've gone already.

As are a number of places around the world, Wisconsin is being buffeted by freak wind storms and sporadic bouts of driving rain. A week ago I couldn't keep my feeders full, and now the levels haven't changed for three days and there is a real dearth of birds out there. I suspect the birds that were here felt the storm coming, fed up, and high tailed it out, while their winter replacements, except the totally intrepid Dark-eyed Juncos, are biding their time waiting for better flying weather before entering into this area from the north.

Very Interesting Bear goodies from Robin of Illinois--

(Sorry folks, you'll likely have to type them into the address bar as they're too long to fit on the blog unbroken.)

Bear Walker

And The Bear Center

And Lily and Hope:

Donegal Donna Browne

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nature--A Murder of Crows

Sentinel eating by Crows on the Goodie Stump, 1/21/09
A heads up from Robin of Illinois, many PBS stations are showing A Murder of Crows on Nature this week. It follows scientists doing a study which tests generational learning in Crows.
The segment may also be seen on some PBS websites that have entire episodes of Nature that can be watched anytime on your computer.
Donna Browne

WARNING This Post May Be A Bit Graphic for Some: No It Isn't Charlotte But We Were Concerned There For Awhile

Photo by Brett Odom
Last week I got a phone message from Brett Odom saying that there was something of concern and I should give him a call.


Last time we'd been in touch a pair of Peregrines were making themselves at home on the previous site of Charlotte and Pale Male Jr.'s nest. This was rather worrisome because as we know, Peregrines are one of the few creatures that can take out a Red-tail in a New York minute.

Ordinarily at this time of year, Pale Male Jr. is off on his annual vacation so we also knew it was likely that if Charlotte was going to defend that particular piece of turf the Peregrines kept sitting on, she'd be doing it by herself.

Double gulp.

Then Brett emailed me the above photograph. Could that be Charlotte? Note the carcass has no visible feet nor can we see a beak, but the coloring did look kind of like Charlotte. What if we're only seeing her bottom half below the belly band? She's a very dark bird with a very dark belly band. Now granted the carcass looks pretty small for a Red-tail, but also note that most of the feet and legs are missing, the tail and wing tips are missing.

The head is there, lying in the dark and unfortunately due to angle we can't see the whole beak to tell if it's curved or not. And what if most of the breast is missing and it's folded back onto itself would that foreshorten the effect and slew our size perception?

Could all the missing bits just be making it appear smaller than we're used to?


Photo by Brett Odom
Then Brett got this photo with one of the Peregrines included for size perspective. The carcass does look very small for a hawk. A large Peregrine and a small Red-tail are the same length. Charlotte is not a small Red-tail. Charlotte is a big girl. But what about the possible illusion we might be getting because of the missing bits?

But it does look small so how about we attempt to figure out what other species it might be. I thumb through my Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds, over and over again. Nothing really fits. I keep thumbing.

A Willow Ptarmigan? Shouldn't be here, it would have to be very very lost. Keep thumbing.

A feral pigeon? Well, feral pigeons only have certain color morphs and that isn't one of them, unless there is one I missed. But I've seen a lot of feral pigeons

The whole time Brett and I are asking each other things like, why did they eat the feet and strip feathers and not really eat the usual parts? No tail to be seen, primaries appear gone from the right side wing. But then again if that's the case, where did the feathers go? Whole days are passing.

Why doesn't the carcass appear to have been noshed on beyond those unusual parts mentioned? Was it poisoned and the Peregrine can tell and that's why she isn't eating it?

In the meantime, I send the photos to John Blakeman, who beyond his thoughts on the physical discrepancies of size and all, he stated that no self respecting Red-tail would let herself get caught by a Peregrine on a ledge like that--which was heartening.

But well, we all make mistakes.

We need something definitive.

I ask Brett if it's possible for him to get a photo from a higher angle so we can see the beak and whether the breast is missing and the skin folded over on itself. The light has been terrible. New York City is having completely overcast days.

Here comes the weekend, and I get a text from Brett. New photos. Much better light and a higher angle. It's not Charlotte! Yea!!!! Boy do I feel better.

But then again. WHAT is it then?

Next from Brett, surprise, surprise--Now there are TWO of whatever up there.

Photo by Brett Odom

Okay, Peregrines do cache food, but the first carcass has been up there quite awhile. And whatever species it is, all I can think, is that it must be easy to catch but doesn't appear to be very tasty as they are just letting it lay there.

Speaking of what species, it's driving me crazy. I zoom in and the second carcass appears to have a white scalloped edged tail, rather like a Mourning Dove. But not Mourning doves as the color is all wrong, unless the color balance is off. No. A Mourning dove's belly is much closer of a color than these are. But because of the tail, perhaps something similar? Or not. After looking again at the tail, perhaps I'm just looking at bright sun on feathers causing glare.

What's your take?

Donegal Browne