Thursday, February 28, 2008

Copulation? Attempted Copulation?

New Guy looking---just what expression is that? Did he copulate with Isolde successfully and is stunned, or was he unsuccessful and is now humiliated and horrified?

3:29PM As I walk up Cathedral Hill two Red-tailed hawks, both flapping, zoom to the east just south of Cathedral House.
3:44PM A Red-tail comes out of Morningside Park, to west through the trees, towards windows of Plant Pavilion, and lands on air conditioner already occupied. View obscured by tree branches, I hear the Red-tail "gull calls" that are heard during some kinds of begging and during copulation. Both birds same spot, some wing flapping, brief interlude. Copulation? An attempt at copulation? Had it been Isolde and Tristan I'd say definite copulation but the above bird certainly isn't Tristan. Though that doesn't rule copulation out at this point.

3:46:39PM Male on the left and female on the right looking at each other. Interesting. It looks like eye contact. But they both may just be keeping watch in opposite directions.

3:53:31PM At this point I'm thinking this is Isolde but I'm not positive. I've not seen the belly band and in fact I've not seen Isolde for some time.

3:57:39PM New Guy takes off to the west into Morningside Park.

4:01:28PM Female watches sparrows on sidewalk.

Female looks out at park. I notice her eyes.

In this light the iris of the eye can be seen to be a different color from the pupil. She doesn't seem to be shifting at all so I can see the band therefore I figure I should shift in an attempt to make the ID.

4:15:41PM As I shift she slightly shifts as well opening herself up. Her head color comes down on the shoulder and breast as is the case with Isolde. The belly band is similar. (When I get home I email Rob of and he confirms Isolde. With the state of flux with the Cathedral Hawks one can never be too careful.)

4:18:50PM Rob and I have decided that there just might be some problem with the insulation around these air conditioners. A similar situation to the spot Doorstep Dove uses in Wisconsin by the patio door. There is a warm air flow through the cracks.

Isolde at times looks tired and stressed today.


4:24:44PM Gary, a local security guard who has been looking for Tristan or his remains, watches as Isolde goes south through the treeline. What I don't understand is that no one I talked to, and it was a fair number of people who searched today, has not even found a feather. Even if the body was predated by feral cats, or drug off by the local opossum, there should be a good number of hawk feathers laying somewhere.

4:30:46 Look carefully between the two tree trunks. There is a Red-tail soaring and circling above the park.

4:30:57PM And there are two Red-tails circling with each other here, though impossible to see in this size. See below.

See the two pale spots slightly high and center.

4:38PM Isolde returns but now she's sitting on the left AC where New Guy was previously sitting.

4:39PM Isolde watches something in particular.

4:42PM Red-tail comes out of park curves back into treeline and flies N
4:44PM Isolde comes off AC and follows N in treeline. I lose sight of her at about 117th. I remember Rob saying something about a "usual roosting spot" up there. I head north.

4:48:52PM As I walk toward 117th, there are a number of territorial type birds, Mockers and Blue Jays sitting on the stone fence seemingly looking west. This Mockingbird took time out from looking west to glare at me.

Then he goes back to fixedly looking west. I don't see any Red-tails to the west. In fact I don't see any Red-tails anywhere. And as it's getting darn cold out here, at a few minutes after 5:00 I head back down Cathedral Hill and towards home.

Donegal Browne



When I opened my email late this evening there were emails from Rob and James about finally being able to confirm that the second hawk with Isolde was not Tristan. More on that to come, but first a farewell to Tristan. Though like I said, at least for now. We have not found Tristan and there is a small chance he may be cooling his talons at a rehabilitator who we don't know. I've heard that Pale Male once took another mate while his previous one was laid up, as Ben Cacace of the Nova Hunter blog is wont to say, "Never underestimate a Red-tail."

Tristan too has lost at least one mate in the past, and Isolde was her replacement. Now Isolde will choose someone new. At least we do not have to watch Isolde fade away from grief as I have heard is the case with some species of geese.

Small, he's a male after all, but scrappy Tristan on the left and big beautiful Isolde on the right This was the day both Crows and Kestrels attacked them and their nest of three eyasses. They were quite the team. They worked together perfectly. Their communication was astounding. And at the end of the day, all were safe and uninjured including themselves.

There was something about Tristan that sometimes made me laugh. He seemed so--well, calm for a hawk. In fact there were some who felt that Isolde was a better hunter of pigeons. Tristan brought in his share, but Tristan's forte was rats. Big juicy evening rats But when he wasn't hunting but rather standing guard he could be such a very laid back hawk. Rather like, why get excited unless something shows up to be excited about.
And then there was that signature raised foot.

Sometimes visible, sometimes not, but more often than not UP.

When first I started watching The Divines I was nearly convinced his foot was injured. After days of scrutiny, I finally realized, he's relaxed and he likes to be comfortable.

Tristan was a beak-on kind of Dad. Last season after an exhausted Isolde would leave the nest for a break after having been trampled by three eyasses for most of the day, Tristan would first offer her the prey, if she didn't take it, he then went off to the nest and deftly fed the eyasses their last meal of the day. And didn't he and Isolde produce and train wonderful young Red-tails?


Stalwart. (Just look at that bird's "healthy" feet.)
And sometimes very funny.
So vivat for Tristan's life, and for his willingness to share it with us. We have been blessed. Rob called this particular perch, Tristan's Urn, at one point today. It's the urn on the SE corner of the Plant Pavilion. And that I think is a fitting memorial as Tristan did spend so much attentive time there guarding his family. From now on at least for me, and in my reports, that will always be, Tristan's Urn.
Godspeed Tristan.

Photograph Robert Schmunk
The "New Guy" in town sits next to a slightly ruffled Isolde. He did land, as Rob mentions, without a treat. Though he does seem to have a yearning look on his face.
Here is Rob's email--
(Both he and James O'Brien have reports on today's doings, their links follow Rob's email.)

James and I got a good look at two adult hawks today along
Morningside when they perched on a hospital window railing.

The first one to fly in looked like Isolde. The second a couple minutes
later and after teasing us for a couple minutes by perching with his
back to us, he finally turned around. Both James and I immediately
said "new guy".

He's got a heavy belly band, heavier than Isolde's. (Hers isn't
exactly heavy, but was in comparison's to Tristan's.) He also has
light colored eyes, so he may just be 2 years old.

New guy needs to learn to bring treats though.


Great extended reports and photos about the "New Guy" at Rob's Blog

And James O'Brien's Origin of the Species Blog--
Donegal Browne

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cathedral Hawk Update and John Blakeman Answers my Questions about Lost Mates--Just in Case.

Isolde atop Gabriel's wing on the roof of St. John's, last season.

In regard to the possibly missing Tristan, the male of the Cathedral Nest pair--

I'd emailed Hawk Watcher Stella Hamiliton about the fact that there had been an injured hawk sighted in Morningside Park last week and we hadn't had a confirmed sighting of Tristan in some days. Stella works in the area of the Cathedral Nest, if at a bit of a distance, and she is very sharped eyed when it comes to Red-tails. She's the one who discovered that Pale Male and Lola spend time over at the Beresford.

Stella called me this afternoon. Her vantage point, is a window in the hospital where she works. She spent her lunch hour watching the Cathedral and any other spare moment she could find which were few. Her only sighting was of a single hawk perched on the stature of Gabriel on the roof of the cathedral. She surmised it was Isolde but it wasn't a 100% confirmation.

She'll keep looking, as will Rob Schmunk, and we hope to have it all sorted out soon.

As I said before, keep your fingers crossed.

Next a response from expert John Blakeman,

I asked John Blakeman’s opinion on a few questions pertaining to Red-tail behavior.

The first, whether Red-tails would predate Peregrine eyasses on the nest if they could get away with it?

And second, if a Red-tail should loose his or her mate—

a. Would the bird realize the mate was dead if he or she saw the mate’s body?
b. How long would it take the remaining Red-tail to take a new mate?

Here's what John had to say---


Would a Red-tail kill an eyass Peregrine? Sure would. A Red-tail sees no difference between a pigeon squab on a ledge and a helpless little peregrine eyass. Of course, the stooping peregrine parents will make a difference. A hungry Red-tail will not miss seeing a stooping falcon overhead. It's not a matter of whether Red-tails will prey upon Peregrine eyasses. It's a matter of whether the Peregrine parents will stoop at the intruding big, lumbering Red-tail. In virtually every case, they will.

A more crucial factor in wild Peregrine nests, in those in the range of Great-horned Owls, is nest predation by these night-flying monsters. Peregrine restoration efforts have always aimed at restoring wild, rural, cliff-nesting Peregrines. Initially, as so well known in greater New York, the falcons took up nesting residencies on buildings and bridges. The original wild Peregrine aeries along the Hudson, at the Palisades and other cliff sites, remained un-occupied for many years. The same thing occurred at traditional Peregrine nest sites along the Mississippi and at other Midwestern cliffs.

Then, a few years ago, a few of the old traditional wild peregrine nests became occupied. Offspring from the many urban Peregrine nests finally began to be attracted to the original wild nest sites. Falcon restorationists were legitimately gratified.

Unfortunately, Great-horned Owls cleaned out virtually every Peregrine aerie. For a time, it appeared the Peregrines might not be able reoccupy traditional wild nest sites because of the big owl.

But in recent years eyasses have been fledged from wild cliff aeries. It appears that the first colonizing falcon parents, having "grown up" in urban areas, were rather unaware of the lethal intents of local owls. The parents were too inattentive regarding these silent but lethal giants. Now, however, they have learned and keep a keen eye out for Great-horned Owls. They harass or kill these birds when spotted. The owls have recognized the danger and now avoid Peregrine nest areas. Finally, Peregrines have learned how to successfully fledge eyasses from wild cliff nests. It's a great conservation success.

It's also interesting to note what may be an undescribed physiological factor. Peregrines have inordinately large eyes. And more significantly, in ways that aren't yet clear, they are able to capture small birds flying in the dead of night. Here at an Ohio Peregrine nest at Toledo, researchers were amazed on a number of occasions to record at sundown every food remnant at the aerie. Then, the next morning, they checked to see if anything changed over night.

Inexplicably, sunrise food surveys at the nest frequently showed new dead birds and feathers which had been captured in the dead of night. Consequently, the adults were radio-tagged, so they could be followed. Stunningly, they would fly NE out over Maumee Bay and out over night-black Lake Erie, where they apparently were plucking night-flying migrant birds.

We know that European Kestrels, and almost surely, American ones, too, can see up into the ultra-violet spectrum. It may be that Peregrines can also see down into the infra-red spectrum, which would allow them to see heat-glowing little dickey-birds flying across Lake Erie to Ontario in the dead of night.

If that's so, they could also see a lumbering, infra-red glowing Great-horned Owl flying silently through the night sky -- whereupon it could get its vertebrae crushed in a 100-mph night-time stoop.

For whatever reason, Great-horned Owls are now only very infrequent killers of nest-bound Peregrine eyasses.

About new mates in Red-tail pairs where a bird dies or flies off. No, I don't think the remaining mate cognitively "knows" that its mate has died, even if it sees the dead carcass. Instead, it's the absence of the mate's pair-bonding behaviors that control things. Without the mate flying around at close quarters, sitting on nearby perches, and working at the nest, the remnant bird then begins to begin to behaviorally "connect" with new "floaters" that so quickly drift into the territory.

"Floaters" are full adults, but unmated. Reproductive hormones affect them exactly as with mated birds. And it seems that there is a somewhat hidden or phantom population of floaters circulating perhaps widely between mated-pair territories in winter. For Red-tails and a number of other diurnal raptors, it is well known that upon the death of a pair member, a new mate can come into the territory and begin mating, nesting, and copulating duties within just a few days.

I noted yesterday that it appears that Tristan, one of "The Divines" at the cathedral north of Central Park is missing, presumed dead. If so, most unfortunate. But I wouldn't be surprised if a new Tristan II makes an appearance this week or so. (Perhaps the name should remain "Tristan," but with the program indicating that this year, the role will be played by a new understudy.)

[Rob Schmunk may have seen Tristan with Isolde since that report. D.B.]

The death of adult hawk pair members is a part of hawk life. The birds are able to quickly adapt. Things will work out, just as they did so often when Pale Male lost a mate.

--John Blakeman

Monday, February 25, 2008

Pale Male Update, Blakeman Reports on the PBS Eagle Nest, High Drama at the VA Eagle Nest, and last of all, Is Tristan Really Missing?

First off a mini-update on Sunday with Pale Male and Lola from Pale Male Irregular and Hawk Watcher Katherine Herzog-

Quite an amazing day yesterday with lots of mating activity. And Pale providing more nesting material and providing Lola with a Pigeon Shish-Ka-Bob on a spiked window on the "Hawk Bldg". Today will be lovely, but tomorrow yet another bad weather system is moving in.....


Next up, big news in the report from John Blakeman on the Plum Brook Station Bald Eagles--


The NASA Plum Brook Station Bald Eagle nest now has a sitting female.

I was able to get in to the Station today, to see if anything has happened since I was last there a week or so ago. As I drove up, I noticed that the nest was markedly larger. Instead of a shallow, wide nest, the eagles have added a great number of pounds of sticks, thickening it to a four foot depth. It looks like it's about six feet across the top, and about four feet deep. Very large, very stable.

At first, with my naked eye at perhaps 200 yards from the nest, I saw nothing there. But with my binoculars I saw the female sitting very low on the nest. As with Red-tails, Bald Eagles will sit a bit higher when the first egg or two is laid. But when the clutch has two or more eggs, the female hunkers down over the eggs, with full contact with her naked brood patch. This starts incubation in earnest.

Because I was away, I don't know when the first egg was laid, or even if a full clutch has appeared. There could be a single egg, or two, or even three eventually. As with the Pale Male nest, there will be little way of knowing until the eaglets hatch. If I get time, I'll watch for egg turning. Sometimes this can reveal the number of eggs.

Another big winter snow storm (Where's global warming?) will hit tonight and tomorrow, with up to 6 inches of new snow. Tomorrow, when the mother eagle awakens, she will have to stand up and shake off a pile of new snow on her back. She'll drop right back down onto the eggs and resume incubation.

I didn't see the male. He's out in the countryside, or up along Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay looking for fish for his mate and himself. Now, with the female sitting, things start to get serious for the pair. A new breeding season has wonderfully begun.

--John Blakeman

Many thanks for the story of high drama, with Great Horned Owls and an intruding female at the Norfolk, Virginia Eagle’s nest from blog reader and Eagle watcher Ellie Miller of Midlothian, plus the link to the Eagle Cam--

Hi Donna,

There has been a very interesting story playing out at the Norfolk Botanical Garden here in VA with their resident eagles. You and Mr. Blakeman may already be aware of it, but just in case you are not, you may want to check out their website at for the latest happenings. Meanwhile, the following will give you snippets of the story so far.

Last year was my first time watching this pair on the eagle cam and, as you can imagine, I immediately became hooked. What a wonderful experience! They had mated the year before (2006), laid three eggs, all hatched and all fledged. Same thing happened last year ~ three eggs laid, all hatched and all fledged. I was very excited about this year’s upcoming breeding season and everything was going smoothly in the beginning and then….

It all began last summer when their nest fell apart and most of it dropped to the ground after the resident eagle chicks fledged. On December 3, 2007 there was a post that the eagles had begun building a new nest a few dozen yards from the first. At this time, biologists felt it probably weighed around 500 pounds. This also meant that all the cameras and wireless internet gear had to be moved to another tree near the new nest. Infrared night vision cameras were installed giving 24/7 viewing which is fantastic.

Jumping ahead to after the mating period, etc. On the evening of February 1, the female eagle laid her first egg between 6:25 and 6:28 pm in their new nest. The eagle leaned over to examine her new egg and at 6:31 a horned owl landed on the edge of the nest. Both the eagle and owl were startled, neither expecting the other to be there. The eagle fixed its wings and the owl immediately flew off. It was believed the owl was using the nest as a perch to hunt and not attacking the eagles. The owls have been nesting at the Botanical Garden for the last few years and have an established nest and were probably not looking to take over the eagles’ nest. The second egg was laid on the evening of February 4. It was thought a third was laid on the night of February 8 but later determined it wasn’t so.

On February 15, a 4th year female eagle intruded at the nest, forcing the resident female to abandon the nest causing the eggs to no longer be viable. There were sightings of the new female and resident male together at the remains of the old nest and the new one. In the meantime, it was felt that the nonviable eggs should be removed from the nest which scientists retrieved on February 19 after permission was granted. Two eggs were retrieved. Reasons given for removing the eggs was to provide information regarding the presence of any environmental contaminants in the eagles’ diets, measure the development of the embryos, and to create an area for the new female to potentially lay eggs, should she mate this season. (The eggs are being analyzed by the VA Institute of Marine Sciences.) Originally, scientists and bird watchers alike believed there would be three eggs recovered, but there were only two in the nest and there were no signs of a fragmented third. At this point, it was felt the original female had been run off and the new female was taking over that position. Apparently, there’s a whole pair bond that has to be developed that was well established between the previous pair and now that that female’s gone, this new female and the resident male would have to form that bond and that it may not be too late in the season for the newly arrived female to lay a new clutch of eggs.

Well, surprise, surprise!!! Guess who came back? Yes, on February 22, it was confirmed that the original female had returned to the nest and both she and the resident male repeatedly returned to the nest throughout the day with sticks and pine needles. The sub-adult female has not been seen over the last few days and the original pair was seen mating on February 23. And so it goes. Be sure to tune into the website for the ongoing saga…..

Oh, just another interesting note. When climbers were retrieving the eggs, two squirrels abandoned “their” den in the underside of the new eagle nest. They were noted on Friday (22nd) collecting eagle down to line their own nest. If the eagles continue to utilize the nest regularly, it’s expected the squirrels activity will decrease.

Thanks for reading and I hope you find this to be as interesting as I have.

Kind regards,
Ellie Miller

Last but not least a question about the possibly missing Tristan, from animal lover, and blog reader Robin concerning the tentative disappearance of the male from The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine Red-tail nest


I can't find anything about this story, on any of the other NY Hawks blogs?


The story in question was posted yesterday, Sunday, by James O’Brien, in which he reports Tristan missing and presumed dead. But today Robert Schmunk, , sighted two mature Red-tails sitting on The Cathedral. Rob was able to identify Isolde, the female from that nest, but was not able to confirm that the other Red-tail was Tristan as the second bird was only viewed from the rear. It does give some renewed hope that Tristan hasn’t disappeared for good after all.
(A report from John Blakeman in tomorrow’s post concerning replacement mates in Red-tailed hawks due up tomorrow, Tuesday)

I didn’t know until yesterday that there might be a problem. Many thanks to Rob of Bloomingdale Village (link above) and Bruce Yolton of for their extremely helpful emails with details regarding the events of the last week concerning a downed hawk in Morningside Park spotted by Steve a gentleman from the neighborhood who was walking his dog on Thursday, the 21st and the lack of a sighting of Tristan for five days until the possible sighting of him today, by Rob. Also thank you to Steve who originally reported the downed hawk, Rob, James, Bruce, and the two Urban Park Rangers for searching for him.

Thank you also to Bobby Horvath, the excellent Wildlife Rehabilitator for his telephone call with the details he was aware of concerning the disabled bird , and his help in checking local venues where a downed hawk may have been taken. I too spent the day attempting to find any rehabbers or avian vets that might have received a Red-tail with a bad wing in the last few days. No one I spoke with had.

Therefore I’am hoping that perhaps Tristan had a stunned wing, something that sometimes happens with an impact, which then revived and he is now back in business.

One more thing to keep your fingers crossed about, folks.

Donegal Browne

How DID We Come Up With the Rake?

This Junco if you'll notice has been methodically doing his double-pull-back-scratch down the edge of the bench excavating seeds. See all the lateral lines? Rather like the fork marks on the edge of a pie. Which makes me wonder if that's where tap dancers got the double pull back tap step. Unlikely, but as I've been down with the flu, I've been having all sorts of weird ideas. You just never know where they will take you. But that was my second idea.

Here Mr. Junco has back scratched and just about tumped himself off the back of the bench in the process.
He scrambles back up. Glares at me, as obviously it is my fault. When I threw seed out for the ground feeders the wind took it over into the snow on the bench. Poof! A lot of it disappeared from sight.
Ah, he gets a seed. That's enough reward to give it another try. Oh yes, my second idea. What all the reverse scratchers are doing--the Juncos, the Towhees, the White-throated Sparrows--is "raking" the unwanted big stuff off the littler stuff they want. So I had an image of a human looking at her scuffed up fingers and her single foraging stick, while lying under a tree resting and watching one of these birds working on the leaf debris and separating the wheat from the chaff as it were.
Mr. Junco goes for the double scratch back once again.
Uh, oh. That was a close one. He almost went off the back with all those particles of snow.
He finds another seed, and this time he stays sideways when he scratches back. It does put more snow on where he's going next but we all learn from experience and figure out how to cut our losses.
But he'd really rather I didn't watch him anymore. So I get back in bed and think of bird feet and rakes.
This is technically called a cultivator, but it's really a rake to separate what you don't want from what you do want. Looks rather like a birdie foot to me. Okay it has an extra "toe" but it's a later century improvement on the three toed stick original.
Don't tell anyone but they might have gotten the idea for the original design from the splaying of the fingers on their own hands.
Or from using multi twigged branches to sweep/pull the unwanted from the wanted item.
I get up for a drink of water. There's Doorstep Dove. Once again the lone dove staking out the yard. Wait a minute. Is she really staking out the yard? She did this last winter too. Could Mourning Doves be matriarchal? I've never seen the males fighting over territory.
Not likely at all, but it does give me something to think about as I wait to get well.
Donegal Browne

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A NYC Urban Red-tailed Hawk Update

Photograph by Robert Schmunk

Tristan and Isolde the beautiful Red-tails, nicknamed The Divines, who have nested on the statue of St. Andrew at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for some years now, hang out together at dusk. As you may know these two are favorites of mine as I've watched them successfully raise and train eyasses for the past two seasons.
For an update, on their current activities, visit Rob Schmunk's blog-

Photograph by Jeff Kollbrunner

Meet Momma and Papa, who nest in Queens and have been together for more than a decade. For an update on their adventures, they seem to be building two new nests, neither at last years site for instance, go to photographer Jeff Kollbrunner's site:

(Note that unlike the Manhattan Red-tail couples, the male of this pair does not have a lighter head than the female. If the lighter headed males are Pale Male's progeny, could this couple's nest be where some of dark headed females are coming from that mate with Manhattan's pale headed males?)

Photograph by James O'Brien

The new pair, at least new to us, of Urban Red-tails that is building a nest in a tree in Riverside Park (and as it turns out an alternate nest is being built as well) about to copulate.
For more on the new nest situated above the highway go to James O'Brien's

Origin of the Species Blog, link above.

And for more on the discovery of this new nest and narrative on Red-tail nests in general by hawk expert John Blakeman, go to author Marie Winn's website:

Donegal Browne