What's in Flight November
On a crisp fall afternoon, ecologist Gabriel Willow identified 22 different types of birds in Carl Schurz Park. A flock of tiny warblers and kinglets were hiding in plain sight on the ground, among the shrubs and up in the trees. Gabriel estimates that during peak migration season, there could be as many as 80 different types of bird in the park.
One of our largest avian visitors is the Red-tailed hawk, with a huge wingspan of up to four feet eight inches wide. Gabriel identified four soaring overhead and catching the thermals above the East River, plus one perched atop an East End Avenue apartment building, scanning the park below. Urban hawks like to hunt from perches high up on flagpoles, church spires, apartment buildings and bridges to get a good view of the open spaces below. They can spot a tiny mouse from 100 feet up in the air. Their favorite foods are rodents, squirrels and other birds, (anything from a tiny warbler to a hefty pigeon). They swoop down on their prey at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, snatching a mouse in their talons without stopping to land. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it experience.
‘Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk species in New York,’ says Katie Leung, who heads up the Red-tailed hawk nest monitoring project for the New York City Parks’ Wildlife Unit. This year, her unit identified over 50 nests in the five-borough area. ‘Hawks tend to hunt within a two mile radius of their nest,’ she adds. And Carl Schurz is choicely located close to three important nests. The nearest one is at East 96th Street and Lexington Avenue on the fire escape of a largely boarded up building. ‘Hawks nests are often a little messy looking. They can be sprawled out in a circular shape made of dry sticks. And are usually surrounded by their droppings, feathers, fur and bones,’ says Katie.
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk Flying
Richard Phillip Nelson
Adult Red-tailed Hawk Flying
Another nest is situated on Randall’s Island on Field 10, near the Icahn Stadium. The third nest is on the façade of an apartment building on Fifth Avenue between East 73rd and East 74th Street. This is the home of Pale Male. ‘He is a true New Yorker who has been nesting here for more than 25 years. Most urban hawks live only 10 to 12 years. But he is now 28 years old. It is easier for some hawks to live in the city as there is no shortage of prey,’ says Katie.
Nest at East 96th Street
But urban life creates some perils for the hawks. Pale Male has had eight partners (Octavia is his latest). ‘Most hawks mate for life. But Pale Male’s earlier partners died from collisions with vehicles or rodenticide poisoning,’ says Katie. ‘It’s an ongoing problem. We’ve been recommending a suspension of rodenticide in parks between the months of March and August when the hawks are breeding.’
PaleMale's Fledgling - Fifth Avenue (Red-tailed Hawk)
Richard Phillip Nelson
This summer, the three local hawk pairs produced seven fledglings. And all are believed to have survived (although one parent died of rodenticide poisoning). While the fledglings have moved on to different areas to establish their own territories, their parents typically stay put and return over and over to use the same nests. Breeding starts again in late February.
Broad Wing Hawks Flying
Cooper's Hawk Flying
Fall is one of the best times to see hawks in and around the park. Between now and the end of November, the Red-tailed hawks (who are year round residents) are joined by the Cooper’s hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks. Both species are in the process of migrating along the Atlantic Flyway over the city. Broad-winged hawks and Rough-legged hawks have already migrated through our area in early fall. To the novice, hawks can look quite similar. But what is distinctive about the Red-tailed Hawk is its large size (somewhere between a crow and a goose), broad rounded wings (with a fringe of feathers on the ends) and its namesake brick-red fan-shaped tail (unfortunately not visible in the juveniles). They also have a darker brown head, brown and white stippled chest and (like all hawks) yellow legs and feet. Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks are famously difficult to tell apart. Both have a slate blue-grey back, a reddish-orange stippled breast and a long tail. The Cooper’s Hawk is the larger (crow size), and has a rounded tip to its tail.
Rough Legged Hawk Flying
Words: Lucie Young
Images: Joseph Baider for exploringbirds.com, Richard Phillip Nelson, NYC Parks, Terry Collins