Thursday, November 7, 2019

2019 Season Finale on Governors Island

I've made it a tradition to be on Governors Island each year on the last day of the season (October 31) before the island closes to the public until May. There's always something exciting to see that leaves me feeling happy and satisfied on the final visit. On the final day last year, an immature red-tailed hawk got up close and personal as it soared and hovered at eye-level out at the Hills.

This year, I was apprehensive to see the weather forecast was for rain all day. I debated whether or not to take my camera as I've suffered water damage to equipment before and really didn't want to risk getting caught in a deluge. In the end, I decided to pack my camera in layers of plastic and waterproof bags, and hoped for the best.

The first hour or so was drizzly with a few heavy downpours, but then the clouds shifted and the rain stopped. Taking advantage of the break, I headed for the Hills where I hoped to find some raptors.

Sure enough, a pair of kestrels were zipping around over Outlook Hill. This is the male:

Kestrel

In true kestrel fashion, he demonstrated some classic hovering as he looked for prey on the slopes of the Hills.

Kestrel

His lady-friend zoomed in, hot on the tail of a red-tailed hawk.

Kestrel and Red-tail

Both kestrels chased the hawk around, although the red-tail didn't seem that bothered.

Kestrel and Red-tail

This particular hawk has the red tail of an adult, but the bright yellowish eyes of an immature bird. It's possible this hawk only just molted into its adult plumage this last summer.

Red-tail being shadowed by a Kestrel

As there were two kestrels, there were two hawks! In the photo below, the bright-eyed hawk is on the left and its pale-faced companion follows behind.

Red-tails on Governors Island

Both hawks sported red tails and light-colored eyes. The way they flew so close to one another and seemed at ease in each other's presence made me wonder if they are a mated pair. The two flew around together over the Hills for at least a couple of hours, making it extremely difficult for me to break away when it came time to head back to the ferry.

Red-tails on Governors Island

I love when hawks fly around in the city and no one notices. Both hawks flew around the top of the Hills, just steps away from people taking in the view.

Hunters

The hawks hunted for rodents in the vegetation on the slopes of the Hills. This feature of the island is only three years old, but it has quickly become a fantastic place to observe wildlife.

Red-tails on Governors Island

Taking a closer look at the hawks, below is the pale-faced one, who has a wide chest and barrel-shaped body. Perhaps a female?

Light Red-tail on Governors Island

The other hawk has a much darker head that offsets its stunningly bright eyes. Its body is smaller, which makes me wonder if it could be a male (if they are a pair).

Bright-eyed Red-tail on Governors Island

This is the pale-faced hawk in flight.

Light red-tail on Governors Island

As it was a windy day, the hawks were able to take advantage of the air lift and hover over the Hills just like the kestrels.

Light red-tail on Governors Island

As the hawks floated over Outlook Hill, I stood atop the shorter Discovery Hill, where I was able to get close looks at them as they flew past me. Below is the pale-faced hawk.

Light red-tail on Governors Island

This is bright-eyes:

Bright-eyed Red-tail on Governors Island

Bright-eyes hovering:

Bright-eyed Red-tail on Governors Island

The hawk dove into the tall grass below me and caught a rat, then flew it right past my face and over the hill to a tree where it ate its meal. They did this several times - catching a rat in the grass, flying it right past my face, then over the hill to the same tree.

Bright-eyed Red-tail with a rat on Governors Island

Here is pale-face bringing another rat my way.

Light Red-tail with a rat on Governors Island

The hawk and rat actually came too close for my camera to hold focus. After this shot, I just stood there and enjoyed watching the birds fly past me at wing's length.

Light Red-tail with a rat on Governors Island

The last photo I took for the day was of this Carolina Wren, whose sweet song resounded over the island.

Carolina wren

Governors Island is such a unique and special place where a person can go and enjoy nature without having to leave the city. I hope the City and Governors Island Trust recognize the value of the island as a natural destination.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Autumn red-tail colors

It's my favorite time of year when the trees put on their dazzling display of vivid color, saturating the streets with stunning kaleidoscopic hues.

The blazing yellow honey locust trees on this stretch of E 6th Street just east of First Avenue make me happy every time I walk by.

Blazing yellow

Up in Central Park, this solitary orange tree looks like a flame among a grove of trees that is still firmly bent on staying green.

Central Park

I also like this time of year because the autumn colors complement the new plumage of our red-tailed hawks. Christo and Amelia have finished their summer molts, and they are now sporting beautiful brand-new feathers, as seen below on Christo. For comparison, see a scraggly molting Christo here and here.

Christo in the fall foliage

The late afternoon sun shining through the fall leaves brings out the warm tones in his brown feathers. The hawks easily blend in with the foliage, something they won't be able to do much longer as winter approaches.

Christo in the fall foliage

When I met up with Christo in Tompkins Square last weekend, he was hunting in one of the gardens. Eventually, he caught a rat and flew it right over my head and into a tree.

Christo

As Christo quickly ate his meal, another red-tail appeared out of nowhere and flew right past his face. Was this a challenge? Christo quickly took off after it and, as I ran to an area where I could see the sky, I caught sight of Amelia, who was racing across the park to help drive out the intruder.

Amelia

The three hawks chased each other around so fast, I couldn't keep up. The interloper ended up flying off towards East River Park, while Christo and Amelia regrouped on the church cross at Avenue A and 10th Street.

Christo and Amelia

I like how Christo studies Amelia as she comes in for a landing.

Christo and Amelia

Christo and Amelia

The pair perched on the cross for a while, but Amelia kept taking off to patrol the area.

Christo and Amelia

When Amelia didn't return from one of her tours, Christo took off and returned to the park.

Christo

Taking advantage of the last bit of sunlight, he caught one last rat before sunset.

Christo with a rat

As the season progresses, we'll likely see more hawks in the neighborhood who are either migrating or looking for a place to spend the winter. In addition to red-tails, I've been seeing Cooper's hawks, who often come around this time of year.

On the last day of the season on Governors Island (October 31), I spent some quality time with a pair of young adult red-tails who demonstrated some excellent hawk hunting skills. I'll have more on these two in an upcoming post.

Red-tails on Governors Island

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Checking in on Christo and Amelia

It's time to check in on East Village hawks, Christo and Amelia, and everything seems to be business as usual.

I recently found Amelia perched on the cross of St Nicholas of Myra at Avenue A & 10th Street at sunset. She had some red bits on her beak, indicating she'd just finished dinner.

Amelia

A few minutes later, Christo joined her.

Amelia and Christo

The pair stayed on the cross until the sun went down, and then flew off together towards Avenue B.

Amelia and Christo

On another late evening, the pair hung out on top of the Christodora, soaking in the last bit of sun. I haven't seen them up there in a while, so this was a good sign. Maybe they're scoping out their next nest location.

Amelia and Christo

Amelia:

Amelia

Christo:

Christo

Early this last Saturday, I found the hawks relaxing on the east side of Tompkins Square. Amelia rested and preened in a tree.

Amelia

A short distance away, Christo chowed down on a rat.

Christo brunching on rat

Christo brunching on rat

Brunch over, he cleaned his beak off on a branch.

Christo cleans his beak

I've been seeing Christo hunting in the park at or after sunset, which is when the rats get active. Unfortunately for me, it's difficult to photograph him as the light fades away.

Christo

I was curious whether the recent re-opening of the SE quadrant of the park would change the hawks' routines or habits, but they seem to going about their lives as usual.

Bonus raptor: This female kestrel was having a productive afternoon hunting insects on Governors Island. This is the last week the island will be open to the public for the season, so get out there while you still can.

Female kestrel

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Fall bird migration highlights plus some unusual visitors

Fall bird migration is underway, and a lot of interesting travelers have stopped over in the city on their way south.

On a recent visit to Central Park, I found this beautiful Red-Eyed Vireo stuffing itself with insects before continuing on its journey to South America.

Red-eyed vireo

The Blue-Headed Vireo is one of my favorites, so I'm happy to have seen quite a few this season. The ones below were photographed on Governors Island and in Central Park.

Blue-headed vireo

Blue-headed vireo

Blue-headed vireo

The blue head really stands out on this one.

Blue-headed vireo

I've never understood how the Black-Throated Green Warbler got its name as it can be recognized by its bright yellow head, and doesn't have much green on it at all. Stunning nonetheless!

Black-throated green warbler

The two yellow Palm Warblers below were rambling around Central Park. They can usually be seen foraging on the ground in the grass or dirt, and aren't as shy as some other birds. I've probably seen more Palms than any other warbler this season.

Palm Warbler

Palm warbler

Bright blue male Indigo Buntings will usually draw a crowd of admirers, but the females can be overlooked as they appear drab in comparison. The one below shows off her bluish tail, but is otherwise a warm brown with subtle markings. I think she looks elegant.

Indigo Bunting

Another female bird who is not as flashy as her male counterpart is the House Finch. The one below does have a hint of red to her cocoa-colored coat, and I like the soft streaking on her sides. She may or may not be migrating as these birds can be found in the city all year. Interesting fact: House Finches came to be in NYC after being released from a pet store in 1940.

House Finch

I've been excited to see a lot of wrens this fall season. They are tiny, fast-moving birds that dart around the underbrush like mice, but this Winter Wren paused in the sun in Central Park long enough for me to snap a single photo. In 2016, there was one in Tompkins Square Park that was much more cooperative.

Wren

One of my goals this year has been to learn more about sparrows. Chipping Sparrows travel through the city in spring and fall, but I was also able to spend time with them over the summer in their nesting grounds in Connecticut. I've found the best way to tell sparrows apart in the field is by ear, and the Chipping Sparrow's call/song is one of the easiest sounds to learn.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping sparrow

Another sparrow with a distinctive voice is the appropriately-named Song Sparrow. These birds nest on Governors Island in the summer, which is a great place to go and listen to them as they compete with Red-Winged Blackbirds for the Who-Can-Sing-Loudest Award.

Song Sparrow

One of the tiniest and quickest moving birds is the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet. These guys always give me a challenge when trying to photograph them as they dart around non-stop. The one below is in the process of stretching upwards to snatch an insect out of the air.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

I had some luck recently seeing Common Nighthawks as they zipped around the sky at dusk. I've not been able to photograph one since 2014, when they appeared in Tompkins Square Park. I've seen them recently in Central Park, and the one below was flying around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. They can be identified in flight by the white patches on their wings.

Nighthawk

The city has seen some unusual visitors this fall, including this Virginia Rail, who hung out in Abingdon Square in the West Village for several days. I'd never seen one before, so this was a special catch for me. These birds are usually found in wetlands, so seeing one in a tiny city park was pretty cool. It was happily eating earthworms that were exposed by gardeners who were turning up the soil in preparation for planting flowers.

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail

During the same time period, a Sora turned up in Madison Square Park. About the size of a European Starling, this small wetland bird was more difficult to spot. It hid in the bushes for long periods of time, then would run across open areas to get to another patch of dense vegetation.

Sora

This unusual bird is not native, nor is it a migrant. It is a male Pin-Tailed Whydah, native to sub-Saharan Africa, and is likely an escaped/dumped pet. He was found hanging out in the northeastern part of Central Park. Check out his spectacular tail!

Pin-Tailed Whydah

Although beautiful, the Whydah is an invasive species and a brood parasite. The New York Times (paywall) published an interesting article back in 2017 about how the bird is invading California after individuals have been released by pet owners.

The one in Central Park is a lone male, so won't likely cause any harm, but we've already seen one major bird invasion thanks to exotic species being introduced to Central Park.

Hint:

Starlings