Friday, January 31, 2020

Nest-building time for red-tails Christo and Amelia in Tompkins Square

It's the end of January, which means it's nest-building time for Red-Tailed Hawks around the city. Just as we're hitting mid-winter, the birds are sensing a change coming and are gearing up for another breeding season.

This last week, I observed Christo and Amelia busily assembling their (2) nests in Tompkins Square. They have put a lot more effort into the nest site in the Locust tree by the Temperance Fountain, which is where Christo and Dora nested in 2017. If you look back at that post, you'll see the details are nearly identical.

Except this time, we have Amelia standing in for Dora.

Amelia checking out her nest

It's been interesting to watch Amelia work. She is full of energy and stamina, not slowing down a bit while she's collecting sticks and arranging them to her liking.

Amelia working on her nest

This shows the scale of the nest. It's significantly larger than it was two weeks ago.

Red-tailed hawk Amelia doing nest-work

Christo flies in with a stick:

Christo working on his nest

As is tradition, Christo gathers seed pods from a favorite Redwood tree.

Christo collecting redwood pods

Christo collecting redwood pods for his nest

Red-tailed hawk Christo collecting redwood pods

Christo collecting redwood pods in Tompkins Square Park

If this looks familiar, this is because Christo has done this every year he's had a nest in the park. Here he is gathering seed pods from the same tree in 2017:

Christo breaks off a stick

And again in 2016 (note the pods are green):

Christo gathers nesting material

Some people say the hawks gather certain leaves and other nesting material that contain insect-repellent properties. I've tried researching the benefits of Redwood seeds and can't come up with anything definitive, so if anyone has any information, I'd love to hear it.

Similarly, Christo also takes bark from Chinese Scholar trees every year for his nests. The bark serves as a soft lining for the eggs and chicks, but may also contain aromatic or insect-repellent properties.

Christo collecting bark from a Scholar tree

Christo tears the bark off the branch with his talon:

Christo collecting bark from a Chinese Scholar tree

Christo removing bark from a Scholar tree in 2017:

Christo takes bark from a Scholar tree

How to the hawks choose their sticks? I have no idea!

I have noticed, though, over the years, that if they drop a stick on the ground, they will not retrieve it. That seems like such a waste, especially after so much hard work goes into breaking the sticks out of the trees, as seen below as Christo hangs upside-down over the dog run to break off that one perfect stick.

Christo collecting sticks for his nest


Christo victorious with a stick

Meanwhile, Amelia was on the other side of the park collecting sticks from an American Elm tree.

Amelia collecting sticks for her nest

Amelia collecting a stick for her nest

This is one of the larger sticks I saw her transport back to the nest.

Amelia carrying a stick to her nest

Does all this activity working on the Locust nest mean the hawks won't use the one in the Ginkgo? Not necessarily. It's not unusual for hawks to build more than one nest, then decide on the final location closer to egg-laying time. Then again, they may want a different location this year for what ever reason. I can only wonder if the loss of their chicks last year in the nest traumatized the pair in some way, but there's no way of knowing. As usual, we'll just have to wait and watch.

Tompkins Square Red-tails Amelia & Christo

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The superstars of Manatee Springs, Florida

Last December, I visited Manatee Springs State Park, in northwest Florida. I was hoping to see manatees in the wild, which I did, but the real stars of the park turned out to be something else entirely.

The park is absolutely beautiful, and the spring is surrounded by a cypress swamp.

The blue waters of Manatee Springs

Manatee Springs Cypress Forest

The vociferous calls of a Pileated Woodpecker filled the surrounding forest, and it didn't take long to find the source of all the racket.

Pileated woodpecker at Manatee Springs

What a stunner!

Pileated Woodpeckers are fairly common in New York, but they are rarely found in Manhattan, so I was really exited to see this one.

Pileated woodpecker looking towards the light

Pileated woodpecker with a bright red crest

Pileated woodpecker shows off its mohawk

That blazing red crest lit up the shadows of the forest canopy.

Flaming Pileated Woodpecker

There is a boardwalk through the swamp that runs from the spring out to the Suwannee River, where there is a viewing platform.  This is where I did see some manatees lurking in the water, but the real surprise was the sheer number of Turkey and Black Vultures who dominated the area.

Turkey and Black Vultures at Manatee Springs

I tried to count them, but there were hundreds. They perched in the trees and formed huge swirling kettles in the sky.

A kettle of vultures at Manatee Springs

There were so many, these photos really don't do them justice.

Turkey and Black Vultures kettling at Manatee Springs

Most incredibly, the vultures were absolutely silent. They don't have vocal cords, so they just circled gracefully with the wind.  I found this video of the vultures taken from the same viewing platform in 2013 that gives you an idea of the spectacle.

Turkey Vultures outnumbered Black Vultures on this day by 50 to 1, so I tried my best to get some photos of the Black Vultures. Like the Pileated Woodpecker, they are numerous, but are not often seen here in the city.

Black Vulture soaring at Manatee Springs

You can tell them apart from Turkey Vultures in the air by the colors of the wings. The Black Vulture has silver wingtips.

Black Vulture at Manatee Springs

The Turkey Vulture (below) has silver on the undersides of its wings.

Turkey vulture at Manatee Springs

The vultures were quietly curious and would fly very close over the viewing platform.

Turkey vulture soaring at Manatee Springs

Although I'd intended to document manatees at the spring, I came away happy to have seen the woodpecker and vultures. Watching the soaring vultures was so soothing and calming, I ended up putting the camera away and just watching them for two hours. I highly recommend spending some quiet time with the Manatee Springs vultures to de-stress and relax.

Turkey vulture of Manatee Springs Florida

See more Manatee Springs photos here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Quick Tompkins Square hawk update

As it's mid-January, it's time to check in on Tompkins Square red-tails, Christo and Amelia. Nesting season is coming up fast, so we should be seeing the hawks get more active in the park, where they have two nest sites (one in a ginkgo on the east side of the park, and one in a locust near the Temperance Fountain).

At sunrise, I found the pair on the cross of St Nicholas of Myra on Avenue A.

Sunrise with Amelia and Christo

You can see the difference in their size and coloring. Amelia (perched on top of the cross) is larger with a broad chest and a darker head. Christo's head is more of a golden brown and he has more of a white patch on his throat.

Amelia and Christo

As breakfast time neared, Christo eyed the passing menu selections.

Christo eyes lunch options

After Christo took off, Amelia observed a few tasty pigeons passing by, but something in the distance grabbed her attention.

Amelia lets this one go

She took off from the church cross and headed into the park.


As I was still on Avenue A, I couldn't photograph what happened next, but I could see through the trees. Amelia headed straight for the Temperance Fountain nest and kicked out a squirrel that was messing with the sticks. This territorial behavior indicates nesting time is nigh.

This is the locust nest this morning:

And this is the same nest back in November (photo taken from the other side of the branch):

The hawks have added a lot of sticks recently and it will be interesting to see which nest site they decide to use. Personally, I prefer the ginkgo (in use last year) as the tree is strong and flexible. The locust is brittle and, back in 2017, a large branch broke off while Dora and her chick were in the nest. This particular locust tree is also home to several formidable squirrels.

Late in the day, I caught up with Amelia again as she perched on the top of one of the Village View buildings along First Avenue.

Amelia on Village View

Later, just before sunset, Amelia and Christo occupied their respective ends of the Christodora roof. Amelia likes the north end while Christo prefers the south. They almost always face west.


After the loss of both hawk chicks last season, I look forward to a new chance for this pair to enjoy some success.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Raptors down south: Part 2

This last fall, I visited Florida where I saw an incredible number of birds. Each day started with the sound of either a Mockingbird or a Blue Jay calling at sunrise, and usually ended with Pelicans and Egrets flying to their island roosts at sunset. I took so many photos, I'm still going through them.

Back in December, I posted some Florida raptor photos. Today, I have a few more.

I was unable to catch sight of  Bald Eagle in NYC in all of 2019, so I was happy to see several in the wild during my trip down south. Below is an adult Bald Eagle at its nest in St Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

A Bald Eagle and its nest at St Marks Wildlife Refuge in Florida

This adult was soaring around Cedar Key on the gulf coast, which is a marvelous place to see wildlife and sunsets.

Bald Eagle soaring over Cedar Key Florida

Further south in St Petersburg, this immature Bald Eagle flew over Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.

An Immature Bald Eagle soars over Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St Petersburg Florida

The eagle flew over really fast, like it was on a mission. Within seconds, it was on the tail (literally!) of a Turkey Vulture.

Immature Bald eagle chases a turkey vulture

Immature Bald eagle chases a turkey vulture over Boyd Hill Nature Preserve

The eagle chased the vulture around for several minutes. I'm not sure what was going on as the vulture didn't have any food and seemed to be minding its own business, but the eagle was not happy having it around.

Immature Bald eagle chases a turkey vulture over Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St Petersburg Florida

Meanwhile, on the ground in the preserve, this mellow Turkey Vulture rested in the rehab facility that is part of the aviary. Who could ever be unhappy with this doe-eyed sweetie?

Friendly Turkey Vulture

I'll share more Florida vultures in a later post. 

Back up at Cedar Key, I was able to get a closer look at an immature Bald Eagle who was just starting to get white adult feathers on its head.

Immature Bald Eagle at Cedar Key Florida

The eagle's head pattern reminded me of the Osprey, an ubiquitous raptor along the coast and waterways. The one below was seen at Fort De Soto Park, where I counted 38 ospreys in an area less than two square miles.

Osprey with a fish

I think this Osprey is eating a trout.

Osprey with a fish

It's hard to see in this photo, but the Osprey on the right is carrying what looks like a Largemouth Bass. This pair was photographed at Cedar Key Museum State Park.

Two Ospreys with a monster fish at Cedar Key Florida

A pair of Ospreys with a monster fish at Cedar Key Florida

We see Ospreys here in the north during nesting season, so it was nice to see them on their winter grounds, enjoying the warm weather and fish, and not having many responsibilities.

That's exactly how I felt, too.