Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Harold and Maud

When Pale Male, the redtailed hawk made famous in story and song, chose to put a nest on the side of a ritzy Fifth Avenue apartment building on Manhattan island, he made it very easy on birders.

The nest is high on the building and not obscured by trees. It is easily seen by binoculars or scope - or even by eye, if you know where to look - from a bench near the Hans Christian Andersen statue on the east side of Central Park, near the Conservatory Water where kids race model boats.

At this time of year, when Pale Male and his female of the moment - he's lost a few mates over the years - are trying to create or are raising the next generation, the bench draws a big crowd. Those afar can follow their exploits via a number of websites including that of Marie Winn, who wrote the book on Pale Male.

In the wild, redtails and other hawks are not usually so accommodating. The idea is to hide the nest from predators, including people whose idea of a good time is shooting raptors with guns or, in the case of one unfortunate turkey vulture I and others saw flying in central New Jersey, an arrow.

But sometimes the hawks will show you where the nest is, inadvertently, and it is up to those of us given this gift to protect it.

Look closely to see the redtailed hawk on the nest.
That’s why I’m not going to tell you where Harold and Maud (named for the 1971 movie, but without the e in her name) put their nest in Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

I do a lot of walking on my lunch break out of a desire to be outside and exercising in daylight after hours behind the computer in a windowless pit of a room. Before my part of the company moved to the pit, our desks were in a sunnier locale and every so often I would see a redtailed hawk fly over the parking lot in back, sometimes perching in a tree close by.

Being close to the Palisades, the majestic cliffs along the west shore of the Hudson River north of the George Washington Bridge, there is always a good chance of seeing turkey vultures, redtails and peregrine falcons. During fall migration last year there were bald eagles, sharp-shinned and cooper’s hawks and the occasional osprey and great blue heron. All of them were following the Hudson south, using the warm air off the cliffs to stay aloft.

But there is a local raptor population, too. On a recent break I was heading across the parking lot to the back door when a redtail flew over my head and perched on the end of the building. Having only my cellphone camera, I tried to get closer for a picture. Just as I was about in the right place another redtail flew into a tree across the lot and this one flew over and they mated for a few seconds, then flew off separately.

I wonder if there’s a nest somewhere close by, I thought.

I put it out of my mind until a week later when I was on another walk across the lot and a redtail flew over. That made me wonder where the nest was.

There are limited choices thanks to being such a built-up area where trees are cut down in favor of bigger houses, highways and office parks and what's left over has to be "preserved." There's a small bit of woods to the north, a smaller bit of woods to the west and the woods left as a border on either side of the Palisades Interstate Parkway, which was built atop the cliffs and runs into New York. To the south you’re heading to the busy Englewood Cliffs-Fort Lee-George Washington Bridge area.

For some reason, intuition perhaps?, I started looking at the trees to the west, from a corporate parking lot. Just as I found a suitable candidate the female hawk landed in it, the male landed on her, they noisily mated for a few seconds and then the male flew to the tree next to me and preened over my head!

It is an amazingly public nest but the public doesn’t notice. The next day I looked at the nest from another vantage point on a street and watched as people biked, walked or jogged under it, not noticing the nest or the hawks flying around. Most people don’t. If they see something they may briefly wonder what it is and then go back to their own earthbound lives.

One of the hawks circled high overhead, then swooped down and landed in a tree not particularly close to the nest. I knew it could see me - redtails have excellent vision, much better than humans, to snag squirrels and other things on the ground from a high perch - and wasn’t going to tip me off to the nest. So I walked on and made my way down the street and came back to my original vantage point in the parking lot. I noted the best place to stand, knowing I would later be taking some pictures, including the one above, with my telephoto lens.

Each day I have stopped to look for a few minutes during my break, staying just long enough to find the nest and see what's happening. Each time one of the redtails has been in the nest, which means there are eggs to keep warm. Hunkered down in the nest I can't tell if it's Harold or Maud because they take turns incubating and it is only when they fly that you see the female is bigger than the male to accommodate those eggs she'll be laying.

I don’t know if I will be able to see the miracle of several redtailed hawk chicks peering over the edge of the nest or watch them fledge. At some point the trees will leaf out and obscure them.

I can only hope the nest isn’t blown down, the tree isn’t cut down or the chicks don’t fall down. I hope I am not noticed in my vigil in these days when standing with binoculars in a parking lot is looked on with suspicion by Security. In any event I don't stay long. I don't trust people when it comes to nature. Most are too selfish, too inclined to do what they want, when they want and not give a damn about the consequences to others. That behavior runs the gamut from sterile landscape plantings to cutting down healthy but apparently inconvenient trees to overdoing the pesticides to putting the cat out at night.

It's not like Pale Male up there on his building ledge with his loyal, devoted fan club. Still, I find the experience of watching Harold and Maud just as thrilling.