Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hawk-Watching Season, Up Close and Personal

Of all the suburban front yards this Red-tail hawk had to fall on, it had to choose mine.

This morning - cool, foggy, humid - I was doing my usual chores around the house and beyond. Around 7:30, as I was bringing brush to the pile at the curb, I saw this creature watching me.
Red-tail Hawk, Sept. 20, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)

I have found Red-tails on the property, but usually up in the trees. This one should not have been on the ground.

We looked at each other, warily. I walked close  enough to see its tail was brownish red, so this was likely a juvenile. (I also took this picture, which MH cropped.) I could also see one of its legs in front of it, its sharp, killer talons gleaming in the dew.

This was now a very interesting problem for me.

One does not expect to see a wild animal on the lawn, much less an injured one. As suburbs build farther and deeper into the woods and former farms of my congested little New Jersey, animals and birds are going to get displaced, often with tragic consequences. We're going to see them, and they us. Sometimes what we see are big bears or deer. Other times it's an injured bird. Humans can do stupid things when confronted with a situation like this.

I don't know what higher power guided this raptor to the one house on the block that knew what to do next, but I do know that somehow this bird was injured in such a way that it was alive, alert, able to stand and flap its wings but not fly. And a raptor that can't fly is a raptor that starves, becomes dehydrated or is harassed (or worse) by a larger predator.

This is not the first time I've found an injured Red-tail either. Long ago, working in coastal Jersey City, a place where skyscrapers went up like weeds and weedy fields disappeared under the umbrella of "progress," I was walking near my office and found a Red-tail hunkered down in plantings next to one of the new, "luxury" apartment buildings that sprang up with the view of Manhattan across the Hudson River.
One of the times it attempted to fly. (RE Berg-Andersson)

My first call was to get the number of The Raptor Trust, one of the state's best-known bird rehabilitation centers. However, the Trust is located in Millington, in Somerset County, and could not send anyone out to where I was in Hudson County. Call the police, they said.

So I went inside the building. When you have a "luxury" tower, you have a concierge and this man didn't bat an eye - he called the local animal control people from a number in his files. Reassured, I left.

I have no concierge at my house, but I also knew that while closer to the Trust's office, it would not be open before 9am. The Trust is a private organization that depends on donations to continue doing its good work. Many birds of all types have been mended and released into the wild. Many have died. Some stay at the Trust to be used to show we humans what happens when we tear up trees, put up big buildings or drive too fast without see (or caring) about what is walking or flying in front of us.

Birds have so many ways to die in the wild. Nature is cruel. This bird could've been clipped by a speeding car while chasing prey, injuring its wing. It could've been attacked by a two- or four-legged creature bigger and perhaps armed. It could've gotten confused in the fog and banged into a tree or a house. To me there is nothing sadder than seeing a bird of prey dead on the side of the road after hitting one of the many high-profile vehicles on one of the many major highways that bisect one of the most crowded states in the U.S.

I called The Raptor Trust and, as expected, left a message. The Trust accepts birds 24 hours a day but we'd have had to find a large box, throw a blanket on the bird, put it in, tape it shut, drive to the Trust office and then pull the bird out and put it into a heated carrier for when the staff arrived.

No way MH and I would pick up a scared bird whose talons or beak are designed to rip through skin and which weighs several pounds and has a 54-inch wingspan.

So this time I called our local police. All they could do would be monitor the situation and call the Trust. What about Animal Control? I asked.

Connie from Animal Control cages the hawk. (Margo D. Beller)
Turns out they called that number, too, according to the detective who showed up to do that monitoring and keep any people (or their dogs) away from the hawk. I later learned that thanks to the many budget cuts, our town does not have its own animal control office but contracts with a service that handles two counties and is based many miles from us although is close to the Raptor Trust.

So we waited. The detective left, Connie from Animal Control called to say she was on the way. We stood and watched the hawk like a hawk, making sure it wasn't bothered. At one point a murder of American crows started squawking and this Red-tail surely knew crows will mob a hawk to get it away from its family group. The hawk became extremely agitated, got up and flapped furiously. But all it could do was hop off the lawn and to the shaded walkway where it was less noticeable.

Ninety minutes after I found the bird, Connie arrived. She let the bird see her and watch her fold a fitted sheet in such a way that she could throw it over the bird. Her first attempt failed but her second was successful. Once in the dark, the hawk calmed down. Connie put it in a cage that was big enough to keep it comfortable in its sheet but not so big where the bird would flap and possibly do more damage.

By 9:30am, she was gone, on the way to the Trust - which had called me back while Connie was putting the hawk into the cage.

I tried to imagine what the bird was "thinking" while it sat there, watching me and others hover around it. Do birds feel fear? Yes. That's why it was warily watching me and then trying to get away from what it perceived as danger.
How I prefer to see Red-tails. (Margo D. Beller)

Are they able to tell the difference between a helpful me and someone with a gun trying to shoot it out of the sky for sport, as locals used to do on what is now Hawk Mountain Sanctuary at this time of year, when the raptors used the warm winds to save energy flying south along ridge lines? No, it does not. Which is why you should go to The Raptor Trust's website and read the section on how to handle injured or orphaned birds of all sizes if you should find one.

Better yet, call your police or animal control people.

This is hawk-watching season, ironically, and I got a chance to see a Red-tail up close and personal. I can only hope this one can be mended, avoids future hazards and makes its way back into the wild, to be seen aloft and admired by those of us below.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Acting My Age

There is the bucket list, and there is the anti-bucket list.

The bucket list is what you want, need or have to do before you die. Usually it refers to places to go and things to see.

There are places I would like to visit, sooner rather than later, such as the interior mountain west, the Point Reyes Seashore, the forests of Oregon. There are places I have visited and want to see again - Seattle, New Orleans, San Francisco.

And there are places I have visited I have no desire to see again. That is the anti-bucket list, for lack of anything else to call it.

At the top of the anti-bucket list is the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain. Hawk Mountain is one of the finest places to go in the Autumn if you want to see migrating raptors. It was once where sportsmen and farmers would climb and shoot eagles, osprey, redtails, kestrels and other raptors out of the sky, just for the hell of it.
On the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain (RE Berg-Andersson)

That ended thanks to the courageous actions of a number of people and one rich woman who bought the mountain to create the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

There are number of areas where you can walk or climb and sit on the rocks to watch the hawks fly in, presuming the wind is out of the north and the air is warm enough to promote thermals, the air currents on which the birds coast, saving their energy for less-windy areas.

The top place, literally, is the North Lookout. To get there you climb over rocks large and small, up an incline. Over the years, there have been a lot of people walking up and down to the lookout and between the first time MH and I visited and the last time, it seems to me there was some significant erosion or rock shifting. Or maybe it was being older. Or all those people of different ages jostling us. Whatever, it was extremely difficult climbing up and more treacherous climbing down.

When we got back to the bottom I turned to MH and said, "This is the last time we go to the North Lookout."

There are other lookouts not so far up or treacherous to visit, and the South Lookout is accessible to those in wheelchairs or can't walk.
Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ (Margo D. Beller)
Here is another example: I love Cape May. If you are a birder, this is mecca. Always something to see, but especially during the spring and fall migrations.

In Autumn, many southbound migrants travel at night (to avoid diurnal raptors) and as the sun rises find themselves over Delaware Bay. At that point they turn around and fly north.

One of Cape May's best areas is Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. There are trails through fields, there is a path down to the beach and there is a dune - a very high dune.

There are some birders - all men - who go up there every year to count and note the birds passing through. One September, we visited Cape May and got up at dawn to visit Higbee. I attempted to climb to the viewing area. I got about halfway up and realized the trail was going straight up! I could not go up and going down was going to be extremely hazardous. I used the phragmites as a kind of bannister and resolved not to do that again. (There are more than enough other fine birding experiences in Cape May.)

Finally, in Dutchess County, N.Y., there is a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. It encompasses Thompson Pond and Stissing Mountain. I read about it from my old edition of the "New York Walk Book."

There are three trails and the first time we went there we took the longest of the three, the Yellow, which is nearly three miles long around the pond. It did not get as close to the pond as I would've liked and on the eastern side of pond it was wet, muddy, overgrown, uncomfortably close to the neighboring farm property where someone was using his ATV and his cattle crowded close to the fence to watch us as we made our sodden way along, slowly.

That was last year. This year, looking for something to do, I suggested we go back to Stissing Mountain and the pond, but use the other trails. The Blue trail is 0.2 miles and came much closer to the pond than the Yellow trail. We saw and heard a number of fine birds - three great blue herons, a singing yellow-throated vireo, a foraging black-throated green warbler, among them. The Blue trail brought us to the Yellow trail. We walked it until we met up with the third trail, the White, 0.8 miles. It took us into the woods, uphill, over rocks, around downed trees. Few birds.

By this time, several years on from our Hawk Mountain finale, MH's knees have gotten worse and my back isn't great. By the time we came down the Stissing Mountain ridge line we were extremely tired. It was obvious no one had bothered checking on this trail to clear the downed trees. MH and I agreed that unless we were in the area anyway there was no longer any reason to come to this spot.

The Baby Boomer generation does things. We rush out and run around and take pills to ignore the pain and pretend we are never going to age or get infirm or die. We do things our parents would not do, for whatever reason, and we refuse to think anything can stop us.

Until it does. Steep climbs, deep mud and water, downed trees to get around, lose rocks that can turn an ankle. And don't get me started about coming face to face with a bear or mountain lion or someone with bad intent. I've been lucky to avoid all three and I don't want to test my luck.

Sorry, my g-g-generation. I don't want to die before I get old.

Male downy woodpecker, Sept. 4, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
An Update

What you see here is a male downy woodpecker. As I mentioned last time, the hummingbird feeder not only has drawn rubythroated hummers but downys, which are small enough to sit on the feeder and has a small enough bill and long enough tongue to enjoy the sugar water within.

The reason I am noting this is because after my last post I came out to find one male and one female downy sitting on the feeder.

Today I came out to find one downy on the feeder itself, one at the top of the feeder pole and one hovering around, trying to decide whether it wanted to fight the first male for access.

Three sugar-addicted downy woodpeckers?

Soon enough, the hummers will be gone and so will this feeder. Next year I may have to do something else to feed the hummers.

The downys, and the others, will have to make do with the seed and suet feeders.