Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Visiting the NYC Redtailed Hawks

If I had a dollar for every time I said I was going to write more on a topic, then didn't, I think I'd be up to...well, at least a couple of bowls of noodles at my favorite Chelsea noodle shop. But when I said I was going to write about visiting Pale Male and Lola on Sunday, that time I meant it, because that was absolutely remarkable. I have the occasional "I LOVE this town" moment. I also have the occasional "Only in New York" moment (balanced of course by the odd "I HATE this #@*&in' place", gotta have the balance). However Sunday was a combination of both "Only in New York" and "I LOVE this town". Those don't usually come along simultaneously. That's pretty unusual & very special.

As you may or may not know (depending on whether you're finding this blog for the first time or not), I live in Brooklyn but I'm kittysitting for some friends who live on the Upper West Side right now. I am also absolutely revelling in Spring right now - it's been a long, cold winter.

I have certain things I always like to do when Spring rolls around. Having lived in Brooklyn for a number of years, one of those things generally includes a visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, where my 2 favorite Spring things are the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden with all the cherry trees in bloom (ooooh), and Daffodil Hill. Aaaah - the picture doesn't quite do it justice, it's just a hillside, covered with daffodils, shaded beneath a massive old oak tree - you don't see the oak tree in this one which was the only picture I could find - she's got a bunch of nice ones of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens - sadly better than anything the BBG has, their site need a little help, at least on this monitor!

Well - what with the timing of this kittysitting & a lot of other stuff I've got going on, it looks like I'm going to miss that this year. However, the location of my friends' apartment meant that what I could do much more easily than I could from home was spend Sunday afternoon in Central Park, instead. The only time I really go there any more, since Prospect Park is so much closer & just as nice & not as crowded, is for the Corporate Challenge. Being up here, though, and having a 74 degree day in which to wallow (mmmm!) I couldn't miss visiting the Conservatory Garden, which is really a gem - it's a 6-acre formal garden, and a quiet zone, very special. Yeah, I'm missing Daffodil Hill - but the Conservatory Gardens has got the most astounding daffodil beds right now, ranging from the cutest daffodils EVER, called "Minnow", to flowers the size of my opened hand. Plus there were some tulips starting to bloom, and magnolia trees, and, oh, tons of other flowers. And it's still pretty early in the season, too - these were all in one small section of the garden, the one where they focus on tulips hasn't even begun.

Having gotten enough of a daffodil fix to make up for missing Daffodil Hill, it was time to head on to fulfill my primary goal of the day - visiting Pale Male and Lola, New York's favorite redtailed hawk couple, the ones with the highly visible 5th Avenue Address, on a large cornice directly across the street from Central Park's Conservatory Water.

It's almost ridiculous - I have been following their website like a total redtail groupie ever since I watched the documentary on them last year and then there was all the sturm und drang when the knuckleheaded co-op board decided that they didn't want those nasty old raptors messing up their sidewalk with pigeon bones anymore and took the nest down and took away the pigeon spikes so that every time the poor birds tried to rebuild, the sticks they put on the cornice would just blow away. It was riveting, actually. The hawk-watchers - including some of the building residents (notably Mary Tyler Moore!) - protested vehemently, and the media picked up the story (I even heard it on NPR one morning) and after a lot of terrible publicity, the coop-op board gave in & hired an architect to design a special cradle that would keep sticks & bits of hawk dinner from falling on the sidewalk. Even after that was installed, there was no guarantee that the birds would come back - after all, they'd been trying to rebuild all along, to no avail, they could easily have just given up on it if that went on too long.

So there was the drama of "Will the cradle be up soon enough" - and then after the cradle was installed, there was some maintenance work that the building needed to do & did as quickly as they could - and then after the maintenance scaffolding was taken down, there was that long hold-your-breath period waiting to see if they'd move back in. And they did! The website has amazing photography, and one hawk-watcher or another would post observations every day, reporting the progress on the nest. I got hooked. Then they started mating flights, and then the mating flights ended when Lola began to lay her eggs, and then there was the countdown to the probable date when the eggs would hatch (the 15th of April, looks like that's probably happened now!)

In short, I was watching these guys like some people watch "Survivor".

But for all my daily visits to their website, I'd never bothered to come uptown to actually SEE them. Bizarre, yeah? I finally realized last week that the best time to rectify that silly situation would be while I was kitty sitting up here - and that's not much longer. I made my first attempt on Thursday - the boss kicked us all out of the office early because it was beautiful out, and we'd all been working really hard. It was still light out by the time I got to the building (I walked up through the park) but I must have gotten there a little too late. I saw the nest - there it was, the real thing, just like in the pictures - but no hawks in sight - and, more discouragingly, no hawk-watchers visible on the benches by the pond. I figured if they weren't there, that probably meant that there wasn't much likelihood of seeing hawks.

So on Sunday I gave it another shot.


It was the most amazing scene I found there at the model boat pond.

I could see that the hawks were up on the nest as I approached from the north.

I could also see a huge crowd of people watching them!

It's really astounding - if a pair of hawks had actually decided to select a nest site ideally suited to allowing people to observe them in a pleasant, peaceful, and enjoyable ambience, I don't think they could have done much better than this. The cornice is well above the trees along the avenue, offering people on the west side of the pond a completely unobstructed view - with shade, and benches, and model sailboats racing in the foreground.

The hawk-watchers are great - I keep referring to "the hawk-watchers" and I should explain that there really is a coterie of individuals who are completely devoted to observing these birds & have been watching them for years. These are the people who were featured in the "Pale Male" documentary that aired on national TV last fall, and then rallied to save the nest - without them, the whole story would've been a shrug of a paragraph somewhere in the back of the Metro Section, if that. They saved the nest - people like me just watched & thought "neat!".

So what they do, now that everything's ok, is come to the pond as often as they can to watch their beloved Pale Male and Lola. And they bring their high-powered birding scopes and let passers-by use them to see the hawks, and they answer questions, and they all look very happy to be doing what they are doing.

I started by asking one gentleman who had 2 telescopes set up - one for looking at the hawks, one for observing the half-moon that was up in the sky - whether there'd been any babies spotted yet - he said it was difficult to tell, they were due but even after hatching, they'd be too far down in the nest to tell. A couple were using the hawk nest telescope - as soon as they were done I asked if I could see.

And there they were. You could see every feather, and the sun glowing in their eyes...oh yes, and the dismembered pigeon that Pale Male had brought Lola for dinner. The gentleman with the scope had actually mentioned that & the woman before me had made a little "ew" noise, then said "you might not want to" & laughed when she'd finished & I asked if I could take a turn.

Well...I see absolutely NOTHING "ew" about getting to watch a beautiful redtail with gleaming eyes eating her dinner while her handsome mate stands beside her on the edge of the nest - all right there in the middle of New York City. Unbelievable.

I didn't want to hog the telescope though - so after an awestruck minute or two I stepped aside to let the next person see.

As I did so I heard the owner of the telescope say something about "monitor" to a woman with a little girl.

I had noticed that there was a big crowd of people just a little further down. Hmmm. Monitor?

I could see the hawks without a telescope - but not very well. A monitor was definitely interesting. So I went over to check it out.

Well, there's a guy with a giant telescope hooked in to a giant tv! I don't know what size but it was definitely bigger than your average living room set. He had the whole thing set up on a cart, and dozens of people were watching. If I could see every feather in the telescope - well, on this screen you could practically see every barb in every feather. I took a seat on the sidewalk in front of the monitor - it was mostly kids who were sitting, but there were a couple of grownups sitting on the ground besides me(I think they were some of the serious hawk-watchers too, and it was great, they were answering everyone's questions. A couple of the kids were a little squeamish about it, especially when Lola pulled off a really big chunk & couldn't quite swallow it & put her foot down on the bit that was sticking out, pulling it back out & tearing it into more manageable sizes (ok, that was a little icky - fascinating, though - although I was also relieved when she did, I was actually worried for a minute, she looked very uncomfortable!). Finally Pale Male looked up at the sky - and you could just see him decide it was time to fly (possibly because it didn't look like there were going to be leftovers & he still had enough daylight to go catch something for his own dinner). I was looking up at the nest when he launched himself into the air - you could hear the intake of breath from everyone there - & flew off in a northwesterly direction.

And then we all just started clapping.

What an experience for the kids that were there.

What an experience for ALL of us.

And this guy just DOES this! For people! He wasn't asking for money or anything as far as I could see, just brings this setup to the park & runs it until the batteries run out!

Of course it turned out to be Lincoln, who's the guy who does the website too. He's amazing. I'd actually emailed him to say how much I'd liked his site, once, and he'd responded, and after the batteries died shortly after Pale Male flew away & he said "Sorry, that's it for tonight" and I heard somebody say "Thanks Lincoln" I thought about introducing myself but I was a little too shy.

Amazing. Just amazing.

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