Ravens, Still

I haven’t been getting out and about as much as I’d like. In the last month or so, I’d only seen Ravens twice. Two separate instances of a single bird.

They aren’t always together, but the Bush Terminal birds are usually seen in some kind of airborne proximity. These birds work together well in pairs and through the year. As you may know, they are very social animals. And nesting season is not too far away.

So, I was a little worried. Could only one of them have been defeat by the harshness of the city? But I shouldn’t worry based on limited intelligence. These birds have proved themselves survivors in an unlikely environment. On Saturday, I saw a report of two Ravens at Bush Terminal. On Sunday I saw two there myself. They were distant, one perched with a beakful of food on one of the warehouses, the other flying north towards it.

If these are the same birds, and it surely seems like they are, with great fidelity to Brooklyn’s coast, this will be their second breeding year here. Go to it, great corvids! Onwards, o pioneers!

Now, it so happens I went specifically to BTP to see if I could see the Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) that has been flying back and forth from there to the 59th Street Pier recently. This is a large (smaller only than the Great Black-backed) pale species that lacks the typical black wingtips of other Larus gulls. Its wings are grayish, but of such paleness it looks like a ghostly white, especially this individual. Melville would like this white.  They are birds of the far north which sometimes wandered down to our latitudes and beyond. Glaucous is from the Greek word for gleaming or silvery; Athene, who will make another appearance in a post this week , was Glaukopis, the bright-eyed one. From the shore, I saw the bird bathing and then flying south. It’s worth looking for if you haven’t seen one: they seem to carry the misty air of the Arctic with them.


Day Hawk

AccipiterHello!AccipiterAn overcast day, but from a distance a shape in a tree along the edge of Sunset Park attracts the eye.AccipiterAccipiters aren’t known for perching long. This Cooper’s stuck around long enough for me to go inside and return with my camera. My lens is better than my eyes: the gory remains of lunch are still in the bird’s grip. It’s digesting. AccipiterHere’s some of the wing of the meal. Mourning Dove, perhaps? Cooper’s are primarily bird-hunters, and, as “forest hawks” use the cover of trees to surprise their prey (unlike Peregrines, who dive from above out in the open), but also eat small to medium sized rodents. AccipiterThe russet barring on the chest is of indicative a bird who is settling into maturity. The yellowish-orange irises should darken to red as the bird sees more years.

Strix varia

A few years ago, somebody (or somebodies) came up with the idea of Superb Owl for this day of thralldom to the sports-concussion industry. Here’s one of my most superb, a Barred Owl roosting in the Bronx. You can find all my owl adventures here http://matthewwills.com/tag/owls/

Backyard and Beyond

Strix variaA hot tip from someone who wishes to remain anonymous clued me into this Barred Owl (Strix varia) located… somewhere in NYC.Strix variaI had to agree to be blindfolded before being led to the site; it was either that or ride bundled into the trunk. This close-up shows what looks like a small delicate bill, but owls actually have large, gaping mouths — the better to swallow their prey whole. Strix variaThe bird was in full sunlight, soaking up that winter warmth. Owls in daylight are often tucked away so they won’t be harassed by their legion of enemies. In fact, I looked hard into the Yews besides this owl to see if there was another. I found something completely different, which I’ll blog about tomorrow.Strix variaThis is one of my best ever views of any owl species, up there with last year’s shameless display of Snowy Owls and…

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“Two Octopi”

John Singer SargentI’ve seen a lot of John Singer Sargent’s work over the years, but never this delightfully pulsating oil painting of two octopuses of 1875 until very recently. Sargent was about 19 when he painted this, and it’s one of the first oils in his oeuvre.

Cephalopods still had a bit of mystique about them in northern Europe, where another name for them was devil fish. These were seen and painted in Brittany. Sargent, who was born in Florence, was familiar with them from the Mediterranean, and he probably also knew they were good eating. I’m afraid they are rather delicious, especially grilled a la Grecque. I’ve stopped eating them since discovering how intelligent they are.

The word octopus comes from the Greek for eight feet. Octopi therefore shouldn’t be the plural since it’s cod-, if not dog-, Latin, but that is how the picture is known. It’s evidently in a private collection. The lucky so-and-so.

Night Hawk

What do birds do at night? It’s clearly a question people find intriguing.

But you probably already know the answer even if you don’t know much about birds. Most birds are diurnal, so like most of us they sleep at night. And like us, they usually tuck themselves away somewhere safe and sound. In the deep cold, some birds will even roost together for warmth, pressed together side-by-side. Here in the city, you may have experienced passing by an ivy-covered wall or a thicket of evergreen that is absolutely howling with bird sounds near sunset: these are House Sparrows getting ready to hit the hay. They’re aren’t necessarily all pressed together in a row i this case, but they are sharing the protection of the foliage, and the protection of the group: there are more alarms to sound should trouble brew.

A night roost of hundreds of crows is a pretty spectacular sight, or should I say sound? Even after they’ve had their discussions and debates, there’s rustle and bustle. We don’t get this in the city, but I’ve seen Common Grackle after Common Grackle slip into trees at the Plaza Hotel just south of Central Park at twilight.

But not all birds roost together at night. Most probably don’t. Hawks for instance. Why, you may ask, would a fierce hawk worry about being out of sight at night? Take a look at Julie Zickefoose’s post on finding a hawk foot in an owl pellet.
AccipiterNearly two weeks ago, birder friends who live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, told me about the Accipiter roosting in their backyard. It’s been there every night since. The bird arrives about half an hour after sunset and leaves more than an hour before sunrise. AccipiterSuave hosts, they had a few of us over for “cocktails and roost” the other night.

I believe this is a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). Within just a few minutes of its arrival it becomes really quite hard to see beyond a dark shape. The first shot above was taken with the “hand-held night shot” feature. The second was actually taken earlier, with the standard PhD (Push here, dummy) feature. The tree is bare, but drooping with seed pods: it’s a Catalpa.

The backyards of a rectangle of row houses are curious conglomerations of spaces, habitats, and trees. You’re apt to find someone who feeds the sparrows and pigeons and rats in such spaces. And where there are gatherings of birds, bird-eaters are sure to appear.

A correspondent recently sent me a picture of another Accipiter in her backyard, which is also in Park Slope. This one looked like a Sharp-shinned Hawk (A. striatus). It had some very white patches on its back, which should be distinguishing. The two Accipiter species are notoriously hard to differentiate. There’s a strong sexual dimorphism in both species: females are substantially bigger than males. So, while Sharpies are generally smaller birds, the female Sharpie is as big as the male Cooper’s. Male Sharpies, on the other hand, are quite small: the length range for them starts at 1″ more than a Blue Jay. Generally, Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer woodlands while the city mostly sees Cooper’s, but these are loose rules.AccipiterThe night is full.

Another Sunset Park Elm

ulmusKnots, galls, cankers? Whatever is going on here makes for a massive bole. This is one of a pair in front of an apartment named Elmo…UlmusUlmus

Red-tailed Two

Buteo jamaicensisContinuing our primer from the other day, we now present a mature Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).Buteo jamaicensisCompared to that early sighting, this one look rather larger (even though it was higher up), making me think it was a female. Buteo jamaicensisPairs of hawks should be in the bonding and mating stage in the city now. There are a good number of Red-tails within NYC; it is a surprisingly common breeder in our parks; it’s also the species you’ll see perched along the edge of the interstate more often than not. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll see them every day. And it won’t necessarily just be in or over the big green spaces. Buteos are soaring hawks; their wide wings are particularly conducive to circling in rising air currents. I occasionally see them sweep-circling over Sunset Park’s flatlands, just as I used to see them over the Gowanus. Neither terrain suggests great hunting possibilities, but these soaring hawks are generalists. They usually go after mammals but are not above raiding that well-stocked larder of those urban chickens, the Rock Pigeons.


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