The Year in Raptors

Suddenly, every local Rock Dove and Starling is in the air. They swirl this way and that, creating visual confusion: which way do your eyes go? Then just as suddenly, the long tail of a Cooper’s Hawk concentrates the eye in the airborne melee. The Accipiter is hunting, surfing over the tops of buildings, jetting through the alleys between. Sunset Park, the neighborhood I look out on from up here on the top of the moraine, is the bird’s forest.

New York City is raptor country. Plate glass, rat poison, and all the vile two-legged enemies aside, this town is full of hawks and falcons.

Over the past year, I tried to keep track of the number of raptor sightings I had here. When I started thinking about doing so in late 2016, one a day was the minimal count, and I wanted to see if that could be maintained. My total of 331 is obviously just slightly less than that on average. (I spent 49 or so of the year’s 52 weeks here in the city.) Closed curtains to block the sun, combined with breeding season (half of all birds at nest), meant summer had runs of several days without a single sighting. My best single day’s count was five, a record reached half a dozen times.

A raptor a day, or almost every day, it should be said, keeps the doctor away.

Note that these aren’t necessarily separate individuals. For instance, I started noting the Peregrines atop the Industry City smokestack, the subject of an upcoming Raptor Wednesday, in late December; subsequent daily instances were all probably one of the two birds first definitely seen up there 12/24.

The species:

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius, formerly Circus cyaneus)
Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

This list is roughly in order of frequency. Only the Goshawk, a rather unusual occurrence in the city, was a solo instance (after I made multiple attempts to see it, by the way). A notable absence: the occasional winter-visting Rough-legged Hawk, but I didn’t often get to Floyd Bennett Field and other coastal areas they prefer when they’re down here. Unlike 2016, Osprey did not nest atop a light at the waterfront parking lot this year, so they were not a potential sight from my window during breeding season.

Elsewhere, trips to Virginia, Great Swamp NWR, Croton Point Park, two fall hawk watches, and Sweden (nine new species of raptor!) added substantial numbers to the grand total of 470. (The frequency of sightings in Sweden and the two hawk watches within short drives from NYC were so fast and furious I just threw up my wings and only counted species seen.)

Pictured above is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk perched in Green-Wood Cemetery, 12/17/17. Pictured below is an adult Cooper’s preening on a fire-escape a third of the way down the block, 12/26/17. Long-time followers may remember that a juvenile Cooper’s perched on the same fire-escape, at virtually the very same exact spot, in April 2017.

And we’re off to a good start for 2018: One Peregrine Monday. Two Peregrines Tuesday (one screaming bloody murder over a perched Red-tailed Hawk). Also yesterday, a male Kestrel perching on the fire-escape pictured above in the cold, cold morning, and a Cooper’s on the mid-day prowl.

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