Category Archives: Hawks Online

The Hawk Walk

IMG_5709On Saturday, we headed up to Wye Marsh in Midland, Ontario (a two-hour drive from Toronto) for what’s known as a Raptor Experience (a.k.a. Walk the Hawk, or Bird Nerd’s Obsession). For months, I’ve wanted to get up close to a Red-Tailed Hawk — to feel the softness of their feathers, the power of their wings, the weight of one of these beautiful creatures on my arm.

IMG_5734With this in mind, and accompanied by a helpful guide, my husband and I enjoyed two hours of intensive learning, including a chance to feed hawks and owls some tasty takeout (i.e., delicate quail and white rats with the shape and consistency of white chocolate). Best of all was the hawk-walk — a half-hour stroll through the woods, which involved learning the proper way to adjust your arm to accomodate the movements of the bird (which wears jesses – soft leather straps around its legs, attached to a leash), how to hold the tethers, and most of all, how to enjoy the silence, the unknowable mind of this creature who now and again would rise for a big stretch, thumping the air with his enormous wings.IMG_5687

My companion was Rusty the Red-Tail, a small tiercel (male) hawk of less than two kilograms. Brian walked Casper, the ghostly Barn Owl, a quiet little guy who never “winged out” as Rusty often did.

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Rusty felt light on my arm, and after a while, he seemed like an extension of it — or perhaps I was becoming an extension of him — it’s impossible to say. His bones are light and hollow (to aid flight); his streaked and ruddy chest feathers soft to the touch, his bright eyes alert. His impervious look gives no hint of response.

No problem; Red-Tailed Hawks are not designed to be deep thinkers. Look at their far-seeing eyes (more a stare than a gaze), hooked beak, curved talons, and you see that nature selected them for the basics of survival: hunting, mating, nesting, self-defence. Your arm is a safe perch, a place to rest. In captivity, Rusty and his kind know from experience that good food comes to him from good folks like us. That, to them, is the extent of our relationship.

In truth, my tethered companion was a simple soul, a wild one with a grave look that belied his physical lightness, a creature living to the fullest his place in evolution’s wisdom. It’s left to us — bird nerds, hawk-obsessives and amateur theologians — to untangle his skein of delicacy and ferocity, beauty and power, to grasp what his existence has to say to us.

Good luck.

At the end of that beautiful walk — and time spent flying little Alice, a delightful Tawny Owl  — all I know is that the Raptor Experience was one of profound mystery. As fascinated as I am by hawks, I don’t know what to make of them. In fact, most days, I don’t know what to make of our precious natural world, as fragile and threatened as it is.

There’s so much variety in nature — size and shape, colours and incredible adaptations to earth and air and water.  Study a field guide to birds and it’s overwhelming. We live inside a swarm of extraordinary vitality, energy and life. How can we not get lost in puzzling out the fact of existence? How? Why? What? How do mere humans finish those sentences?

Yet as our walk progressed, I realized that I loved Rusty. It was nothing he did; it was just his presence, the simple gift of his energy and beauty. The warmth of it left me feeling at peace, more calm and reflective than I’d felt before we came. I felt rich with understanding of a strong, intuitive kind.

So I don’t have to know what to make of it all.

Love is enough.

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Strangers and Cities

IMG_4532The photo on the left shows one of my favourite urban nature photographers at work in North America. Without giving his name away, I’ll add that I’m a long-time admirer of his photo blog. He works for a news agency; in his spare time, he hangs out with the wild critters in New York’s Central Park.

At one time, he took spectacular shots of Pale Male, the park’s resident Red-Tailed Hawk, with what appeared to be a 14-inch astronomical telescope (dubbed the Hubble by some of the locals). His grasp of composition and use of light allow him to make art of a technically demanding kind. Have a look at http://www.palemale.com/

So I couldn’t believe my luck when on Boxing Day, I spotted the photographer at work in Central Park near Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, across from the high-end condo that houses Pale Male’s nest. He was setting up his elaborate rig to photograph PM’s mate Octavia, preening high up in a tree. Now I’m an aspiring photographer, so I thought I’d say hello, express my appreciation for his work and maybe ask him a few questions.

“Excuse me, sir?” I said.

No answer.

I tried it again. Either it was his utter concentration or the thick ear-flaps on his winter hat, but he appeared to ignore me — or not to have heard me. Before I could get too disappointed or embarrassed, I made myself look up at Octavia the Hawk as I tried to figure out how to take a photo of her contortions as she set about picking nits from her feathered hind parts. (My pathetic effort — absent huge telephoto — is on view below).

 

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And then it took hold, that unwritten law of public life in New York City: where two or more people are gathered together pointing at something, the two will morph into twenty. This phenomenon is one of urbanity’s delightful little mysteries, like a spring pond erupting with tadpoles.

 
No one’s shy in New York City (including this ex-New Yorker who resides in the quiet precincts of Toronto). A gentleman — a Manhattan resident — asked me what I was looking at, and I did my Tour Guide imitation with my store of Hawks 101 factoids: “Now that’s a Red-Tailed Hawk, she lives in the park with her mate. If you’ll step over to the right, you can see her red tail-feathers; that’s how you know she’s an adult,” etc.

 
I got right into it, repeating variations on the same spiel to everyone who asked a question, adding that the man a few feet up ahead was a famous blogger who didn’t want to be disturbed. It was as if my imagination had free reign, inventing characters for a story, and in the process turning strangers into friends and a preoccupied soul into a Midtown Michaelangelo.

 
It’s well known that New York’s the home of the extrovert, a cradle of spontaneous events. For just a moment, people connect, and when the moment passes, the joy of connection holds the imagination and lingers like a fragrance in the air.

 
Toronto’s not like that. It has its own peculiar gift of shyness and secrets.

 
When we returned home, we went birding at a park in the city’s west end (I’m not naming it for a reason, as you’ll see below). On that day, there were few birds to be seen.

 
As we got in the car and were about to leave, someone tapped on the window, a park regular who my husband had run into on another occasion. He’d found a Saw-whet Owl, he explained, and he asked if we’d like to see it. Saw-whets are tiny brown-and-white flecked creatures, only about 20 cm in height, difficult to see in their shadowy evergreen perches.

 
We followed him into the woods. It felt mysterious to me — a tap on the window, a stranger beckoning, a walk down a hidden path. Who was this guy, anyway, and why had he picked us?

 
It turns out that he was looking for folks who’d know better than to attract a mob to the spot, who’d not frighten the owl. He left us to observe it, leaving as quickly as he came.

 
Whenever we’d hear a crowd trampling down the main path, we’d clear out until they passed, then return to the hidden spot.There the owl sat on its branch, aware of us, a small and compact package of life, watching, lowering its eyes.

 

My first view of a tiny Saw-whet was a gift from a stranger, given in silence and thoughtfulness. In its reticence, it was pure Toronto.

 

The photo is mine. We watched the owl in solitude and awe, and then we left.

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Kiku’s Journey (II)

Dear reader, I hope you’ll bear with so few photos in this blog entry. Permissions are hard to come by. One photographer declined my request; another couldn’t be located. However I’ll provide links to their wonderful photos. (Once you click on, you may have to scroll down past text). I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

With the young Red Tailed Hawks airborne at last, the hawk-watchers of New York’s Washington Square Park (including those of us online) thought the excitement was over. Parents Bobby and Rosie got to work teaching their three fledglings hunting and flying skills — they boot the “kids” out by late August — but one of the young’uns was out for adventure a whole lot sooner than that.

In mid-July, a new juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk showed up in the park. The bird wore a band reading “NJ30” in yellow letters on a blue background. Some hawk-watchers made inquiries and discovered that the young hawk had been banded about thirteeen miles (20 km) away in New Jersey as part of a project to track bird strikes on airplanes. It was then taken sixty miles (100 km) south and released — only to head north, straight for Washington Square Park. It made sense to conclude that the young hawk was one of Bobby and Rosie’s brood, an adventurous juvenile who’d taken a day trip, had a misadventure, and remembered where home and safety was. Had she not been one of the juvies, she would have continued south as migrating season approaches. Had she been an intruder, Bobby and Rosie would have kicked her out of the park.

Kiku the Hawk visits a police car on her first day out of the nest. (Photo: Staceykaye)

Kiku the Hawk visits a police car on her first day out of the nest. (Photo: Staceykaye)

We surmised that the fledgling was Kiku, the brave and aggressive oldest sibling — the big eater who once snatched a (small) rodent from her mother and swallowed it whole; first to fledge live online with a hair-raising street-stroll downtown and a visit to a police car; first to cross the Hudson twice and live to tell the tale. Now, for her short time left as a young hawk on her parents’ turf, the banded kid had come home to resume her snatch-and-grab apprenticeship, yanking a dead pigeon from Bobby, knocking him off a branch and eating it herself — practice for life as a bird of prey, all of it “supervised” by dutiful parents.

Then a week ago, the unexpected happened. The alleged Kiku challenged mama Rosie with a threatening shriek, and Rosie went on the attack to defend her turf. (The event was documented by blogger roger_paw in a series of startling photos). The two went talon-to-talon, until Rosie finally bested the kid who lost her balance, took a tumble and ended up humbled and roosting outside the park. It was a wild and stunning defence of turf, one which occasioned a few anxious comments online. Was “the kid” really one of “ours” if she picked a fight with mom? Or was this to be expected? It’s late August anyway, time for the juvies to hit the road, right?

Right. The hawks always end up doing something wondrous, strange or gruesome that makes you shake your head in puzzlement. Kiku’s homing instinct is only one jaw-dropping example. This battle royal was another.

Only we’re tempted to imagine that they’re “like us,” when they’re not at all! Look at the Red-Tail’s instinct for parenting, this powerful empathic bond we share with them. Yet draw closer, and you feel what’s wild and unknowable about these creatures who hunt and kill and rip rats apart, then shove the guts into hungry young mouths. It’s easy to ask all the wrong questions, hoping not to taint the benign with the savage, hoping to understand wild creatures, the mystery that’s coded in their genes.

Hmmm.

It’s easy to forget that hawks (like all wild critters) function in a realm of awareness unknown to us. When lost, they find their way home; with superb eyesight, they hunt for food in order to feed their young. All descriptive language applied to them (primitive behaviour, killing machines, survival of the fittest, loving parenthood, tender solicitude) is ours, not theirs. They are utterly Other, one of nature’s generous gifts, one that inspires contemplation, humility and no small dose of wonder. Each spring and summer, we online chatters are privileged observers of their remarkable world, one that is woven of relationships — theirs to each other and ours to them, haunted by what poet bpNichol described as “between each other and some other other.”

The hawks teach us to live life in awe, to honour and respect what we will never understand, to experience gratitude for enduring mystery. Bravo to gutsy Kiku, Rosie, Bobby and the other hawks for being just what they are.

Thanks to all this season’s bloggers and chatters — and to NYU — for this opportunity to experience so many transcendent moments.

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Kiku’s Journey

Kiku the Hawk visits a police car on her first day out of the nest. (Photo: Staceykaye)

Kiku the Hawk visits a police car on her first day out of the nest. (Photo: Staceykaye)

Everything flows, nothing abides. Heraclitus said it all for a trio of baby New York hawks in their nest on the twelfth floor of NYU’s Bobst Library, just outside the president’s office. Wise words also for our band of hawk enthusiasts who’ve gathered around our computers for the past six weeks, playing hookey from work and other nuisances, observing parents Bobbie and Rosie and their second brood. All of us were aware that the pleasures of home and infancy were about to end for these fascinating creatures.

Sure enough, Kiku, the oldest, fledged Friday morning — lifted her wings, flew from the nest and landed on a ledge a few stories below. Adventures followed. Poor Kiku took off again, landing, confused, on a busy street in the Village, then on top of a police car, attracting a crowd of local paparazzi. She was protected by patient Bruce Yolton, the videographer on the ground, who kept the crowd away from her while streaming his live feed of the event to over two hundred followers. He kept explaining that she was like a kid who’d left the nursery, a bit lost and disoriented, but she’d figure out what to do. After many anxious moments (including her tenuous grip on scaffolding and a visit to a UPS truck), Kiku found her way to a higher ledge and safety.  A city hawk, she understands buildings, but has yet to learn about trees or to grasp the dangers of downtown traffic. One of our more knowledgeable members has reassured us that her parents are watching, that they’re giving her space to find her own way in her new abode, that after this series of adventures, she will never return to the nest again.

Life’s like that! While very young, Kiku (now fifty days old) was the object of much good-natured ribbing in the chat room for her voracious eating habits (she once snatched a live rat from her mom and swallowed it whole), and for picking on Judson, the baby of the group. Yet alone on her ledge after her first solo flight, she seemed distinct in her solitary beauty. She’d become a mystery feathered in awe, an intelligent and graceful creature who, by summer’s end, will pass out of our lives — along with her two soon-to-fledge siblings Archie and Judson.

The chat room doesn’t go on forever, either. Many of us have acknowledged that the kindly company we keep online has touched us as much as the beauty of the hawks. As the weeks have passed, there’s been a generous spirit, an affectionate cheering on of the little raptors (who could hardly be conscious of our presence), and it’s this that has often touched my heart — never more than today, as the first of our “babies” leave home with the love of hundreds of online friends.

Yes, our imaginative chatter is often sheer projection. We put words into the mouths of birds and enrich our own vocabulary with silly puns (“Starbeaks” is one of my favourites). Yet our chat also heralds a shift of consciousness, one aided by the Internet and its power to draw us — and the natural world — together. Our passion for hawks can’t be explained away. Some things in life are too mysterious to explain, and life is full of simple wonders. It happened that I stumbled upon the chat room in frustration, stuck visiting the New York Times website because they’d stopped sending me email headlines. That’s how I found last year’s hatchlings, Boo and Scout. I’d never watched birds before and I was smitten. Such is the ordinary gift of grace.

When I first saw Kiku outside the nest, I understood that she now belonged to the mystery of her own life and not to our wishes for her, however benign. When someone mentioned that she’d left home, falconer John Blakeman replied that her home was now the entire park. This is literally true, but as a metaphor, it grasps the truth that we humans and raptors are creatures of a larger and more mysterious reality than our solitary selves. We live by connection. We online viewers have woven a nest that mirrors the nest we’ve been observing. Like the hawks’ nest, ours will soon become dormant until next season. Yet in this simple metaphor, we are connected to each other and to the hawks, and it is in this bond that we abide.

These fledge days are transcendent, both a wild ride and a beautiful rite of passage for us all.

Good flying and godspeed, Kiku, Archie, and Judson.

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View the fledge videos at http://new.livestream.com/urbanhawks/wspfledgeday2013/videos/20226930

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I will be spreading my own wings next Tuesday for a “fledgling” trip to China. Back in two weeks!

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Does Ezra Have A Tender Heart?

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I’ve been watching a short video on YouTube, made by a fellow blogger at Hawks and The City. Shot last week, it features a family of red-tailed hawks in their nest at Cornell University in upstate New York. It’s raining, and Big Red (the mother hawk in the foreground) is brooding over her newly-hatched young, which are out of camera range. Pressed up against her is her mate Ezra, who, we’re told, was sitting on the nest and then came over to shield Big Red and her eyasses from the hail and rain. For three minutes and sixteen seconds, we see the tail view of Big Red pressed up against Ezra. His eyes move about; her dark feathers glisten in the rain. That’s it.

The tableau has a soundtrack, the rock song “Starting To Rain Again.” At first that seemed like a weird juxtaposition — but on second thought, the match felt right: the tender behaviour of predatory birds and the rock lyrics with their undercurrent of tenderness. In fact, it’s quite moving. I don’t know why — I’d like to explore my reaction. Am I being silly or does the music only underscore the fact that Ezra has a tender heart? Are hawks evolving into predatory softies or have I caught the avian version of Online Cute Cat Syndrome?

Having studied theology, I know that most people have trouble talking about good and evil in the animal world, given the freighted meaning of those human words. Big raptors show parental affection and solicitude; they also kill and eat small mammals and less powerful birds. Because they lack language and a developed moral consciousness, we don’t assign virtue or guilt to their behaviour. This is appropriate, but I’m not convinced that we should draw an absolute distinction between the nature of their actions and our own. From my own observations, it makes intuitive sense to think of tenderness — or cruelty — as a spectrum of behaviour, in which all animals, including ourselves, participate.

On the other hand, we’ve all been taught that humans act out of a complex set of good or bad motivations, while animals act out of instinct. The classical Judeo-Christian take on the world allows us superiority and a moral edge, despite having eaten the forbidden fruit of Eden and needing a saviour to tidy things up. According to this narrative, good and evil came into the world with humankind. Animals are outside this moral realm. Our friends the hawks can “behave like beasts” but they can never be good. That’s reserved for us, along with grace, salvation, etc.

Poor Ezra. Nice try.

Yet evidence now points to the fact that creation is a work in progress. We learn this from the study of evolution, from its counterpart in process theology, from hanging out in nest-watch chat rooms, from loving our kids and each other. Online and off, we’re magnetized by the presence of life abounding, by the obvious goodness of creation, by a sense of mystery and wonder that never grows old — and that embraced this universe long before our species came along.

Does Ezra have a tender heart? He may not know it, but yes, he does. He has take-’em-out talons, too, but that doesn’t bump his slight gesture from the vast spectrum of instinctive self-giving that keeps this world alive. In his brief moments of protecting Big Red, he showed himself to be a true expression of nature’s generosity, of a gift much larger than himself. Whatever else may be true, I’m awed that Ezra did what he did. So rock on, raptors, and let it rain — avian or human, there’s no such thing as too much love.

Watch the video “Ezra Protects Big Red At Cornell” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xajeASw80kU

 

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The Hawks’ Gift

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(photo: WingedThings)

Spring’s back, and so are those cute little bobble-headed hawk chicks — properly called eyasses — and their parents, Bobbie and Rosie Red-Tail, the pride of New York City’s Washington Square Park.

And so is sorrow.

Yesterday, I wondered if the third of three chicks would make it out of his/her shell as promptly as the first two. It did. Little Judson (named for Judson Memorial Church, where its parents mated on the cross) squiggled out into the nest, joining siblings Kiku (whose name honours a late member of the online chatroom) and Archie (for the famed Washington Square Arch). Terminal cuteness all around; virtual champagne and cigars and congrats to the parents from a raft of virtual aunts and uncles. On my wall is posted a birth announcement, provided by a chat member when Kiku hatched last Friday.

Two hours after little Judson poked his way into the world, two bombs exploded on Boylston Street in Boston, disrupting the marathon and claiming three lives, including that of an eight year-old child. In the chat room, the conversation had become agitated, and this was when I realized that something dreadful had happened.

Many of us worried about friends in Boston while we eyed the nestlings. Since the hawks’ turf is in downtown Manhattan, memories of 9/11 began to surface in the online chat. As our fear and dread scrolled by to the right of the screen, the webcam continued to show fluffballs Kiku, Archie and Judson — the oldest only three days old — tussling, squawking and grabbing for food. In innocence, they carried on, the image of solace in the midst of grief and pain — Bobby Hawk bringing fresh rodent meat; Rosie putting the “kids” down for a nap under her enormous cape of feathers. As we tried to unravel the tragedy in Boston, we would pause to look at them, to observe Rosie’s patience and to enjoy those three tiny packages of life.

It’s not surprising that hundreds of people love watching hawks and their nestlings online. These big raptors rescue us from narcissism because they have absolutely nothing to say about the human condition. In the face of our sufferings, they eat, sleep, romp, make love and catch rodents. They invite us to ooh and ahh, to laugh and cry, to receive the gifts that life has to offer. They bring us hope in sorrow. They are nature’s sign of goodness in the world.

Visit Bobby, Rosie and family at http://www.livestream.com/nyu_hawkcam

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