Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Parkby Marie Winn, Pantheon Books
The scene is New York's Central Park, but the rich natural history that emerges here - the loons, raccoons, woodpeckers, owls, and hundreds of visiting songbirds - will appeal to wildlife lovers everywhere. At its heart is the saga of the Fifth Avenue hawks, which begins as a love story and develops into a full-fledged mystery. At the outset of our journey we meet the… See more details below
The scene is New York's Central Park, but the rich natural history that emerges here - the loons, raccoons, woodpeckers, owls, and hundreds of visiting songbirds - will appeal to wildlife lovers everywhere. At its heart is the saga of the Fifth Avenue hawks, which begins as a love story and develops into a full-fledged mystery. At the outset of our journey we meet the Regulars, a small band of nature lovers who devote themselves to the park and its wildlife. As they watch Pale Male, a remarkable young red-tailed hawk, woo and win his first mate, they are soon transformed into addicted hawk-watchers. From a bench at the park's model-boat pond they observe the hawks building a nest in an astonishing spot - a high ledge of a Fifth Avenue building three floors above Mary Tyler Moore's apartment and across the street from Woody Allen's.
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Birders sometimes see more than twenty species of warblers at the Point, Sarah told me. But by the beginning of June the spring migration is winding down. The birds we saw that day were the stragglers--mostly first-year birds (last summer's fledglings) and females. The bright-colored males in breeding plumage had raced ahead to their breeding grounds farther north to get the choicest nesting spots, Sarah said. The females would join them a week or so later, after the males had worked out their territorial disputes.
From the Point, we walked a short distance to Willow Rock, a flat outcrop high above a peaceful lobe of the Lake. It was named for the two thick black willows growing nearby, Sarah explained. (One of them fell in a storm in 1994.) There was a small tree, almost a sapling, growing out of a crevice in the rock, near the edge. "Look at this," said Sarah. "It's a real peach tree. Maybe somebody planted a pit here." I could see dozens of unmistakable mini-peaches growing all over the little tree. They were still green--though already covered with that characteristic fuzzy down botanists call pubescence.
Willow Rock offered easy views of the same treetop activity we had seen from the Point but from a different angle, as Willow Rock is directly across from it. What a splendid opportunity this affords birdwatchers: with the sun behind them they can spend their morning hours gazing at warblers from the Point, and then do the same at Willow Rock in the afternoons.
Like many impassioned novices, I wanted to know everything all at once--the names of every plant, every bird, every part of a bird. Sarah, it was clear, did not suffer such acquisitive fools gladly."What's that tree with the bunches of red berries?" I asked--it was probably my hundredth question. "Oh, that's the bunches-of-red-berries tree," she answered with a smile. A few moments later, as we saw a black-crowned night heron land on a willow overhanging the Lake, I wondered out loud about one of the bird's most conspicuous features: "Is that called a bill or a beak?" I asked Sarah. "Yes," she answered firmly, and that was that.
Her message sank in. Don't worry about nomenclature when a bird is sitting in front of your nose. Look at it. Notice everything you can about it--its yellow-green legs, its blackish back and cap. Look at that orange eye. Later I checked out the bill vs. beak question in The Birdwatcher's Companion, a reliable reference book by Christopher Leahy. His entry for beak says: "Essentially synonymous with bill. In more restrictive usage, refers particularly to larger bills, especially the hooked beaks (or bills) of birds of prey. In general 'bill' is the preferred term in ornithological/birdwatching contexts." Yes.
Next we walked up a small incline, passing another large boulder--Warbler Rock, Sarah called it. I was growing more and more uncertain of our orientation as we veered away from the Lake and open sky and entered the deeper woods. Soon the leafy canopy was closed all around us. Even the air felt different--more carbon dioxide, I imagined.
Once in the woods, I gave up mapmaking entirely. I had completely lost my sense of direction and was too embarrassed to keep asking Sarah which way was which. In other parts of Central Park one can orient oneself by the surrounding tall buildings--the Fifth Avenue skyline is east, the twin towers of the El Dorado and the San Remo are west. But in the heart of the Ramble the city has vanished; all reminders of civilization are obscured by trees.
An illusion begins to take over: You are in an enchanted woodland. Even the park furniture seems to belong. "Sit on us," the dark green benches command. "Look at the birds, look at that flower. Stay awhile. Don't hurry or you'll miss something." The black wrought-iron lampposts no longer foreshadow the feared nightmares of Central Park in the dark. At nightfall their soft light will show owls and bats and gaudy moths attracted as if by moonlight.
We had entered a virtual maze of little paths, all unmarked, winding, twisting, taking us past ravines, waterfalls, rustic benches, scenic vistas. By then my notes had become as confusing as the Ramble itself, a jumble of bird names, people names, plant names, and samples of Sarah's botany and ornithology sound bites: "parula, magnolia, Wilson's--warblers, Ruth, George, Ira, Dave--Regulars, double-file viburnum has 2 rows of white flowers in May, Swainson's thrush has buffy eye-ring, gray-cheeked thrush doesn't, spice bush--smells good, sassafras has 3 kinds of leaves, grackles walk, crows hop."
We reached the area birdwatchers call the Swampy Pin Oak (sticklers prefer to call it the Pin Oak swamp, for there is no such tree as a swampy pin oak). Within a little grove of trees growing in a moist sumpy spot, there is one significantly larger tree right in the center, the "swampy" pin oak. That day it was hopping with a variety of small birds while the wet ground below revealed others busily poking around in the mud. Watching the action from two ringside benches were a variety of birdwatchers as well: Alice and Ira, Max and Nellie, David Monk, Sheila and Lou, Mary Birchard, Chris and Marianne, Judy--some of them, I soon learned, were Regulars, others Seasonal Migrants, birdwatchers who show up regularly only during the migration seasons.
There I learned yet another secret from Sarah. The eggs of minute aphids hatch on the leaves of pin oaks in May and June, attracting a great variety of migrating songbirds. So head for the pin oaks if you want to score heavily during spring migration.
On our way to the Azalea Pond--our last destination, said Sarah--we came to a couple of thick holly trees just to the right of the path. M. M. Graff, author of Tree Trails in Central Park, disapproved of these particular trees, accusing them of being "a gloomy black-green at best and made even more funereal by a coating of city soot." They looked shiny and handsome to me. I was even more taken with them when Sarah told me these were a favorite roosting place for owls. I kept returning to the spot over the next few weeks, hoping to find a roosting owl, until a kindly birdwatcher informed me that owls show up in Central Park only in the late fall and winter.
After turning right at the second holly tree, we found ourselves out of the deepest woods. Now the skyline of Central Park West was visible once again. Walking northward along the same path, we soon came to a grassy knoll where a small group of birdwatchers were standing in a classic pose: looking upward, watching something invisible to the naked eye. Their binoculars all pointed to the same spot in the same
tangle of wisteria vines. Sarah did not ask, "What are you looking at?" as I might have done, but maintained birders' etiquette, merely raising her own binoculars in the same
direction. It took her hardly a minute to locate the bird--a "good bird," she told me with some excitement. "A hooded warbler." A good bird? All the other birds we had seen on our walk had been just as good, as far as I was concerned.
At the edge of that little clearing was a large, rectangular granite block. "Do you hear anything coming from that block?" Sarah asked me. At first I heard nothing but the sounds of birds all around and dogs barking in the distance. Then I did hear it--a faint buzzing sound. "We call that the Humming Tombstone," Sarah said, and I immediately realized that the block did resemble a large cemetery monument. "Some birders use the sound as a hearing test. Every year they see how near they have to get before they hear the buzz."
I stepped away until I couldn't hear it, and noted the place. I still check every year to see if I hear the buzz at the same spot. So far so good.
It took me years to discover what makes the Humming Tombstone hum: a mechanism within that controls all the lights in the vicinity, turning them off in the morning and on at night. One year in the early spring I found myself at the Tombstone at sunrise. I thought I had gone deaf, for it was silent. A few moments later, at 6:00 a.m. sharp, it started to buzz.
After another few twists and turns of the path where we encountered, according to my notes, "common yellowthroat, ovenbird, three raccoon babies up a tree, Mo & Sylvia," we crossed a small rustic bridge known as (surprise) the Rustic Bridge and I began to hear a crescendo of bird sounds. We were approaching the Azalea Pond feeding station.
The Azalea Pond is a small body of water fed by the Gill, one of the Ramble's most picturesque features. This replica of a meandering stream is turned on and off by a hidden faucet. Though winter was long over, and official bird-feeding would not resume until cold weather set in, the place was still well stocked: birdseed was scattered all around, bits of bread, and some brownish lumps that looked like dry dog food. (They were.) Chunks of suet had been attached to nearby tree trunks. And birds were everywhere.
Sparrows, pigeons, cowbirds, and mourning doves were eating seeds on the bare ground in front of six scraggly bushes. These were the azaleas for which the place was named, a rather garish carmine variety called "hinode-giri," which M. M. Graff called "an offense to the eye in almost any garden setting and
a shrieking dissonance in this quiet spot."
As I took in the scene, entranced, other birds flew in and out, mainly titmice and cardinals, grabbing bits of peanuts from a sardine tin attached to the trunk of an oak. Several woodpeckers were working the suet, squirrels were racing up and down the tree trunks, trying to get at the peanuts, while a man with a shock of white hair threw sticks at them and shouted, "Go away!" After the bucolic serenity of Willow Rock and the Swampy Pin Oak, the place seemed a madhouse of activity.
Birdwatchers were everywhere too. The Azalea Pond is one of their major gathering spots, and some we had met earlier were now sitting on the benches facing the feeders. "George, Joe Richner (keeps list of birdwatchers, not birds)--white-breasted nuthatch, red-bellied woodpecker goes Chork!" read my notes.
Sarah was on her way home, but I decided to stay just a few more minutes. "I'll find my way out," I assured her, knowing it wouldn't be easy. Bill, the white-haired man who had been throwing sticks at the squirrels, was now throwing peanuts to a pair of cardinals. "Get this!" he was saying with each throw. The male was bolder and got more than the female. Joe Richner put my name on his People list. "I have four Marys and you're the second Marie," he informed me. A red-bellied woodpecker arrived and grabbed one of the cardinal's peanuts. George and Ira were talking about vitamins. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by and I was still at the Azalea Pond. Hours pass like minutes there.
A spell must have come over me in that dark, mysterious wood, for I came back the next day and the next, and never stopped coming. I still get lost in the Ramble at times, and most of the Regulars admit that they do too.
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