I recently went to Bethpage State Park and met with Kathy Wegman an environmental horticulturist who specializes in wildlife habitat for golf courses. We are going to a nest to see a family of red-tailed hawks which includes three fledglings, young birds that can’t fly. After looking at them for a while, Kathy asks if I mind staying here an hour. What travail!! How often do I get a chance to watch a family of red-tails with three fledglings and perhaps a dad delivering a freshly caught rodent breakfast?
In The Nest
Red-tailed hawks, otherwise known simply as red-tails and occasionally as the “hen hawk” are large at 19-inches and commonly seen. They often circle over suburban woodlands sometimes displaying their rust colored tail. They perch on poles and highway lights also making them noticeable to us. They hunt their favorite prey, small mammals like mice, from high branches.
I’m in a clump of woods with tall trees and fairways on either side. It is silent. There’s no more gunfire from the target range on the park’s periphery that we occasionally heard coming here. In the nest are three fledglings all of which have a rust colored neck and breast. Two of the fledglings are showing their sides and the third, the largest, stands up. One of the adults, that I assume is the father, flies from the nest to a tall tree on the perimeter facing the nest with its head partially covered by leaves. If I hadn’t seen it fly here I’d probably not have spotted it. The dad’s white belly has a light brown band. Large and solid looking, his movements are low key but he’s a steadfast guardian of his brood.
Out of the corner of my eye I see an adult red-tail gliding across the fairway. That 49-inch wingspan is difficult to miss. A second later another red-tail follows. The second was either in the nest or in another tree where I didn’t see it. Back at the nest, out of the corner of my eye, there’s a dark raptor flying silently through the trees. I marvel at how it navigates these tight spaces as it goes to a high branch.
Through binocs the concave area of the raptor’s eye socket seems dark and mysterious. I love looking at the eye of a raptor. The moment is filled with the power of silence. The red-tail flies off the branch going downward without even a whoosh, then flies across the fairway disappearing into the trees.
The adult is now preening as the sun goes in, its tawny breast becoming paler. It occasionally looks at me possibly out of curiosity. Periodically it turns toward the nest’s center flapping its broad white and brown wings in anticipation of flight. After the flapping ceases a small white feather floats downward. Then two others rise up as the wind changes direction. At this point something is vaguely bothering me. This bird and the other two fledglings have a tawny breast and the adult that was alone inn the tree doesn’t. Could this “adult” in the nest be a fledgling?
One of the two adults now returns landing in a tree in back and off to the side of the nest. It’s partially hidden by another branch but the rust tail is visible. Soon he’s in the low branch of a tree with an unobstructed view and significantly closer to me. He circles to a high branch in a perimeter tree where he’s got a clear look at two men driving off in a golf cart. Dad doesn’t seem bothered by me or the golfers but is dutifully vigilant.
I scan the tapestry of how the nest is tightly woven together from sticks, and thin branches. That birds have made this “basket” using just their bills and feet without the aid of hands, is a marvel. The nest appears larger than the norm of three-feet. I stop scanning when I see the eye and light eye bar of a fledgling peering over a thin branch.
After Kathy comes back, I tell her what I’ve observed. She says that she thinks that the “adult” flapping its wings might be a fledgling that is larger than the other two. When we look at my pics a day later, that is indeed the case. How many times did I mistake the mom for the dad!
I don’t know how long the fledglings will be here. Even after the young can fly they stay with the parents for some weeks until their flight ability develops. Maybe I’ll see them again. However seeing this family together, in the silence of the woods and the attention that one or both adults paid to the fledglings was more than worth the time here.
We go off with the licensed bird bander, Susan Harwood, who is going to band some tree swallow young and then put them back in their box nests. However I’m taken by the flying ability of some adults that are near the nest. They flit around, speed up and glide in the air, almost stopping. What they can do in the air makes human built aircraft look out-and-out clumsy. As we are leaving two swallows approach the nest box. One is near the hole and the other perching nearby. Parents checking on their young. They are protective and I like it. One has an insect in its bill caught on the fly. It’s for delivery to the young, who need food. I look around as golfers walk the fairways while in the woods and at this fairway’s edge, avian parents are tending to their broods. The cycle of life is where you find it.