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Boulder Predator Spotted in New York City

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Weightless, I spiral on unseen currents, loftily, without effort I leave the earth behind on a soft breeze absorbing the kissing sun up here blanketed from all sound save the soft flutter of my feathers. I oversee the earth, the continuous struggle for perspective and position, knowing my place-- alone, and uninhibited, I choose my direction and remain aloft as long as it suits me. I, the hawk, free as air define my days, gliding unnoticed, dreamlike through broad loops, my shadow lost in the landscape...I, THE HAWK (c) Charles Albano,1998.

I was startled by a large Red Tailed Hawk while hiking on Boulder's Sage Trail yesterday. I groped for my camera to take this shot as the graceful bird ascended from the marsh...

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The Graceful Bird Ascended from the Marsh

Soon I noticed another smaller mate waiting above. They circled and dodged about each other in an aerial tango...

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Two Hawks Dancing

The experience set me off to find out about this hawk. The tale eventually lead me to New York City's Central Park...

-This hawk's scientific name is Buteo jamaicensis. The genus Buteo is from the Latin buteo (broad rounded wings). The specific label jamaicensis is named for Jamaica, the country, and from the Latin ensis (which means belonging to a place). This refers to the range of the hawk, extending from Alaska to the West Indies. The Buteos are the largest of the hawks. They are the broad-winged, broad-tailed soaring hawks that are more readily seen because of their habit of circling high in the air or perching in dead trees or on telephone poles along the road.

-According to A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors, red tails are North Americas largest Buteos. They grow to 17-22 inches (45-55 cm) long wth a wingspan of 43-56 inches (110-141 cm) and a weight of 710-1550 grams (18-53 oz).

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Red-tail at the Fowler Trailhead

-A red-tailed hawk's eyesight is eight times more powerful than a human's eyesight. This allows the hawk to notice any slight movements from prey while soaring at high altitudes. They can spot a mouse from a distance of one mile. Red-tailed hawks have large brow ridges over their eyes. The ridge acts like a visor or a baseball cap to keep the sun out of their eyes when they hunt. They have upper and lower eye lids just like humans. They also have a third eyelid that slides in from the side and is clear. This nictitating membrane protects the bird from injury while going down into long grasses to grab prey.

-Red-tailed hawks establish permanent, life-long pair bonds. The courtship rituals that have been observed often involve the male and female soaring high into the air and then circling one another in concentric spirals until they are nearly touching. Often times, both of the birds will grasp each others talons at the pinnacle of their ascent and then spiral towards the ground in a circular dive. As with most raptors, the female is nearly 1/3 larger than the male (called reverse size dimorphic) and more aggressive.

-Red-tailed hawks consume a wide variety of prey, feeding primarily on rodents. They also prey on larger mammals, like rabbits and squirrels, in addition to reptiles, birds, insects, amphibians and fish. Red-tailed hawks will even attack rattlesnakes.

-Red-tailed hawks are widespread across North America, ranging from Alaska to Panama, including islands of the Caribbean. Since the Red-tail is so successful in its ability to adapt to diversity in habitat, geography, and diet, it is especially well-positioned to survive ecological disasters. In addition,

by virtue of its relatively low position on food chains, the red-tail was spared by the devastating population declines many other raptors suffered in the pesticide era. Further, its ability to adapt to human-modified habitats, and its general lack of interference with human interests, together with its tolerance for climatic extremes... probably equip it, as much as any raptor could be equipped, to withstand the challenges of a changing planet. (Synder & Synder 2006)

Unlike many other species of raptors, the red-tailed hawk has been doing well in recent decades; its range has been expanding and its population increasing.

-As an example of its adaptive success, one red-tailed hawk named Pale Male has been stalking Manhattan since 1993. This red-tailed hawk chose life in the Big Apple and founded a 25 hawk dynasty on the ledge of a swanky high-rise overlooking Central Park despite being evicted once in 2004 for messing up the sidewalk.

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Photo: nyc-architecture.com

Pale Male and his mates and offspring are documented in PBS' Nature and various books and articles including Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City. Is it is possible that the red-tailed hawk will be an evolutionary winner as the earth warms and the environment changes? After all, "If he can make it there, he'll make it anywhere"

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Photo: nyc-architecture.com