Gyrfalcons, Golden Eagles + = Winter Birds of the Short-Grass Prairie

Bird Notes: We are just back from South Dakota and this Newsletter is replete with photos of the birds and landscapes we saw in the "Swinged Cat State." Meanwhile, our Central Park walks continue on Sunday mornings at 9:30am, meeting at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe.

Two tenderfoots made their way west last week to South Dakota in order to photograph overwintering raptors in the national grasslands in the central part of that state. The weather was mild (mostly in the 30s for the high) and very little snow - perhaps an unusual winter for South Dakota. Forest service people there told us that in some years in winter, raptors (90% of which are Rough-legged Hawks) will perch on every other telephone pole. Here they feed mostly on voles (Microtus spp.). Others such as Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons and Gyrfalcons enjoy the abundant Ring-necked Pheasants (introduced for hunting), and "Prairie Grouse" = mixed flocks of Greater Prairie Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse as well as deer carcasses, etc. We were lucky: we found at least nine raptor species in a week. We learned that some species such as Rough-legged Hawks were incredibly wary at the approach even of a car, and would fly from their perch when we were 100+ yards away! We have not seen such wariness in any raptor in the NYC area especially if we stay in our vehicle and drive slowly. On the other hand in South Dakota, raptors such as Gyrfalcon, Golden Eagle and Ferruginous Hawk, especially if the individual was a first-winter bird, could be approached to 25 yards or so, and sometimes closer. Deborah Allen's photos tell the story...enjoy.

In this week's Historical Notes we present information about raptors in the NYC area from circa 1875 to 1930:

  1. Describes the status of the Golden Eagle in 1878 in the Hudson Highlands north of NYC (and note a bit of confusion in the article between young Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles).

  2. A March 1922 summary article on raptors in Central Park including American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons and nesting Eastern Screech-owls. Note the absence of Red-tailed Hawks, and the confusion of sharp-shinned hawks with kestrels - but overall an article with great observations that was published in the New York Times

  3. The occurrence of the Turkey Vulture in Flushing, Queens in August 1885 while the author was Woodcock hunting...and the mention of a Black Vulture at Sandy Hook (New Jersey).

South Dakota: Ft. Pierre National Grasslands near Pierre in early February 2020:

The dry (short-grass) prairie with rolling hills + raptors perched on fence posts and telephone poles.

South Dakota: Ft. Pierre National Grasslands: habitat of Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks (winter), Richardson's Prairie Merlin, Gyrfalcon (winter) + Pronghorn Antelope and Prairie Dogs.

Good! Bird Walks for mid-late February (+ Early March)

All Walks @ $10/person - All walks in Central Park

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here

  1. Sunday, 16 February 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive

  2. Sunday, 23 February 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive

  3. Sunday, 1 March 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive

Gyrfalcon (first-winter, grey morph) in flight by Deborah Allen on 8 February 2020

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through mid-March 2020. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!

Please note that on SATURDAYS we may meet at other locations than Central Park. For example, on 21 December (Saturday) we will be at NYBG in the keep an eye on the Saturday schedule: we might also have no Saturday walks on some weekends in December-January.

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is ( If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.

Rough-legged Hawk (age: first-winter) in flight by Deborah Allen

Fort Pierre National Grasslands of South Dakota on 4 February 2020

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Sunday, 2 February 2020 (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am):

You could simply read last week's summary for today, and just add: "there were fewer birds." Is anyone reading this? The summary is from two weeks ago...time marches on!

Anyway, Deborah's list can tell the story much better than any words from me:

Deborah's list of birds from Sunday, 2 February 2020

Female Northern Harrier by Deborah Allen in the Fort Pierre National Grasslands of South Dakota on 4 February 2020


The Golden Eagle in the Hudson Highlands [1878]. This splendid bird, which was formerly quite characteristic of this wild mountainous region, is now becoming quite scarce. It was formerly known to nest upon the cliffs on the west side of the Hudson, north of West Point; and it is still a problem whether at least one pair do not still breed there.

I have never been able to discover any nest, though I have carefully examined each of the three principal ledges lying between West Point and Cornwall; but these cliffs are so vast and inaccessible, that it is impossible to examine them satisfactorily from either top or bottom, even with the aid of a good glass. As I have seldom undertaken these fatiguing excursions during their breeding season, I have not ascertained the fact of their presence there at that season; but in winter I have occasionally seen a single individual flying near the top of the mountains.

Several years ago, a Golden Eagle was shot opposite those cliffs by a farmer at Cold Spring, while in the act of destroying a goose belonging to the farmer.

A few days since, through the kindness of my friends. Professor Egbert Donald and Mr. Sanford R. Knapp, of Peekskill, I examined a finely mounted specimen of this Eagle, in the possession of the latter gentleman. It was in the plumage of the young male (the basal two-thirds of the tail being white), and measured seventy-eight inches in expanse. It was shot by a farmer three miles east of Peekskill, on the 16th of November, 1877. A third specimen was taken in the Palisades of the Lower Hudson in October, 1875. This was a fine adult specimen. The sportsman who shot it said that " he saw it in a tree over his head, and killed it with a charge of No. 9 shot."

I have seen this Eagle on several occasions, but never in summer. In March, 1876, two Golden Eagles were found in a certain spot in Putnam County for several weeks, but I did not succeed in shooting them. In April, 1872, I saw one twice, whose tail was all white, save a narrow terminal bar of black.

An aged hunter, Mr. William LeForge, positively asserts that Eagles nest upon the cliffs north of West Point. In support of this statement, he related to me, in substance, the following circumstance: A few years ago, (about ten?) on the occasion of the death of an old man, who lived the life of a hermit, near the summit of a mountain between "Cro's Nest” and "Storm King," the remains had to be carried down to the foot of the mountain to the river. On their way down the company (conducted by LeForge) halted at the foot of a ledge, where their attention was attracted to the "hissing" of some young Eagles on the rocks above them.

Edgar A. Mearns, Highland Falls, N.Y.

Rough-legged Hawk (female; light morph) by Deborah Allen on 4 February 2020

Bird Bandits in Central Park. 19 March 1922. Few people know that any predatory birds infest Central Park. They may see them occasionally, but they know them not for what they are, and so the feathered bandits go quietly about their nefarious trade with no fear of interruption. "Oh, see that dear little swallow playing with those pigeons!" I heard a mother exclaim to her son one afternoon near a western exit from the great playground. The "dear little swallow" which had attracted this woman's attention was a vagrant sharp-shinned hawk [American Kestrel? Peregrine], which made a swoop at peanut-crammed pigeons on a lawn. Missing its quarry, the falcon flung up into the air and scaled to the top of a broken pine near the main driveway.

On this eerie perched his mate, a much larger female hawk, and, looking closely at her, I noticed she was standing on the corpse of a small bird, from which every little while, she would tear a shred. She made no sound when the male approached after his unsuccessful, "stoop," yet her glance said plainly enough, "Pigeons are too quick. Why don't you stick to a diet of sparrows?"

And this particular pair of sharp-shins [American Kestrels!] made things hot for the sparrows and starlings that lived in that locality. They roosted by night in the architectural convolutions beneath the cornice of a hotel apartment house on Central Park West. On several occasions I saw them scaling up to this donjon [castle] keep, carrying their prey, though this did seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, in that the housetops thereabouts bear a plentiful crop of sparrows.

Another pair of sharp-shins [American Kestrels] spent most of the month of October in the woods of the "Ramble," no doubt devouring many an unwary migrant, as well as those sturdy alien rogues, which we have with us perennially. The aerie of these falcons was a lofty apartment house on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventy-first Street. From a ledge near the summit of this building, the little rascals would peer forth as from a beetling cliff, hundreds of feet above the stream of automobiles below. Often I noticed them darting down into Central Park, and heartily hoped that they might strike English Sparrows, but leave the song birds in peace.

Young Golden Eagle at Ft. Pierre National Grasslands (South Dakota) on 4 February 2020

Still another hawk of this species lived for some days last Fall in the cornice decorations of the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, where I make no doubt that he feasted royally on the sparrows. I saw him sidle right up to one bird on the foot of an electric sign, seizing him as easily as the setter that snaps the fly that alights on the tip of his nose in dog days. In many parts of the city, these hawks were to be seen during the migration last Fall, and within a few weeks we shall have them with us again, but they are always most numerous in the park and along the avenues and either flank.

Their more gayly tinted cousins, the sparrow hawks too [here he is definitely describing American Kestrels], make a rendezvous of Central Park during the migrations. They have the same habit of perching under the cornices of very lofty buildings, and they leave only when the humbler birds of the area have left the region for Southern climes. Like most falcons they accompany the migration, and help preserve the balance set by nature. Occasionally one sees larger hawks cross Central Park but they do not linger there as do the sharp-shins and sparrow hawks. Only one of these bigger fellows invades the park on plunder bent, and this is the duck hawk, or peregrine falcon, a truly formidable bird. A few pairs of these true falcons still nest along the Palisades, and once in a while, one of them dashes across the Hudson to the Park in quest of prey. Twice this year I positively identified this hawk flying from our woods in the direction of New Jersey. In all probability he had come in quest of pigeons of which he is extremely fond. It is a peregrine falcon which made such a stir this Fall by attacking the pigeons which roost in the steeple of a Fifth Avenue church.

Young Bald Eagle at Ft. Pierre National Grasslands (South Dakota) on 4 February 2020

The goldfish of Central Park certainly lead the most calm, uneventful lives, yet twice a year they have felt their bit of excitement during the migrations. Then it is that Ceryle alcyon, our Belted Kingfisher, springs his rattle over the park lagoons, and pounces on the unwary golden carp. The kingfisher, however, seems to wander into our park only by rare mistake, and seldom lingers there for any length of time. On the 15th of last September, a Northern Shrike sat like a robber on a lofty Tulip tree in the park. Nobody seems to notice these, "butcher birds," during the migrations, owing to their plain grey and white of their plumage and their quiet ways. They will bear watching, nevertheless, for more bloodthirsty creatures then they do not levy toll on the thousands of feathered mites that swarm along the vast area of migration. The guardians of Central Park spend much time on "tree dentistry," filling the accessible cavities with cement to prolong the life of the trees. But little "scops asio," our common Screech Owl, finds plenty of holes to creep into, despite these sylvan dentists. He sometimes perches on a stunted tree in the yard of an apartment house on East Eighty-seventh Street, and joins his melancholy quaver with that of the local cats.

Rough-legged Hawk (dark morph) at Ft. Pierre National Grasslands (South Dakota) on 6 February 2020

Only a week ago, I saw two screech owls perched in a tree directly over the heads of the pedestrians near the Metropolitan Museum. Nobody seemed to notice these birds, and they remained undisturbed for hours. There is something peculiarly tramp-like in the appearance of an owl by daylight. Those half-closed slits of eyes have a sinister look about them; those ear-tufts, though not truly auricular appendages, appear to listen covertly, and everything says plainly enough that the bird knows that it is a mere vagrant from the realm of darkness. Several screech-owls live throughout the year in the northern part of the park, where there are plenty of hollows in the big trees.

By dusk, no doubt, the wanderer was flitting moth-like over the woods of New Jersey, for he would never stay with us. But during the night, our resident screech-owls doubtless prey upon the small birds of the park, and also, it is to be hoped, on the mice and rats, which are getting all too common there.

And so, even to the most casual observer, it is evident that our warblers and other tiny passers, en route for the Carolinas, or northward bound on the wings of Spring, are not safe, even in Central Park. They are always in danger of, "the arrow that flieth by day," and that is the sharp-shin or his like; and of the "pestilence that walketh in the darkness, and that is none other than quiet, little "scops asio."

Henry Marion Hall

Rough-legged Hawk (light morph) at Ft. Pierre National Grasslands (South Dakota) on 6 February 2020


While woodcock shooting on August 2, 1885, at Flushing, Long Island, N. Y., a turkey buzzard (C. aura) flew over me, with the graceful motion characteristic of that bird. I tried him with No. 8 shot, but the small loads were powerless and the only effect was to make him soar somewhat higher. I have never before seen the bird on Long Island, though stragglers have frequently been reported. I have in my collection a specimen of the black vulture (C. atratus) killed at Sandy Hook some years ago.


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

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South Dakota: Ft. Pierre National Grasslands near Pierre in early February 2020

Pronghorn Antelopes (male on left; female right) at Ft. Pierre National Grasslands (South Dakota) on 8 February 2020

#GoldenEagle #RoughleggedHawk #Gyrfalcon #RaptorsofSouthDakota