Great Horned Owl Returns to the Ramble
Part II of A Train to Raptors: Northern Central Park

A Train to Raptors, Birding in Harlem and Washington Heights

About two weeks ago, James (blogs at, who I had met briefly while watching the C.P.S Red-tails last summer, viewed one of the Great Horned Owl fly outs with me and a small group of birders.  After the fly out, a few of us were able to follow the owl to a tree overlooking the lake. As we sat on a bench watching the owl, James talked about his experiences hawk watching in Harlem and Washington Heights. 

His tales of Red-tails and other raptors in Harlem seemed like a tall tale at first.  But I soon began to understand that he really had studied the raptors of Harlem, learning who was who, discovering field markings of individuals and had studied his neighborhood very well. I gave James my email address that evening but didn't hear from him again. I didn't get his email address so I couldn't contact him.

I kept thinking about James and Harlem though.  One of the questions the very urban behavior of the C.P.S. hawks raised for me last year was, could Red-tails become as urban as American Kestrels?  If a Red-tail Hawk learns to feed on pigeons roosting below a water tower above a Starbucks, chooses to build a nest 35 stories high, and even roosts on a 60 story office building, where will this end up?

By coincidence, Ben (blogs at wrote me that he had discovered my blog.  Ben, one of the best hawk watchers I've met, had also watched the C.P.S. Red-tails last summer.  Somehow, James name came up as we discussed hawks, and it turned out that Ben had gone birding in Harlem with James on the M.L.K. holiday.  So, I asked Ben, if he would please ask James, if I could come along the next time they went hawk watching in Harlem. Very quickly, a Saturday, 1-28-06, bird watching trip was organized.

I arrived at 10 am at James' apartment, which is near the 145th Street A subway train station. Before I had my coat off, I was told to quickly look out the living room window, which faces south.  On the top of a distant housing project was an American Kestrel (10:05 am). 


Soon a Red-Tailed Hawk landed nearby (10:10 am), only to incite the Kestrel.


So, by 10:10 am, I had seen more than I had hoped for in Harlem.  Soon thereafter, a young Cooper's hawk quickly flew past. At 10:35 am we had another Red-tailed hawk going towards the buildings at City College.




So, we have an American Kestrel, a Cooper's Hawk and two Red-tails all without leaving James' apartment building!

North Manhattan has a string of parks in the center that almost connect from the tip of Central Park's NW edge up to Manhattan's northern tip.  Morningside Park (110th-123rd Street), St. Nicholas Park (127th-141th Street), Jackie Robinson Park (145th-155th), and Highbridge Park (155th to a few blocks above 192nd).  Except for Highbridge Park, these strips of green are in the center of the Manhattan island away from the rivers and are about a block wide.  (These parks each have a steep vertical drop.  I suspect that the difficulty of building on these sharp inclines, rather than thoughtful city planning are why we have these parks today.)


Ben had birded with James in St. Nicholas Park before, so on Saturday for a change of pace we went north.  While walking north along the top edge of Jackie Robinson Park, we soon had a Red-tailed Hawk far in the east (11:16 am).  Then we had another American Kestrel (11:17 am), perched on an antenna with Yankee Stadium in the background. 


The Kestrel reappeared after catching something and ate it atop what looked to be a barb-wired fence.


Moments later a Red-tailed Hawk lands on an abandoned school, to the South East (11:23 am).


Having reached the end of Jackie Robinson Park, we do a little jog and we're at Highbridge Park.  The park has an abandoned staircase that was once part of the entrance to the Polo Grounds, home to three baseball teams, New York Giants (NL) 1911-1957; New York Yankees (AL) 1913-1922; New York Mets (NL) 1962-1963.

As we descend the steps,


we spot an adult Cooper's Hawk (11:45 am).


Soon the Cooper's flies south.


As we walk along the neglected park, I can only wish that the wealth of the Central Park Conservancy could somehow also adopt these little green strips and return them to the glory of years past. Northern Manhattan deserve parks without crack pipes, weeds and broken glass.

While walking north, we walk under the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Washington Bridge.  Across the river over the Bronx, we see another Red-Tailed Hawk (12:10 pm).


We then make our way through a little crack den, up back to Amsterdam Avenue.  Back on city streets, we walk south and then go west along 178th Street in search of lunch.  This is the southern edge of the Cross Bronx Expressway.

When we get near Audubon Avenue (yes, Audubon Avenue) across the highway on 179th we spot a pair of American Kestrels (12:32 pm) on a cell phone installation on top of a small three story building.  And yet another Red-tail passes overhead.  We walk closer to the Kestrels.




We then stopped for lunch on Broadway after finding a small restaurant.  I know I'm not in midtown when the menu is in Spanish, with the English translation in tiny type.  But I really know I'm not in midtown, when our check is $26 for three people.

After lunch, which took forever to come, we went off to the George Washington Bridge.  Ben spots three Turkey Vultures (2:20 pm) over the Palisades, our fourth raptor of the day.  It was a crystal clear day and you could see up and down the river. 

I'm not so good about heights, the bridge shakes, and there were lots of speeding bikes, so I was prepared to turn back. But James, you know these urban pioneers, fearlessly walks out past the first tower and motions for me to come out.  Atop the first tower is a Peregrine Falcon, our fifth raptor of the day (2:26 pm).

Five raptors for a $2 subway ride.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday. 

But the day's not over, James and Ben want to show me St. Nicholas Park.  I agree but also request that we run down to Central Park, so I can try and photograph an Eastern Screech-Owl at dusk. So, we take a short ride on the A train to 145th, pick up our stuff at James' place and head out to St. Nicholas Park. 

Soon after we arrive, we spot a Kestrel (3:37 pm),

and then a Red-tailed Hawk (3:38 pm), who the Kestrel chases.


Soon the Kestrel looses interest in the chase and the Red-tailed soars in our direction.  Being at the top of St. Nicholas Park gives me a perfect angle to take pictures.






Finally, the Red-tailed Hawk lands on a City College building (3:40 pm).  Then, we rush out of the park, so we can get to Central Park before dusk.  I've left out a few details, but James showed me via a five hour walk through Harlem and Washington Heights, that Northern Manhattan is just full of urban raptors.  Thanks, James.  It will be interesting to see what happens this spring and summer!

Our list for the day was:
DATE: Saturday, 28 January 2006
LOCATION: Harlem - 130th to 188th St. (Jackie Robinson Park, Highbridge Park, G.W. Bridge, St. Nicholas Park)

  • Turkey Vulture - 3 over Palisades in NJ seen from G.W. Bridge
  • Cooper's Hawk - 2 individuals: 1 sub-adult seen just S. of 145th St. & 1 adult at S. end of Highbridge Park
  • Red-tailed Hawk - 5+ along length of walk
  • American Kestrel - 4 individuals: 1 male harassing a RT SE of 145th, 1 female feeding near Jackie Robinson Park & a pair perched on a building E. of the G.W. Bridge
  • Peregrine Falcon - 1 perched on W. face of E. tower on G.W. Bridge
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Mourning Dove
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • European Starling
  • Chipping Sparrow - Several in St. Nicholas Park
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Common Grackle
  • House Sparrow