Friday, April 6, 2012

Meet Alba and Matias

Also, last year and almost at the same time that 'Pip', the star baby hawk in NYC, was getting ready to fledge, a pair of Harris hawks was dutifully nursing its two chicks at the top of a white cedar tree (Cuppresus lusitanica) in a park in Mexico City.
From my roof garden (some areas of the park are visible) I sighted with my scopes two white-grey little bodies moving about in their nest. Earlier I had been observing the female (formel) hawk - named "Alba" by me - and the male (tiercel) that I named "Matias" (Mathew). Both were flying back and forth to the cedar (nest) tree, most probably taking food to their young.

Two eyases (hawk chicks) peering out of their nest in a tall white cedar tree
I ran to the park and from a side street down below took some shots of the nest, of course not as close up as I would have wanted, but close enough to notice the two  eyases.
In one of the high buildings on the east side of the park, a friend's office is facing both the hawks' favorite 'perch tree' and the 'nest' tree so I was fortunate to catch a better glimpse of what was happening and began taking shots of the amazing hawk family at their nest and in other trees nearby.

Adult Harris hawk (possibly Matias) atop 'perch' tree

Nest tree. The two young hawks are standing at edge of nest and exploring nearby branches. 
I first met Alba and Matias a few years ago in my roof garden. A sudden silence and absence of songbirds at their feeders caught my attention. I gasped when I saw one of the large birds perched on our neighbor's barbed wire fence.  I immediately thought they came for food (songbirds, small doves, a squirrel perhaps), or maybe to stalk my two cats taking a calm nap on the warm cement floor, completely unaware of the winged visitors... Whatever, I must admit they scared me a bit because they were so big; I thought they were eagles, but then I recalled that eagles are much larger and have feathered legs. I did some research and found these are called Harris hawks, also known as Bay-winged hawks, parabuteo unicinctus.

Harris hawks visiting our roof garden for the first time in 2005. Female on barbed wire. Male's head visible on left side with cacti pots.

The Harris hawk inhabits arid areas of southwestern United States and the northern more arid states of Mexico and for several years has been sighted in some Mexico City parks. It is long-legged, long-tailed, wings appear paddle-shaped in flight and have rufous thighs and shoulder patches and white tail coverts, and as most birds of prey the female is considerably larger. They also have a distinctive white band across the tip of their tail feathers.
Their wingspan can measure more than a meter, 102-133 centimeters, (40 to 52 inches). Although plummage (and size) in juveniles and adults is similar, the juveniles show pale streaking on head and neck, whereas adults' heads, body and greater upperwing coverts are dark brown. *Peterson Field Guides: Hawks of North America 
When bred in captivity they are widely used in falconry, particularly in Mexico.
Perhaps Alba and Matias, and other urban adult pairs that now inhabit some of our city parks managed to escape captivity or were bought ilegally and were later freed, or escaped...a mystery.
In any case, unlike cities as New York and Philadelphia where it is common to see Red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, peregrine falcons and other diurnal and nocturnal raptors living in or near parks, plus a lot of people raving about them (aka 'hawk watching madness'); here in Mexico City people are still a bit wary of our local hawks. Some actually believe they may attack children or small dogs. 
As far as I know there is not one documented case of a Harris hawk attacking a child or dog, not even a cat in this area. However, I do remind people at the park who have a Chihuahua, a very small dog or puppy to always keep them leashed, and never unattended.
What do these urban hawks attack and eat?  Mostly pigeons, pigeon eggs or chicks, small birds, rats, mice, and squirrels, even lizards. In the wild their prey is mostly small mammals like hares, rabbits, etc.
One of their hunting features is they are very effective working in teams, stalking and raiding their prey, and can spend hours doing this.

Young Harris observing possible prey

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