Times of Trouble

On Sunday a couple weekends ago, I was trail stewarding at the Bull Hill Loop trail head, in Putnam County. I had to manage the table by myself early in the afternoon. I usually listen and look out for birds when I trail steward all day long in order to help the time pass, especially during visitor lulls. The number of species to add on my list dwindled to zero. I heard the same birds sing over and over – Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Brown Cowbird, etc.

Not far into the woods, a few American Crows started cawing raucously. Sometimes they caw when simply talking with one another, but their tone hinted that they were mobbing something instead. I looked up in their direction. I couldn’t see them. The cawing continued. A small moment passed. Then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared into view overhead, followed by more than a half dozen crows.

To watch a mobbing is of the most exciting events in birdwatching. It happens all year round whenever passerines (perching birds a part of the Passeriformes order, which includes songbirds, woodpeckers, corvids, etc.) gang up and attempt to kick raptors out of the area. They boisterously call and even dive at the raptor. During breeding season, eggs, nestlings, and fledglings are easy pickings for carnivorous birds. It’s fun to watch a robin chase a jay; an oriole or a kingbird closely glide above a hawk or crow; and flocks of crows, jays, and grackles harass a hawk or owl. Sometimes even vultures – carrion eaters, of all things – get mobbed. I feel bad for them.

I’ve seen so many Red-tails during my 3.75-something years as a birder. They are the most commonly observed raptor in the lower Hudson. But I picked up my bins because why not? It’s always nice to view a raptor so up close.

A couple of the crows started to sound strangled with desperation. The group frantically chased after the Red-tail, which continued to glide, delicately evading every one of its pursuers. When I put my bins on the hawk, I could see that it tightly held a young crow in its talons.

I didn’t have more than two seconds. Mobbing scenes happen rapidly. Though the young crow looked like an adolescent, a couple weeks passed its fledgling stage. Small, with fully grown plumage. And it looked alive. Calm. Knowing struggling to be futile. Waiting for its family to rescue it.

The Red-tail and the crows headed towards the river, out of sight. I could still hear the frantic cawing. Seconds later, the Red-tail appeared overhead again. Four crows trailing behind, it swiftly glided to the north. I didn’t have time to even grab my bins, but its talons appeared empty – no black blob against a light undercarriage.

The desperation stopped right after the Red-tail disappeared. The cawing lingered, sparsely piercing the air. Some of the crows stayed close to the river. Others flew away, towards the woods. One crow, clearly a sentinel, perched high in a tree a hundred feet away from the trail head, across the the road. The sentinel craned its head to and fro. A long moment passed. Two crows flew over to the sentinel. They chatted a little. And then the three headed into the woods.

The crows remained quiet for much of the afternoon.

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