Two Hawk Walk

19 Feb

Ever been to Times Square?


It’s the crossroads of the world, where Broadway crosses 7th Avenue, the intersection of commerce, art and technology, home to the famous New Year’s Eve ball and the TKTS booth and one of the most iconic locations in New York City. The next time you’re there, staring into the pulsing rivers of neon, standing on that tiny piece of asphalt as taxis and people whip by in a tidal flow, crane your neck back, gawk at the enormous buildings all around and try picturing Times Square as it once was; a farm.


This isn’t a trick that’s difficult only in Times Square. It’s easy to forget that New York was once a wild place. But if you pay close attention and do a little research, it’s easy to spot vestiges of our wild past. Spring Street was, yes, named for a spring. The ridge in Bay Ridge is actually a glacial moraine. And if you’ve ever wondered why city roofs are so often punctuated by water tanks, that’s nature, too.

Roosevelt Island Trams

Sometimes nature comes barging in, demanding to be recognized. The short, tragic lives of Hal the coyote and Sludgie the whale remind us that New York can still be a dangerous place. But other feral friends, much like their human counterparts, slip in and make themselves at home. They often serve as harbingers of a healthier environment, like the Harbor’s population of seals, some of whom enjoy swimming up the Hudson (itself a natural phenom, technically being a fjord that has tides and brackish water). And sometimes they’re just pure comic relief.

East River Boats

But then there’s the celebrities.

Who hasn’t heard of Pale Male & Lola? The pair of red-tailed hawks have chosen a prime piece of real estate, on 5th Avenue overlooking Central Park, to call their own (and they live rent-free) where they’ve happily raised successive broods of pigeon-eradicating birds of prey to the delight of the City’s birders and tabloids. But, just in case you need more, there’s a PBS special, and a wonderful book, and one for your kids or nieces and nephews, this website, and this website.

Or, if you’re in the city, you could just go for a walk.

Sutton Place Medusa

That’s what Isaac and I did on Sunday, and boy were we lucky. We managed to start and end our walk with, what were probably, sightings of two members of Pale Male & Lola’s happy family.

Sutton Square Rabbit

I wanted to walk from the Upper East Side down to the Lower East Side, so we took the train to 86th Street, grabbed a bite and headed for the East River. But just behind Asphalt Green on East End Avenue, we were stopped in our tracks by a flurry of feathers. I looked around trying to discern where they were coming from and spotted a red-tailed hawk up in a tree about 10 feet away hunkered down over a pigeon.

Red-Tailed Hawk, Feasting

The hawk stared at us for one moment then went back to plucking his feathery treat. We stood and watched for at least five minutes, possibly more. As I snapped away, the hawk would look up every now and then, as if he were posing. It was exhilarating. Even in the country I’ve never been that close to a hawk. They’re huge.

Red-Tailed Hawk, Feasting

Despite the glorious 60° weather, breathtaking architecture, flurry of river traffic and endless parade of dogs, everything after that hawk was a bit of a let down. We were forced off the river by the UN and decided to walk down to Trader Joe’s in Union Square as I’d had the brilliant idea of making paninis for dinner.

Nature Rolls In, The UN

But alas. The line to check out started at the entrance and snaked all the way around the store. No way. I don’t care how cheap TJ’s food is. There’s no way I’m standing in line for over an hour for it. We’re well enough suited for money to pay a premium to not waste time. So we hoofed it up 14th Street to the Greenmarket.

Roosevelt Island Sanitarium

And there, wouldn’t you know it, as we were passing through the park, was another hawk. He was shuffling around in the grass looking aimless and shifty. I pulled out my camera, he took off and landed in a tree, silhouetted perfectly against the setting sun. These hawks, they sure know how to vamp it up for the camera!

Union Square Hawk

And so, with two hawk sightings under our belt we set off to Garden of Eden for some tangy goat cheese and paper thin slices of Jamon Serrano. I layered the meat and cheese on a loaf of Yianni’s amazing bread with baby arugula, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes for me (none for Isaac). I set the sandwiches in a pan under a foil-wrapped brick and then I committed a cardinal sin. I walked away.

Precarious Perch, Tudor City

A few minutes later I smelled burning. I ran into the kitchen, which was full of acrid smoke to see my beautiful, lovingly crafted sandwiches burnt to blackened slabs of coal. Isaac was, as ever, kind about the situation. He gamely told me to flip them over anyway, they’d still be delicious, so I did. And they were. To a point.

East 29th Street Horse

I know a burnt sandwich isn’t the end of the world, but after such a perfect day, a perfect sandwich, the world’s most perfect food, would have been, well, perfection. But I learned a valuable lesson that is easy to forget.

Panini B.C. (Before Charring)

Nature will do as nature wants to do, whether that is sending a tornado through one’s backyard of singeing an unguarded sandwich.

Which leads me to ask: What’s the most important lesson you’ve ever been taught by nature?


22 Responses to “Two Hawk Walk”

  1. Julie February 20, 2008 at 12:13 am #

    I remember reading a Vanity Fair article several years ago about the efforts to stop Pale Male and Lola from nesting on the 5th Ave building (for some reason not all the human residents of the building were happy with the situation) and the ensuing pubic outcry that eventually resulted in a special nesting box being built for the birds on the building. Good story.

    I occasionally see large hawks in the park where I take my dog every morning. They really are magnificent looking birds.

  2. Toni February 20, 2008 at 1:07 am #

    Thanks for taking me on a walk with you, Ann. When I lived in Manhattan, I used to walk from the upper west side down to around Gramercy Park. But in those days I didn’t have a camera!

    When I lived in New Mexico, Mother Nature seemed to organize everyone’s lives. Shortly after I moved there from Manhattan, my husband and I decided to see a movie in Albuquerque. We drove into town a little early as we had some shopping to do. When we came out of the store, there were huge, fat snowflakes falling on the windshield of the car. “We’d better go home”, he said. “But what about the movie?” “No. We’d better go home now.” I confess I turned grumpy. I wasn’t used to my life being dictated by a few fat snowflakes.

    We got home and turned on the evening news. Sure enough, I-40, which was the freeway we took to get home, was closed unless you had snow tires or chains. That was a seminal lesson for me. Don’t try to fight Mother Nature. It doesn’t matter where you live, she’s bigger than you are!

  3. shelley February 20, 2008 at 9:35 am #

    What an exciting outing! The one with the pigeon looks particularly large.

    Lesson learned? A semi-burnt panini at hand is worth two perfect ones in the bush.

  4. Lisa (Homesick Texan) February 20, 2008 at 11:30 am #

    I’m so meh about Trader Joe’s. I read the ingredients on a lot of their products and found glutamates and HFCS. Blech. As for nature–one time I stubbornly insisted on driving from Chicago to Iowa in a white-out blizzard because I just had to get home because I had “important” things to do. When I realized that I was the only car left on the road and I couldn’t see a thing, I decided stopping and spending the night at a motel wasn’t such a bad idea–things could wait.

  5. Ellen February 20, 2008 at 12:05 pm #

    I’ve lived a lot of places, including New Zealand and an island in the Arctic. So I was trying to think which was the most important lesson. I’m coming down on the side of December in Fairbanks. It was cold (often down to -40) and the snow was like feathers. I could just purse my lips and blow it off the car. After being plugged in at night, the car still had to run for twenty minutes before it was warm enough to use the headlights.

    And we needed the headlights, because there was little daylight. I knew that the sun would come up late morning and go down in early afternoon (though the dawn and the twilight were long and often beautiful). What I didn’t expect was that the sunlight never fell down on me; the sun was always low. It came up over the Alaska range to the south, just skimmed the peaks, and then dropped again. I would watch the news and see the reporters with shadows from an overhead sun and marvel.

    But what fascinated me the most was the sense, the visceral sense of being tipped out to the universe. Our little part of the planet was aimed in a direction I was unused to. The long nights, with stars and whirling northern lights, oriented me away from the sun as the centerpiece of our lives and taught me that we are just as much in the universe as in the solar system in a way that my bones recognized.

  6. michelle February 20, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    i *love* the going-for-a-walk posts. why don’t i ever go on walks like this? i’m not sure.

    best lesson learned about nature: you can’t predict the actions of the white whale.

  7. French Laundry At Home February 20, 2008 at 6:45 pm #

    Best lesson learned from nature? Category 5 = get. the. fuck. out. of. there.

  8. Christina February 21, 2008 at 12:10 am #

    We seem to have a common lesson here: nature wins. I find it hopeful that nature always wins–somehow another that means that this planet has a fighting chance against us.

    I loved, loved, loved the hawk pictures. Awesome.

  9. Terry B February 21, 2008 at 12:12 am #

    First, Ann, what I learned from reading this post is that I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really think I was born in New York and kidnapped away to the Midwest as an infant. Such pangs of longing when you do posts like this.

    And what I learned from nature? It’s great in small doses. Kind of a palate cleanser to reenergize before heading back to the city. Slightly misquoting Fran Liebowitz here from her book Metropolitan Life, “The out of doors is what one must pass through to get from one’s apartment building into a cab.”

    Seriously, though, we’re often spotting hawks in Chicago, and late one night, driving through a quiet neighborhood, I watched a coyote cross the street in front of me. Very, very cool.

  10. EM Prentiss February 21, 2008 at 8:10 am #

    I’d like to point that your website is exceedingly low vision unfriendly.

    Orange may be hip but it lack sufficient contrast, although I have to say the font size on your comment posting is excellent! better than the text.

    To be honest I’m not going to spend my time copying the site to Word to change all the orange to black text.

  11. ann February 21, 2008 at 8:30 am #

    Julie — Yeah, they chose quit the place! So many celebrities live in that building already. I love hawks. Have you ever noticed how they like to sit on the teeny tinyiest twig at the tippy toppiest of trees? That cracks me up. They’re trying to sit there and look dignified and scary, but the wind buffets them too and fro. It’s so funny.

    Toni — You’re welcome! Oooh, that’s a good lesson. I learned a little bit about that in Colorado. The weather is so different out there. Getting home in one piece is always more important than a movie!

    Shelley — I read your comment at work yesterday just as I was sipping my first cup of coffee. I very nearly snarfed it. Thanks so much for the giggle :-)

    Lisa — Damn woman! You were quite the headstrong young lady I would say! I’m glad sense came over you :-) And yeah, TJs, I feel the same way. So much hype, not so much delivery.

    Ellen — Wow. Thank you so much for sharing. That’s a powerful, thoughtful piece of writing. You’ve given me much to think about. Thank you!

    Michelle — Lol. Well said.

    Carol — Truer words may never have been spoken! lol.

    Christina — That’s an excellent point, and I feel exactly the same way. It comforts me to know that she’ll always get the better of me. I like that.

    Terry — You were meant to live here!! But Chicago’s cool too. It’s a temporary exile. I looooooove that Fran Lebowitz quote. She’s so cool. But I don’t 100% agree with her, obviously! I remember you telling me about Chicago’s Peregrine Falcons. I’d say that’s almost cooler than Red-Tailed Hawks. They sure are faster, that’s for sure!

    EM Prentiss — I’m sorry you find the site so hard to read. I never took the “readability” into consideration when I chose this template two years ago. I will take your comments into consideration if and when I ever chose to undertake a redesign.

  12. Robin February 21, 2008 at 4:43 pm #

    Ann, this has got to be my favorite post of yours (and it doesn’t even have a recipe!) Considering my last time getting close to Times Square was after a play this winter (and I was running from the crowds as fast as I could) it’s so refreshing to learn about the once-greenness of the place. I loved seeing the hawk so close in your photos! We see them every once in while down in here in Princeton, but I’ve never been that close!!

    Ok, I’m off to follow all your links and learn even more!! THANKS!

  13. Kevin February 22, 2008 at 12:08 am #

    Sad to say that no, I have not been. Not even to NY. Not even the state. Not even the eastern half of the N.A. continent. How sad.

    Most important lesson taught by nature…hm. My eyelashes freezer together if I go for a walk when it’s -37C. It’s true. -34, no go. -37, frozen.

  14. Michelle February 22, 2008 at 10:34 am #

    2 hawks! Amazing…

  15. Will B February 22, 2008 at 4:43 pm #

    Lesson learned: “Keep one wing in the sunshine and you can’t go wrong.” (I was a corporate pilot in a past life…)

  16. ann February 24, 2008 at 11:43 am #

    Robin – Awh gee shucks, thanks! I loved writing it. Your experience in Times Square is usually mine too, but every now and then I get a moment of stillness, which is nice.

    Kevin — Now that is very important information to have under one’s belt! Thanks so much for sharing. And come visit, I bet you’d probably like it.

    Michelle – My thoughts exactly.

    Will B — Oh, that’s a good one too! Maybe some day you can explain to me what all those weird whirrings and pressure changes that happen during flight are that freak me out so much!

  17. Virginia February 25, 2008 at 7:06 am #

    Ann, you may have to bring your camera out here: There’s a report of a bald eagle nesting in a woods near the golf course. Have you ever though of doing a book of these photos? The one of the leg in the window is arresting–is he coming? is he going?

    Best nature moment: Cross-country skiing across Squam Lake, back in the days when global warming didn’t leave patches of open water in winter.

  18. ann February 26, 2008 at 7:40 am #

    Hi Virginia! — I love bald eagles. It’s my favorite game to play when taking the train Upstate to visit my folks. There’s more than a dozen nesting pairs in the trees along the Hudson. But I’d still come for a visit with an eagle as an excuse ;-) Speaking of frozen lakes (and I do agree, cross-country skiing over them is magnificent) did you see this?

    Oh, and I just remembered that I never told the story of the leg in the window photo. Not only was that guy, a carpenter I think, hanging out of a window somewhere on the 4th or 5th floor, the building he is in is one in Tudor City that backs onto the FDR, so he was actually about 6 or 8 floors up! That’s chutzpah. Here’s another view.

  19. Rob March 14, 2008 at 6:50 am #

    I love discovering the nature intertwined with our lives here in NYC. When I get depressed about our disregard for the environment, I think about comedian George Carlin’s diatribe on the earth and the environment, entitled “The Planet Is Fine”. Here’s an excerpt (it doesn’t read nearly as funny as his delivery):

    “We’re so self-important. So self-important. Everybody’s going to save something now. “Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails.” And the greatest arrogance of all: save the planet. What? Are these f**king people kidding me? Save the planet, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven’t learned how to care for one another, we’re gonna save the f**king planet?

    [ … ] The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are f**ked. Compared to the people, the planet is doing great. Been here four and a half billion years. Did you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years. We’ve been here, what, a hundred thousand? Maybe two hundred thousand? And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion. And we have the CONCEIT to think that somehow we’re a threat? That somehow we’re gonna put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that’s just a-floatin’ around the sun?

    The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worlwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet…the planet…the planet isn’t going anywhere. WE ARE!

    We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little styrofoam. Maybe. A little styrofoam. The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance. [ .. ] “

  20. ann March 14, 2008 at 7:44 am #

    Rob — Hi! Thanks so much for stopping by! I love (LOVE!) that Carlin rant. It’s absolutely brilliant. Thanks for writing such a wonderful site by the way. It’s essential reading for me and for so many other!

  21. carolom May 4, 2008 at 1:30 am #

    Hi there Ann

    Your blog entry came up in my blog entry as possibly of interest (wordpress are really into creating connections!).

    So I called by and sure did enjoy seeing your city…

    Perhaps you might like to call by and have a look at our walk today!

    Nature will indeed do what Nature will do…

    Adelaide- South Australia

    PS Who were the traditional owners of the land that became New York City area prior to colonisation ?

  22. ann May 4, 2008 at 4:19 pm #

    Carolom — Hi! I do like that new feature, don’t you? I love (lovelovelove) your picture series of the pelicans! How awesome are they? As to NYC, I believe it was a tribe of Native Americans called the Lenape that lived here before the Europeans came. There’s a famous story of the island being bought from them for $24… The first unfair real estate transaction in a chain of millions that have fueled our crazy city.

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