This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Live from New York!



April 6, 2011, 2:06 pm

Hawk Cam | Watching Bobby and Violet

Christopher James/N.Y.U. Bobby, left, and Violet at home at N.Y.U.’s Bobst Library. Go to Live Video Stream »
Hawk Cam

Live coverage from a nest on a ledge at N.Y.U.’s Bobst Library.

Who knew the spectacle of a bird sitting on a nest could be so gripping?

Outside John Sexton’s 12th-floor president’s office at New York University, Violet the red-tailed hawk sits. She sits some more. She turns her head to the right, cleans a feather. She pecks at a twig. The breeze ruffles her head.

Violet gets up. She rolls a speckled egg ever so gently with her curved, pointed black beak. She settles back down slowly with a satisfied shimmy.

Once in a while, she tilts her head toward the camera.

Halfway across the country at a fish hatchery in Decorah, Iowa, a bald eagle has been tending her fuzzy chicks before a camera. Here in the middle of Manhattan, home to Pale Male and many fellow members of his species, there is now a hawk cam.

Its stars are Violet (named for one of the university’s colors) and her mate, Bobby (named for Bobst Library, atop which Dr. Sexton’s office sits). And in a few weeks, if all goes well, their hatchlings.

Dr. Sexton said that about nine months ago, before he caught sight of the birds, he started noticing twigs accumulating on the sandstone ledge outside his picture window. Soon they formed a nest — “A little bigger than a good-size Christmas wreath.”

Then he saw the hawks. They startled his guests. “One of them would come in to land, and it gave the effect of flying right at you at the window. I learned to warn people.”

For a while, the nest was home to only the two adults. “The question on my mind was, was this a pied-à-terre or their main house, so to speak,” Dr. Sexton said.

Emily S. Rueb/The New York Times Violet at work.

Colin Jerolmack, an assistant professor of environmental studies and sociology at N.Y.U., had noticed the hawks too. First he saw one, on the roof of another university building. Then the other flew up.

“We thought they were going to fight,” said Dr. Jerolmack, who gave the hawks their names. “Instead, they started mating.”

The hawks’ behavior has changed in recent days. They stopped leaving the nest unattended, Dr. Jerolmack said. On Saturday, shrieking, they chased off another hawk over Washington Square Park.

The reason, of course, was in the nest: three dull-white eggs, two flecked with dark patches. Dr. Sexton and others in his office say the eggs appeared around March 23 or 24.

Red-tailed hawk eggs incubate for about 30 days, yielding an expected hatch date of April 22, give or take.

On Tuesday, Dr. Sexton allowed City Room to mount a camera inside the curtains lining his window. It went live Wednesday; viewing is limited to daylight hours only, at least for now. (The hawk cam joins another city raptor feed, a peregrine falcon camera mounted outside 55 Water Street downtown.)

Life on the nest proceeds slowly. Female hawks do most of the egg-sitting; once or twice a day, Bobby, who is about a third smaller than Violet but otherwise hard to distinguish, will take over for a bit so she can stretch her legs and wings and grab herself a rat or a pigeon. For one agonizingly long moment around 6:15 p.m., the nest was left unguarded, the eggs naked to the world.

Other than that, said Bobby Horvath, a wildlife rehabilitator and hawk specialist, “you’ll see that this mother does not a heck of a lot of anything.”

This, though, is part of the charm: the chance to bear witness, in real time, to the ritual of patience that constitutes expectant motherhood on a window ledge high above Manhattan, through rain, cold and feather-disheveling winds.

“Until,” he continued, “that imminent moment when something starts happening underneath her.”

Stay tuned.

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