Swainson’s Hawk in Jersey City

On Saturday, October 24, 2015 I did what I usually do on Saturday mornings: I got up early and went for a bike ride in Liberty State Park. Early morning rides there are lovely: there are few people out and the birds are active. If I ride to Port Liberté (just south of the park) and back, it’s an even nine miles… these rides are about seeing birds, though; the bike is really just a way to cover more of the park.

My “usual” morning consists of a quick look at Mill Creek, followed by the treeline alone Audrey Zapp Drive, then a stop at the Interpretive Center, and finally on to Caven Point, Port Liberté, and then back. There are some other spots along the way that I sometimes swing by, depending on how quiet things are elsewhere. That Saturday, as is often the case, I ran into Michael Britt, who’s doing a Big Year in Hudson County. He has far more birding experience than I do and since we’re getting towards the end of the year, is focused on particular birds. Generally the birds he’s missing for his Big Year list are ones I’ve never seen anywhere, and certainly not in Hudson County. So we chatted for a minute–he told me about some odd behavior he’d just seen between an adult and juvenile Cooper’s Hawk–and then went our separate ways.

I rode to the Interpretive Center and saw the young Cooper’s Hawk take off, leaving a puff of feathers behind it (it looked like a Mockingbird). Otherwise it was quiet. I’d been looking unsuccessfully for a Vesper Sparrow for a week or so, and continued to keep a close eye on the sparrows feeding in the area around the IC. Eventually I gave up and headed for Caven Point.

Caven Point is the southernmost part of Liberty State Park and is nearly separated from it by the golf course. A paved pathway runs along the waterfront by the course, and that turns into a boardwalk that crosses Caven Creek before cutting through the golf course and ending at the Port Liberté walkway along the Hudson River–which is really more the Upper New York Bay at that point. The point itself is part of the Port Liberté development, but the inner part is a very interesting bit of Liberty State Park, combining wetland and oceanfront habitat. It’s the only place I know of in Hudson County where there is visible beaver activity; muskrats are also residents. Birds are plentiful: it’s the best place in the park to see shorebirds of all types (two American Oystercatchers hung out on the beach for most of the summer). I’ve seen large numbers of egrets, herons, and ducks in the cove, and the boardwalk areas are often teeming with warblers in spring and fall. It’s the only place in the area I’ve seen Brown Thrashers with any frequency. The trails leading to the beach are closed from spring to early fall to give beach-nesting birds a better chance of success, so for about half of the year most of the area is off-limits, but the main path through to Port Liberté is always open.

It’s also a great place to see raptors. Two winters ago, we saw a Snowy Owl perched on one of the nest boxes in the cove, and last January we had our most memorable encounter with the wintering Northern Goshawk along the Caven Point boardwalk. We had walked along the beach and were headed back when it flushed from just next to the walkway, landing in a low tree a short distance ahead of us. It then flew just a bit further to another tree and perched for several minutes before taking off. We’ve had other close raptor encounters there as well: Cooper’s Hawk, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawks. I think the relative quiet has something to do with it: compared to the rest of Liberty State Park, not many people visit Caven Point.

Getting back to October 24th, I rode straight through Caven Point, stopping only to observe a Northern Harrier hunting over the marsh. I then continued on and checked the bay at Port Liberté–there was nothing much going on there. I turned around with the intention of leaving my bike and walking the trail to the beach. As I passed through part of the golf course, I saw a raptor perched in a tree that overlooks Caven Creek. The creek fills a few ponds before emptying out into the bay and the tree overlooks where the creek meets the pond area. I approached slowly; the raptor was sitting with its back to me. It had the overall shape of a Buteo, but didn’t have the mottled white shoulder “patches” that would be visible on a Red-tailed Hawk. I started to consider the options: Red-shouldered Hawk seemed the most likely, as they’re seen semi-regularly over the winter in the area. Broad-winged Hawk also came to mind, but seeing one perched seemed unlikely; they’re not often seen in the area during migration.

I kept getting closer when a dog-walker rounded the bend and started walking on the path towards the beach with his dog. That prompted me to abandon my attempts at “stealth”–they would be walking very close to the hawk and I wanted to be as close as possible when it inevitably took off. The dog-walker, who I have chatted with before on Saturday mornings, saw me pointing my camera at the tree and asked what kind of bird it was. I gave him my current thoughts but said I really wasn’t sure yet… as we were talking, the hawk turned around, giving me a good view of the very dark malars (the lines that extend back from a bird’s chin) and solid brown on its throat. At that point, I started to wonder if it really was a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk or not, and if not, what it could be (juvenile Broad-winged? something stranger?). I continued to take photos and as soon as the dog moved from behind the phragmite “wall” we were behind and into the open near the pond, the hawk took off and landed in another tree a short way off on the golf course.

I then texted Mike–something along the lines of, “non-Red-tailed buteo, will send cell phone pic.” Before I managed to take a picture with my phone of my camera’s LCD screen, he texted that he was going to scan the bay, so I rode over. We looked at the shots on the camera and the first thing Mike said was “Swainson’s Hawk“–but then, somehow, we convinced ourselves otherwise. It just seemed too weird (Swainson’s Hawks are a western species, though they pop up with occasionally at Cape May, NJ during fall migration), and the photos of the hawk’s back looked like Red-shouldered, and it was overcast and hard to see the screen, and a hundred reasons, but at any rate, I headed home thinking it was probably a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Juvenile raptors can be tough to ID, and this was definitely a young hawk. Red-tailed Hawks don’t have red tails yet, Red-shouldered hawks don’t have any red at all, that sort of thing. So once I got home, I got out the bird books and pulled up a bunch of photos online and started to compare my bird with them. Suddenly it really didn’t look like a Red-shouldered at all… it looked like a Swainson’s. Still in disbelief, I sent photos to a hawk-watching group on Facebook, and then a hawk-ID group, and then texted them to Mike. All the feedback was the same: juvenile intermediate morph Swainson’s Hawk. By then an hour had passed and no one else had seen the hawk–my biggest regret is not immediately realizing what it was and trying to not lose sight of it, because no one was able to relocate it later on. Did it stay on the golf course for any length of time or just perch there for a few minutes before moving on? We’ll never know… It was the first record for a Swainson’s Hawk in Hudson County, and one of very few for Northern New Jersey–the only other entry on eBird is from 2014 at the Montclair Hawk Watch.

At any rate, this was an exciting raptor to see, to say the least. I’m grateful that it stayed perched for long enough for me to get decent photos of it, and that when it took off, it flew past me rather than away, so I was able to get shots of it in flight, instead of a fluffy rear-end rapidly retreating. Needless to say, I’ll continue to check Caven Point for strange raptors!

Further reading on the history of the area:

An interesting article about Caven Cove and Port Liberté is available from the National Sea Grant Library. Reclaiming filled estuarine areas through development: Port Liberté, a case study, by
David R. Draper, was presented at a conference titled Organizing for the Coast: The Coastal Society Thirteenth International Conference, held in Washington, D.C., on April 5-8, 1992.

In Spring of 1989, NJ Audubon Magazine ran an article about Liberty State Park titled Diversity is Where You Find It by Karl Anderson.