Raptors All Around: Photographing the Hawks and Falcons of Providence, R.I.

If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both

–William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness

The search for wildness in a city brings people to parks, to rivers, to little tracts of untouched forest left standing on a hill. It’s there if you look for it. It is why birders carry binoculars and why my cousin, Peter Green, carries a camera. No matter how hard people try, we can’t build cities that can keep the wilderness out.

How did you start noticing and taking pictures of birds of prey in Providence?

Shortly after moving to Providence, I pointed binoculars at a pigeon perched high on the downtown bank tower and immediately saw it was not a pigeon—it was something eating a pigeon. I looked online, identified it as a peregrine falcon, and learned how wildlife officials had installed a nest box on the building to encourage the recovery of this once-endangered species. From then on, whenever possible, I eagerly watched the falcons from my window.

I soon began to notice pigeon carcasses downtown with all of their feathers pulled out, and suspected the falcons must be hunting here, so I made sure to always have my camera with me. One day as it started to snow, I finally saw a large raptor standing on the ground in the park next to the bus station. I quickly got down in the dirt and took some of the best pictures of my life. I couldn’t believe this wild animal was right here downtown in the city. And, to my surprise, it was not a peregrine falcon—it was a red-tailed hawk. 

After that experience, I was hooked on photographing and learning more about birds, especially urban raptors.

How has this project changed how you see the city?

Well, it literally has me looking UP more often! In fact, last year I was watching a hawk instead of where I was walking and I stepped right into an uncovered manhole in the street and broke my foot. But more philosophically, I think the project has reinforced that humans can build cities and cut down forests, etc., but life always finds a way to adapt and survive. So even in this urban jungle, a peregrine falcon can feel right at home. It also amazes me that I can see more animals on my lunch break walking around the city than I do when hiking in the woods.

You photograph wildlife in the woods, too, though. Moose in Maine, owls in the woods. How is the work or the experience of wildlife photography in the wild different?

Since I’m familiar with many of the raptors that live in Providence, I know the spots to check to look for them. But when I go somewhere new, its exciting to know that any animal could appear at any time. It’s actually surprising how empty the forest usually is when I go on hikes, but if you catch a glimpse of something rare, it’s worth the trek. And if I see nothing, it’s still fun to try and enjoy the outdoors.

On your blog you mention the persistence and patience it often takes to get a shot. What is that time waiting, in a city or the woods, like?

It’s very peaceful. My job as a graphic designer keeps me at my computer all day, so it’s a constant stream of emails, work, reading and watching things online, etc. Being alone in the woods is a very welcome break and helps me connect with nature, reduce my anxiety, and just slow down altogether. Even if I don’t get any pictures, just getting out of the city is rewarding.

PeterGreen-EasternScreechOwl-600x400

How do you actually spend that time, those hours or that afternoon, waiting for a shot? Do you walk, sit quietly, think about things, or just watch trees around you? What’s going on then?

Here’s a quote I like a lot:

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”

―Robert Lynd

For example, on Saturday I drove 20 minutes to Lincoln Woods, where I’ve heard a pileated woodpecker has been hanging out. So I hiked a bit throughout the woods to the tree hole and just sat and on a boulder and waited silently. I look up, down, through the trees, trying to find any movement. And trying to “become a part of the silence.” I’ve studied the sounds a pileated woodpecker makes and I listened for them.

I like to think about how everything there would be happening even if I was not there to see it. I think about how the boulder I’m sitting on got there, the evolution of animal camouflage, etc. I see where the sun is and plan out the perfect shot if the woodpecker was to appear at the hole. After about 30 minutes I started to hike the trails of the park, quietly, and there was evidence of pileated woodpeckers on many trees—holes, missing bark, etc. (They remove bark to find insects to eat, and drill holes to roost in or nest inside of.) I stopped and waited at a few interesting tree holes for a while, and eventually made my way back to the first hole and waited some more. After two hours there, I didn’t see the pileated woodpecker, but I did see other common birds, and I saw a sharp-shinned hawk catch a robin. A small pond erupted in sound and it took me a minute to realize it was coming from frogs. It was very loud for 10 minutes, and then it stopped. I got some good pictures and video, I came home and learned about the frogs, etc. So you never know what you’ll see. But if you don’t go, you’re sure to see nothing.

How has this project changed your relationship to Providence, as a community that you’re a part of?

I’ve met so many great people through my wildlife photography—people who share my passion for animals and photography. I’ve connected with the Audubon Society, The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of RI, Born to Be Wild Nature Center, Foster Parrots and other local organizations that help animals. I give them free use of my photos for their promotional materials. After all, if they weren’t here to aid the wild animals, I would have nothing to take pictures of!

I’ve exhibited my photos at the Audubon Society and I’ve given talks there about “urban raptors.” A few times they’ve asked me to give tours to small groups of kids downtown—I show them where the falcons’ nest box is, where hawks like to hunt. I bring my iPad and show photos of the hawks and falcons in the exact spots where we’re standing.

How are Providence’s raptors doing these days?

There’s been drama with the peregrine falcons. In the 1970s and 1980s, many raptors (including bald eagles) almost went extinct due to the pesticide DDT. It made their eggshells thin, so the eggs would get crushed and no new generations were being born. After DDT was outlawed, in the 1990s many organizations started installing nest boxes in high locations that peregrines prefer, to help re-introduce and spread the population. A box was installed downtown here in 1996, and in 1999 a falcon showed up and started laying eggs. She was unbanded, so no one knows where she came from. But she stayed and raised over 30 chicks. The males changed over the years—they would fight for her and kill or displace each other. In 2012, the Audubon society installed a webcam so we could all watch the falcons raise their babies. Local classrooms love it. But this year we suddenly see that the female who is inside the box and laying eggs is banded on both ankles—so it’s not the same female we’ve had in the past. It sad that we’ll never know what happened to her, but 15 years is a good long run.


Peter’s wildlife photography can be found at Providence Raptors. His photograph are available for sale as canvas prints.

Jaime Green is a writer, host and producer of the writing podcast The Catapult, and a writing instructor at Columbia.

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