“He really was an enchanting person. In some way he was like the spiritual father of everybody…. It is hard to imagine Central Park without Charles Kennedy.” Marie Winn, author of Red-tails in Love, and close friend of Charles, remembering him after his death in October 2004

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In Which We Hail Hawks and Conjure Owls

The great Red-tailed Hawk, Pale Male, is having his day in the celluloid sun, as well he should. The first weekend of showings in NYC went very well. Hurray for Pale Male, Frederic Lilien, and all the ‘hawkoholics’!! “The Legend of Pale Male” will have another week in The Big Apple and then on to San Francisco, Boston, San Diego and beyond!

And… for many of us, cold weather is owl weather.  Deb and I took a late afternoon walk today, across the main road and into Cherry Creek State Park, ‘our park’. As we approached the woodland trail we voiced our ramped-up anticipation, “Good time to see owls…”

We strode into the spinney as the sun painted the leafless trees with a sepia cast before it fell behind the Front Range. It was easy to fall into an altered state of consciousness.  Memories. Connections. Magic?
When my brothers and I were small, Uncle Charles bought us all of the A.A. Milne books. I have two next to me now. Some of my fondest early memories are of curling up in Charles’s lap to hear him read The House at Pooh Corner and When Were Very Young in his most expressive thespian voice. It was easy to picture Pooh and Piglet, Eeyore and Owl (or “WOL” as he spelled it) frolicking in the Hundred Acre Wood. Later, Charles would come back to Iowa from New York when I was 10ish to lead the neighborhood kids on naturalist expeditions through the Bever Park Woods and waist-deep into Indian Creek.

And many times, just like today, being in our local Hundred Acre Wood, we feel certain that Charles must be present, just behind the next tree, picking up ‘haycorns’ for Piglet or pausing to listen for an owl’s call...
In Charles’s photo-essay book about owls (soon to be published!) he has a poetic photo-essay about Long-Eared Owls, a species in search of which he and his friends spent many cold Central Park nights. Along the way, they developed a micro-cosmology of owling, containing such important elements as belief and serendipity. From Charles’s book:
Lee and Noreen and I developed a rule. It allowed us to believe in ourselves and believe in owls. 
         Rule: If you think you saw it, you did.
 And from Central Park In The Dark, by Marie Winn:
 If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Our little band of night explorers––Charles, Lee, Noreen, Jimmy, and I––adopted this unprincipled philosophy as soon as the screech owls arrived in the park…We wandered the park at random, looking for owls.
…One warm, clear February day Charles struck pay dirt. As he was trying to locate a noisy woodpecker drumming somewhere near Warbler Rock, his binoculars lighted on a little screech owl sunning itself at the entrance of a cavity about fifteen feet up in a black locust. The bird was perfectly camouflaged, detectable only by sheer serendipity––Charles’s specialty.
 Deb was the owl whisperer today. Well back in the woods, in muted light, she stopped abruptly, beckoning me with swift hand action. We were sure she had spotted a Long-eared in a tree not far from the trail. We had no binocs, so we needed a closer look to make sure. So we did what Charles would do: We bushwhacked stealthily through low bushes and thistle patches toward the tree. And… we found a perfectly owl-shaped jumble of sticks, perhaps remnants of an old nest. 

Not a setback––a good omen. So I hooted the “Who are you?! You too?!” of the Great Horned Owl a few times for good measure and we walked on down the path––for about twenty paces. Deb stopped again, this time crouching and pointing back into the woods and up…to an actual Great Horned Owl. The sun was gone, but it had set ablaze all the trees to our west in its screaming orange-and-magenta wake.

In that scene I flashed on the plaque that adorns Charles’s memorial bench in his Hundred Acre Wood—the Ramble in Central Park. The plaque features one of his haiku:
empy milkweed pods
weeks since a butterfly
maybe there’ll be owls

Past the Great Horned and nearing the edge of the woods, Deb and I took stock of our walk: Gulls, geese, chickadees, pheasants, magpies, flickers, two kinds of sparrows, juncos, a close encounter with a large white-tail buck at dusk, and a brace of coyote sopranos singing a forlorn duet up the far draw.  

On the home stretch I remembered a poem, which was the genesis of this post.  I wrote the piece ten days after Charles's death––right after an early-morning birding jaunt to Cherry Creek, when I had burst into the house, on auto-pilot, and had gone straight to the phone to dial Charles's number. 

Last Rite of Autumn 
October 30, 2004

on mornings like this
I would phone Charles…

describe my park’s sunrise
made of October grasses
crows and sparrows and pink clouds
on freshly powdered mountains…

and hear an echo
about a hawk family pulling pigeons
from an oak and maple blaze,
about the dusky gift of owls
on diminished days in his park…

we’d then declare our shared love
of autumn
as it cast its soft spotlight
on our fortunate lives

Friday, November 26, 2010

Film Fun and Gratitude

I am sooooo grateful to my niece, Jill, for her surpassing hospitality for the past week. She has taken good care of her old uncle and she has lent a valuable hand with the film opening. As we enjoyed the Thanksgiving dinner she prepared yesterday I couldn't help but think about how Charles's legacy is being picked up and carried by this special young woman. So good. So good.

We are about to dash to the train and rumble into Manhattan to do one more round of 'film hawking' at the Angelika Film Center. Wednesday's opening was delightful––so many old friends and some great new ones met. So, now you get the synopsis of why of all of this is so important to me, but even more so, why all it was so important to Charles, who after all, is the star of this website. I humbly offer you my introduction to Charles's book, Pale Male and Family:


     It was a fine and defining obsession. The story of Charles Kennedy’s relationship with Pale Male is one of devotion, wonder, and joy—along with a helping of “flying envy.” It also is the story of a unique extended family.
     When he died in October 2004, Charles left a substantial body of unpublished photo-essay books and haiku poetry focused on the natural world of Central Park in New York City. Charles took thousands of pictures of Pale Male and his hawk family. Charles personally crafted the core of Pale Male and Family as a photo-essay homage to the nesting Red-tailed Hawk Charles variously referred to as “Central Park’s CEO,” “The Boss Hawk,” and “His Guyness: Pale Male.” Had Charles published this collection himself, he would have provided introductory notes and perhaps even some of his illuminating field notes. My job here is to offer at least some of what Charles would have wanted you to know, all of which comes unabashedly through the filter of my immense admiration.

Fortune Smiles 
     Charles reveled in serendipity, so three bits of “coincidence beyond mere chance” must be shared.   
     One: After his arrival in New York City in 1960, Charles spent as much time as possible in Central Park, watching birds and studying nature. But in early 1994 he received an inheritance that enabled him to buy the camera equipment of his dreams and spend as much time as he wished in the Park.
     Two: Around that time, the New York City birding community was abuzz about a rare find—a Red-tailed Hawk hanging around Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
   Three: A small group of hawk devotees was being magnetically drawn to the new bird, and Charles found himself in their midst. As years progressed, they would ogle, study, fret over, and champion the new hawk, his mates, and his broods at the nest site on Fifth Avenue at 74th Street. This group of “hawk-o-holics” evolved into a kind of family, a tight band of comrades who invited themselves into
membership with a family of hawks. 
     Charles was a charismatic, welcoming presence in Central Park. Most who made his acquaintance felt they were part of his circle, and he accepted them as such. However, a small group of “hawk buddies” developed an extraordinary bond—a bond that remains to this day. They are noted here because all are primary characters in Charles’s written collections as well as his life. 
     The “family” includes author Marie Winn. Ms. Winn’s marvelous book, Redtails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park  (1998), chronicles the full adventures of Pale Male and his many admirers. Filmmaker Frederic Lilien is part of the clan. His award-winning PBS Nature documentary “Pale Male” (2002) has been expanded into a feature-length film, The Legend of Pale Male, which will premiere in fall 2010. The late Dr. Alexander Fisher was the gracious, renowned dermatologist who welcomed hawk photographers and others to his Fifth Avenue apartment terrace. That balcony became “Hawk Headquarters,” the platform from which most of the photographs in this book were taken. Rounding out the crew is a trio of “hawk bench docents”: Lee Stinchcomb, Noreen O’Rourke, and Jim Lewis.  Jim’s “History of the Fifth Avenue Red-tailed Hawks” appears in this book as Appendix 3.

Obsession and Devotion  
     In the first several years of the Pale Male phenomenon, Charles and company committed to daily, 14-hour vigils. Every detail was monitored—from relations between Pale Male and his mate of that year to the date and time of the last juvenile to fledge.  Some years a betting pool was kept as to when the young would leave the nest.
     Charles’s entire schedule, for weeks at a time, would be centered on the rhythms of the hawk nest. He engaged in endless study of any and all scientific information related to hawk behavior, hawk biology, and hawk nesting. I fondly remember urgent phone calls that would begin something like: “Did you know that a Red-tailed Hawk’s eye is nearly the same size and weight as the human eye? Whoa! Just think about it!” In essays, Charles balanced tantalizing scientific facts with romantic, anthropomorphic musings.
     To this day, Pale Male’s nest is easily and best observed from the Model Boat Pond in Central Park. In spring and early summer Charles was a mainstay at the “hawk benches” on the west side of the pond. He led an ever-widening ad hoc (ad hawk?) circle of hawk-nest docents: volunteers who shared their enthusiasm and knowledge with all passersby. The docents’ devotion to Pale Male’s offspring was such that they came to the benches each day with special equipment (gloves, extra shirts) that prepared them to rescue fledging (or falling!) babies from the street-level dangers of the great Manhattan urban wilderness. And for several years running, Charles helped organize a birthday party for Pale Male, complete with custom-decorated birthday cakes.

Wonder and Joy  
     Readers of this book will hear, in Charles’s “voice,” the wonder with which he beheld the behavior of red-tails.  He marveled at the hawks’ loyalty, power, resilience, and parenting instincts. He employed beatific images and metaphors, describing nearly fledged hawks as: “Soon to declare an opinion to the sky,” anticipating their “grand jete into the park.” And, of holding a rescued hawk, he said: “It was air. This fluid, elegant, wind machine had only the assumption of weight. Like lifting wind, only with talons.” To Charles, hawk chicks might be a “cloud of baby fluff.”  Charles was also a master haiku poet, and each of this book’s haiku is an elegant expression of focused wonder.
     Joy? Charles’s ebullience permeates this collection. Here is a taste of Appendix 1, Charles’s field notes transcribed from on-the-scene tape recordings. Sign-offs from postings:

The joy was in just simply being there. I was very excited about being back up there and shooting again.
I am still quite breathless about this whole thing. Whew!
Oh! I’m so excited up here today!
And it is exciting, folks!
It was an extremely exhilarating day today, by the way!

Envy and Kinship
     In 1998, National Public Radio broadcast a feature on Red-tails in Love. When interviewed, Charles revealed the enormity of his infatuation with the hawks:

We have an immense envy of how it moves, how it looks. We dream of flying. We watch flying. We try and broad jump like we are flying. And he has that power––the power of death, I guess. The power of having a fistful of knives.
     Even more compelling was Charles’s longing to be kin with wild creatures. From the same radio interview:

I have a very real sense that he knows who I am, not because I do anything remarkable. It’s because I’m here all the time. And he has astounding visual skills that allow him to live. And if he has such skills, then why wouldn’t he recognize me in his background, too? 

     In the documentary “Pale Male,” Charles rescues a newly fledged hawk from Fifth Avenue traffic. When he releases the hawk on Dr. Fisher’s terrace, a talon pierces Charles’s hand. The response is ecstatic. “We are blood brothers, that beast and I. He flew away with a bit of Iowa blood on him. Yeah, that was a kick!”  Here, Charles also shows pride in being an Iowa native. His small-town, midwestern roots produced an affinity with nature and enabled him to appreciate how remarkable it was for a Red-tailed Hawk to thrive in a major city.

Chronology and Photos 
     This collection roughly follows the life cycle of young hawks—from small chicks peering over the nest’s edge to fledging from the nest to independent hunting in Central Park. The scenes themselves come from a variety of broods from 1996 to 2000. While many of the photos stand out in professional quality, every photo plays a role in illustrating the stories Charles wanted to tell, the lessons he wished to share.

Our Good Fortune
Charles often spoke of his fortunate life. It is our good fortune that he made such good use of his. He put himself in nature at every opportunity, soaked up information, and made fascinating sense of it all. Everywhere he went, Charles delighted in sharing what he knew, inviting others to enjoy the wonders of nature in the city. We are fortunate that he also took photos, wrote essays and haiku, and kept field notes.
     Now you are ready to lift off into Charles’s tribute to the Red-tailed Toast of Manhattan.

Steve Kennedy
Aurora, Colorado 
July 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Feathers, Friends, and Family

Had a delightful dinner last evening with most of the 'hawk watch family', including Noreen, Lee, and Jimmy, all of whom appear in the Legend of Pale Male documentary. (Marie was the notable absentee. We'll catch up with her this evening.) Charles's good friend, Marsinay, was with us as well. For many years Marsinay was Charles's scribe, copy editor, and all-around most valuable player. It is to Marsinay that we owe the most gratitude for compiling all of Charles's photo-essay collections and haiku into readable, digital form. These folks were family to Charles and they adopted the rest of the Kennedys as part of their extended family, a blessing for which I will be forever grateful. It is a bountiful Thanksgiving, indeed!

Sitting on the subway after dinner I couldn't help feeling how sorely I still miss Charles. Others at the table had given voice to the same sentiment. Several of us recounted stories of having close encounters with Red-tailed Hawks in recent days and were all happy to believe that the encounters represented Charles's spirit affirming the success and brilliance of the film. Life can be so sweet and beautiful and sorrowful––all at once and so perfectly.

So, as my dear niece, Jill, and I prepare to head into Manhattan to help staff the grand opening of The Legend of Pale Male, I'll post the most poignant (for me, anyway) of Charles's stories from his book Pale Male and Family.


     When I was a 16-year-old kid, the brakes on my elderly automobile failed as I was backing out of our family’s driveway, and I smacked into Whitey Groatwald’s private car. Whitey was a much-feared highway patrolman whose territory included my hometown, and he was moonlighting at a carpentry job directly across the street. Large, ominous Whitey heard the crash—minor as it was—and came storming down on innocent ol’ me. Now this is a story about fathers, and mine, a sweet man with superb hearing, also heard the noise and came firing out of our house to protect his baby son from the evil officer.
     Flash forward four decades to a 7:30-a.m., mid-July morning. One of the juvenile red-tails flew into a small cedar tree, carrying a dead pigeon. Following the young one was a small flotilla of neighborhood vigilante birds who felt that a hawk in their neighborhood was a considerable threat, which indeed it was. Two blue jays, two robins, and a mockingbird began their attack on the breakfasting red-tail juvenile.
     This is the bird/father part. Pale Male, our hero who, in fact, had caught the pigeon for his son, arrived not at the bottom of the cedar tree where his young one was chowing down, but on the lightning-rod top, immediately drawing off the fisticuffing birds who, no doubt, had nestlings in the area. Pale Male chose to sit passively at the top of the tree and let the locals fly by and ineffectively attack, while his progeny sat directly beneath him eating its porridge. The pigeon feather is the last evidence of the pigeon that junior ate under the protection of Dad. Ah, dads.
     I wonder if Whitey Groatwald was a good father. Maybe. Mine was.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Special Excerpt About Pale Male

To celebrate the opening of "The Legend of Pale Male" I offer an excerpt from a new edition of Charles's book Pale Male and Family, which will be available very soon. Charles was a great champion, photographer, and chronicler of the regal red-tail, Pale Male. This 'Prelude' to the new edition is from Charles's field notes--- adorned with a still shot from the film, punctuated with one of his finest haiku creations. Enjoy! And SEE THE FILM at your earliest opportunity. Catch the Pale Male Magic!


     I was born and raised in Iowa. For years I believed I should have been born to a New York family. It took me over 20 years to get to New York City. And luckily I was right about my first migration. New York has been my longest love affair. There’s a vibrancy, and excitement, about this magnificent city. But it is just a city. The part that clinches it for me is the color green. The green of a great park. I wouldn’t have to live in New York City, except for Central Park. This park, this square mile and a third, invented in the middle of this major urban space, is as varied and stimulating as the city as a whole. And what I fly to in the park  is the birds. The park is used by up to 200 species every year. In the last decade, there have been 268 species recorded in Central Park. During spring migration this magical green spot is a mandatory destination for thousands of birds. They need our park, and it turns out that many of us need them.
     I worked as a jeweler for a number of years, with gorgeous stones, minerals, fossils, natural crystals. And that’s what the birds are—only they move. They are these exquisite gem stones, many the weight of a nickel, that can migrate for many thousands of miles and arrive here in this tight little island. Their beauty is extraordinary and the fascination is endless.
     The last couple of years, the hawks in Central Park have become my obsession. And that’s a very current statement to be able to make: the hawks in Central Park. For decades, there were no hawks living in the park. There had been some hawks in the metropolitan area, although not a great number. But, in 1992 a pair of Red-tailed Hawks appeared in the park and set up housekeeping in some of the most exclusive digs in the nation.
From audio tape transcript of Charles preparing material for Frederic Lilien’s documentary film about the Central Park hawks.

nothing happens
almost nothing
a feather falls

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Quick notes about an exciting week ahead…

      I’m in New York City this week to help launch the premiere of the great documentary film “The Legend of Pale Male.”  It is great to be back among the circle of birding friends Charles developed and invited us into. This inspired film centers around the remarkably intertwined lives of a famous clan of Red-tailed Hawks and a large community of hawk-loving New Yorkers. The cinematography, editing, and writing are superb. Throughout the film tribute is paid to Charles-- for his role in mentoring Frederic through many years of filming and hawk stalking, and for his devotion to the hawks and hawk watchers.

      The film opens this Wednesday, November 24, at the Angelika Film Center here in the city. It will open in San Francisco, Boston and other cities in the coming weeks.
Use this link for information: http://www.thelegendofpalemale.com/Now_Playing.html
And, keep your eyes to the skies.... "The Legend" may well be coming to a city near you!

     This weekend the fine NPR program, Living on Earth, featured an interview with filmmaker, Frederic Lilien. In the interview Frederic spends a significant amount of time focusing on the contributions Charles made to the filming. http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=10-P13-00047&segmentID=6
     Here’s a link to the film trailer: http://www.thelegendofpalemale.com/TRAILER.html
     The New York Post ran an interesting piece about the hawks and the film today as well: