I live next door to a 107-acre nature preserve, and I can look out my window each winter and see all kinds of nifty birds — from hooded mergansers to brown creepers.
With a view like that, I consider myself a pretty lucky North Jerseyan. But I confess that I am jealous of Bob Leafe, a professional photographer who lives on the top floor of a seven-story Hackensack apartment building.
Not only does Leafe have bird's-eye views of points east, but he also has gotten spectacular close-up looks at a young red-tailed hawk that has taken to perching on his air conditioner the past two winters.
In 2011, the bird stayed two months. This year, he has hung out for two weeks so far. Leafe has taken to calling him "Hammy" because he seems to like posing for the camera — "a bit of a ham, I thought."
For Hammy, the ledge has been a great perch because of its high, direct view of the snack-laden Kips Bend portion of the Hackensack River, four blocks away. For Leafe, the onetime house photographer for the legendary Capitol Theatre in Passaic, it was an irresistible opportunity.
With a little trial and error, Leafe built a rudimentary blind in a nearby bedroom window with a 2-inch opening for the camera lens.
"Hammy sees the slight movement of the lens and reflections off it, but he can't see me," Leafe says. "While he's staring at the lens trying to figure out if it's a threat, I'm zooming in from 3 feet away."
Leafe figures the hawk is a male because he is smallish, and young because of his eye color — yellow last winter, browner this year. His tail is not terra-cotta red yet, another sign he is still a juvenile.
Hammy may not be as well known as Manhattan's famous red-tail, Pale Male, or Leafe's musician subjects, who have ranged from Led Zeppelin to Liberace. But Leafe has taken some hawk photos like no others. (You can see them at xrl.us/Hammy).
What do friends and neighbors think?
"Of course, there were a couple of Pale Male mentions," Leafe says, "but who wouldn't think that this is very cool — especially when you have super-close pictures to back it up?"
Hammy has also helped Leafe to see raptors in a new light.
"I can't really say I knew all that much about hawks before, but I've certainly enjoyed all the ensuing research in learning more about them — especially red-tails," says the Teaneck native and former Record paperboy. "It's also opened my eyes to let me now identify a couple of other raptors I've seen in (or over) the neighborhood, such as turkey vultures and kestrels."
The hawk even left a calling card for Leafe.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the gift he left me one day: a regurgitated black ball of the indigestible matter from his last meal," he says. "It looked like hardened tar with feather remnants mixed in."
Have there been any downsides?
"Only when Hammy leaves."
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