The Hawk Stalker of East Falls


Penn Street resident Carolyn Card Sutton finds her daily zen in birds of prey on the Parkway. EFL tags along on a particularly frisky day for this pair of (now) expectant parents.  PHOTOS BY KATHERINE WZOREK & CAROLYN CARD SUTTON

When I first approached East Falls Local, I pitched human-interest pieces. I wanted to write about local characters; people I see day in and day out, who are probably up to interesting things if I asked them.

Just so happens, East Falls Local keeps an “Interesting Characters” file that Steve and Carolyn were only to happy to share. At the top of a list of intriguing individuals — a record collector, a supermarket historian, a fish scientist, etc — a name and note caught my eye:  “Carolyn Card Sutton, hawk stalker.”

EastFallsLoca facebook hawk collage

Hawk stalker?  Seems for the past 5+ years, a group of dedicated photographers have gathered early every morning off the Parkway to watch this same female red-tailed hawk nest, mate, hunt, and defend her territory. And Fallser Carolyn Card Sutton is their Queen.

Well, they sure do seem to love her, at least. Her daily reports and photos garner hundreds of likes and shares across social media– showing up in the timelines of people who can’t tell a red-tail from a red-shoulder (a common mistake, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Carolyn gained an online audience on “Franklin Hawkaholics,” a Facebook group founded by followers of a webcam that used to watch the hawks’ old nest at the Franklin Institute. After the hawks relocated to Eakins Oval, Carolyn’s daily reports and photos stepped in to keep over 2,500 fans updated and amazed with some truly phenomenal images.

EastFallsLocal hawk ID

So what’s it entail, to stalk two Red Tails?

Carolyn’s love of the environment and the outdoors started early in life, and only grew as she studied biology at Bucknell University in Central Pennsylvania.

But why hawks?

Eastfallslocal collage timebop urban hawks

As you may have heard, birds of prey have been returning to area thanks to pollution  controls and man-made measures like the Fairmount “fishway.”  In 2008, red-tailed hawks built a nest at the Franklin Institute, who promptly installed a webcam.

Carolyn started watching online and got sucked into the drama of their lives: their comings and goings, all their interactions. She started wondering what were they doing when they were outside the camera’s view. And then she started worrying.

While hawks are not uncommon sightings in an urban environment, the city is obviously not the safest place for a “buteo”  (one of the three main groups of hawks that red-tails belong to). Urban environments present many unnatural “predators” such as cars, buses, pollution, electric lines, and the well-washed window.

The more Carolyn watched, the more she felt invested in the hawks’ well-being. The more she became convinced she should learn more about them, and maybe try and help them somehow.

So Carolyn took to checking on Franklin Institute’s hawks in person, and discovered others like herself who become obsessed with them and the drama of daily lives. As they documented their adventures, more people joined — leading to more pictures shared, information exchanged, blog posts written…

Next thing they knew,  Franklin Hawkaholics’ Facebook page  was “a thing.”  Hawk Stalkers from all over Philly find kindred spirits here, and together help document and celebrate hawks in our area.

EastFallsLocal hawk trivia drop shadow

And my goodness, the drama! Given the opportunistic pairings hawks are known for, their private lives often rival telenovela plots. Carolyn told me stories of disaster and drama, multiple hawk males vying for the female’s heart, and hawk babies being killed in disastrous accidents. Each day presented something new, interesting, and (at times) quite epic.

Even after 8 years, Carolyn still loves to follow the hawks, driving downtown every morning to see what they’re up to. For her, hawking is like yoga:  a de-stressor, a time to spend in nature, living in the moment. Even further, it’s an opportunity to educate others about the wonderful, squawking neighbors who inhabit our city up high.

Sounds good to me! In the name of “investigative journalism” (allow me my David Attenborough moment, please), I went one day hawking myself — in February yet! Carolyn explained the hawks were engaging in preparation for Spring hatchlings, hopefully, so I woke up early one morning to ride in with Carolyn to Eakins Oval near the art museum where the current nest is.

Over the sound of my teeth chattering beside her, Carolyn stressed to me there are no guarantees in hawk stalking. As she zipped down the drive, a palpable tension built… “I hope these hawks show up today…” I caught her muttering to herself, glancing upward.

Creeping up to 7 am, Carolyn decided to loop the Franklin Institute — another popular hawk haunt. Hands on the wheel, eyes on the sky… How on earth were we staying in the same lane? Did it even matter, at this hour? Carolyn generously invited me to scream in terror like most passengers who ride with her do, but nah. I felt oddly relaxed. My curiosity, too, was growing alongside Carolyn’s “performance anxiety” (for the hawks).

OH NO!!  Where. Are. They? Carolyn’s brow furrowed, her eyes squinted as she searched hawkless skies over Fairmount. No sign of them at the Franklin Institute, either… Swinging into the Oval, Carolyn’s “core four” Halk Stalkers greeted us with disappointing news:  no sightings as of yet today. Let’s hope, though!

We clustered together, trying to bide time and conserve heat simultaneously. I did a shivery little dance/jig to keep the blood flowing, and this seemed to amuse them. Before long, I felt like a regular, even though my camera looked dinky next to the paparazzi gear everyone else had. And, to be honest, I couldn’t tell a hawk from a falcon if you paid me.

EastFallsLocal know your silhouettes

I can now, though: hawks are bigger than falcons, with shorter wings that help steer thru trees and shrubs when hunting. Hawks kill primarily with their talons, but falcons use their beaks. Falcons area also more likely to hunt and consume their prey while flying, as opposed to hawks who tend to rip their meals to pieces quite graphically. Good thing I skipped breakfast.

Carolyn gave me an orientation, pointing out the hawk nest nestled high in a tree, bigger than I expected and intricately constructed. Next time you’re driving doiwntown from East Falls, scan the trees near the Oval for a shaggy brown blob: that’s a hawk home!

When we first pulled up, the hawks were already out & about. Hawks, I learned, are early risers. These two often run their errands first thing in the morning, and could be anywhere, really. A hawk’s territory can spread for almost ten square miles which they often defend with aerial displays.

Eastfallslocal carolyn katherine steve collage hawk

Suddenly, a burst of excitement! All heads turned to see the male hawk — aka “T3” — glide effortlessly thru the air, and land delicately on the nest’s edge. I was so awestruck by his beauty, and the surprise of his appearance, that I failed to snap a photo, and just stood there wide-eyed.

(Quick aside on “T3” — that’s not his name, but a zoological classification. A male hawk is known as a “tercel” and this is the third one involved with this female, unscientifically called “Mom” due to her habit of bearing offspring, ha.)

After T3’s entrance, “Mom” swooped to his side, which got our whole group buzzing. We were going to see some hawk interaction! And this time of year happens to be mating season, so….  Let’s go, guys!

EastFallsLocal carolyn katherine hawks

Seeing the hawks sent a wave of relief and celebration thru our group: it’s gonna be a good day!  Such a sight also spurred everyone to action, pulling out tripods, changing lenses, framing out shots based on where and how they thought the birds might move. Everyone seemed to have their own set-up for the perfect shot.

Our group peered up expectantly, frozen with our cameras poised. The female hawk ever-so-discreetly peeked out of the nest, then beelined over our heads to a nearby tree bough. “Watch,” Carolyn whispered, and sure enough T3 lifted from the nest to his lady’s side.

Eastfallslocal baby hawsk in one two three text collage skinny

All eyes focused on the two hawks in the tree, not more than 50 feet away. They seemed to greet each other briefly and then, whoa — T3 made his move!  With some wing flapping and a throaty squawk, the deed was done. Our group burst into hoots and applause for the happy couple.

Imagine my luck, to show up on such a momentous day!  Er, not so much. Bonded pairs like Mom & T3 typically do it daily during mating season. They also spend a lot of time breaking off twigs to add to their nest, and of course hunting local squirrels and rodents.

Eastfallslocal hawks eat rat tree collage

Speaking of, Carolyn and I later followed T3 across the road, where he roosted suspiciously close to a bunch of pigeons, in a nice tree that he was either using to plot a murderous attack later on, or for “twigging” his nest.

Meanwhile, Mom chilled back in the nest, waiting for her hubby to bring back some dinner or home decor. Will she hunt from her perch? Would she help him nest? How do they share a snack? I can see how hawking can be addicting — it’s fun to analyze their behaviors and attempt to predict their next moves.

Eventually, the hawks flew off to Franklin Institute, which was our cue to leave. Time to get to work, run errands, and get on with the rest of our day. We shared our photos, and lingering goodbyes to each other and the hawks. No doubt I’ll be out again to see the hawks — but I’ll wait till the weather’s nice and warm first.

Eastfallslocal nest collage hawks

WE’VE GOT EGGS!  Carolyn’s Hawk Report (MARCH 28):

 Mom and T3 have been VERY consistent with their routine. He shows up before dawn (with or without food); she takes off to a favorite grove of trees at 24th and PA avenue (where she eats or watches squirrels), then, after about an hour, returns to push T3 off the eggs; he heads out to hunt (at the museum or along the RR/River trail). 

FOLLOW FRANKLIN HAWKAHOLICS on Facebook for exciting updates on our area’s famous birds of prey, including some seriously cool pics & videos. 

1 Comment

  1. Carolyn is a great East Falls ‘character.’ She has inspired me, and now my children, to watch hawks, watch the hawk cams, etc. My boys even call her when they spot a hawk in the neighborhood. She has gotten the most amazing photos too – my fave is the hawk and eagle facing off…you should take a look!

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