Snowy Owl, Randall’s Island

SnowyOwlFinally, a Snowy Owl appears in Manhattan. Since this species first began showing up at LaGuardia airport, less than two miles away, in November 2013, I have been waiting for it to appear on Randall’s Island. The environment is perfect: acres of flat grassy fields where gulls, ducks, and geese come to graze, along with a sheltered bay that also attracts hundreds of waterfowl. I would imagine there are rats and mice to be found, too.

I visit the northeast shore of Randall’s Island nearly once per week. It has the potential to produce rare ducks and gulls, as I have written before. In recent weeks it has had small flocks of Horned Lark and Snow Buntings, the latter having been observed just two days ago.

Today my mind was on the Snow Buntings. I also wanted to do some running, so I ran across the RFK Bridge to Randall’s Island at noon, figuring I would take advantage of what the radar indicated would be a rain-free two hours, along with temperatures in the high fifties.

It certainly was not rain-free. Strong winds blowing in off the water carried plenty of tiny water droplets, and soon my binoculars and I were soaked. After seeing that the bay contained only some of the most common ducks, I was thinking this trip was not such a great idea. I went further east along the shore to look for the snow buntings, which were known to huddle on the rocks.

Then I saw the Snowy Owl 60 yards ahead on the paved road. It was just landing after what appeared to be a short flight from a bit further east and south. I looked closely for a minute, making sure I confirmed the relevant features: yellow eyes, small bill, owl body, and mostly white feathers with just some tiny dark patches. No question it was a snowy.

The next thing I did, at 12:30 p.m., was text Andrew Farnsworth, not just so he could see it, but so that he could get the word out quickly and appropriately. He posted my find to NYSBirds, and then started preparing to drive over.

While this was going on, the owl took off and flew. I was worried that it would leave the island, but it only went to the grass just southeast of ball field #29. Ten minutes later it flew again, this time returning close to its initial location. It was looking right at me, so I backed further away until only part of it was in view. I did not want to take any chance of scaring it away.

It seemed to be resting quietly, and I was getting cold and wet just standing there, so I ran to the McEnroe Tennis Center to wait for Farnsworth to arrive. He showed up at 1:17, and I ran out to meet him. We walked back to the northeast shore area, and the owl came into view exactly where it had been before, very low and close to the rocks just east of ball field #29.

We observed it from seventy yards away, and Farnsworth took some photos (one of which appears above) using his iPhone and binoculars. After ten minutes of watching, we went off to bird the bay and the large waterfowl flock on the other ball fields.

This Snowy Owl was my first life bird in nearly three months, and my 230th in Manhattan. It is also the first confirmed Snowy Owl observation in Manhattan on eBird, and certainly the first one in over a decade — perhaps the first ever. We are going to have to check the records on this one.