Great Horned Owl, Central Park

Yesterday, October 30, a Great Horned Owl was found roosting at nearly tree-top level in an oak at the southwest corner of Evodia Field (where the bird feeders are) in the the Central Park Ramble.

I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert (follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter) as soon as I saw the owl, but clearly many before me had seen it and not done so. That’s a shame. Nevertheless, a lot of people who would have otherwise missed seeing this infrequent Central Park visitor were able to hurry to the Ramble in the roughly 50 minutes of daylight remaining and see it.

Based on the questions I received on Twitter, some simply did not know that it was OK to issue a bird alert involving an owl. It is — at least on my service, which has over the years helped birders observe many owls, including Barred Owl in April of this year, Long-eared Owl in December 2016, and Eastern Screech-Owl in October 2016. Some other listservs and discussion groups still try to restrict such information, a quaint policy in 2017 given the popularity of sites (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) on which information can be disseminated freely.

Others wondered if it was ethical to report owls publicly. I would argue that it is almost always fine to do so at public locations in Manhattan. Of course “ethics” is a social construct, one that varies widely among people and times. Decide for yourself. But if you adopt a point of view simply because you see it written somewhere or hear it told to you, you are not doing your own thinking.

We report hundreds of other bird species, and sometimes they draw large crowds. Think back to last spring’s Cattle Egret or Least Bittern. Surely these birds were aware of increased human presence. Yet no one would fault the people who issued alerts on them. The birds lived on just fine, with the former remaining four weeks in a urban area dense with people and machinery.

You cannot reasonably argue that yesterday’s Great Horned Owl, resting nearly hidden over 60 feet above the ground, was bothered by a group of people quietly standing still and looking up at it. People would have been passing by the area all day anyway. The owl was partially obstructed from any vantage point, and it appeared to be looking away from the viewers.

Owls deal with more proximate annoyances nearly every day as they roost — other birds (Blue Jays, crows, even hawks) getting right in their faces, screeching loudly and mobbing them. That is usually how we humans find roosting owls, and how yesterday’s Great Horned Owl was found.

Some worry that non-birders or bird photographers will behave badly in the presence of an owl, but I have never seen this happen in Central Park. A large group of viewers, with mobile cameras ready to record any malicious deeds, is actually a source of safety for both people and owls. Park Rangers often are deployed to monitor owls and keep viewers in line, too.

But aren’t owls rare and endangered? No, not the ones we get in Central Park. They may be rare locally (in the park), but broadly — even just in New York State — they are doing fine, and are rated by the IUCN as populations of “least worry.”

But they rest during the day — doesn’t this make them special? Yes, it is an uncommon trait, but nighthawks and nightjars also are nocturnal, and no one seems to mind that these roosting birds (e.g., Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Chuck-will’s-widow) are reported and viewed by large groups.

And why should they mind? Again, these are not endangered species, and a gathering of humans observing them is the least of their problems. They get pushed around by both mammals and other birds during the day, and sometimes they fly off and rest somewhere else. Same with owls. That’s life for a nocturnal bird.

The issue of nesting owls is more complicated and sensitive, but Central Park does not have any.

If you accept that even “ethical” birders might occasionally flush a flock of Chipping Sparrows feeding on a lawn, then why all the fuss over respectful birders who sometimes merely draw the attention of roosting owls?

Yet many birders carry a double standard — one for owls and another for all other birds.

On top of this they add hypocrisy. They don’t believe in publicly reporting owls because they say the number of viewers should be minimized, but they themselves will race out to see any owl that they learn of publicly or privately. And once they see it, they call or text their friends to pass along the news.

This process has a number of problems, among them: it’s slow, and it’s not fair — many people get left out of the loop.

Everyone wants to see owls, even people who otherwise do not go birding. Owls are fascinating and mysterious, and seeing them in Manhattan is a rare treat, one that should not be just for the select few. Think about how glad you were the last time you got to see one. With little or no detriment to the owls, the benefits and costs are much the same as for birding in general.

Manhattan Bird Alert wants to help you see your next owl. For this to happen, owl finders need to report promptly. Many will thank you for your tweet, even if a few curmudgeons sniff at it. If you would rather report anonymously, just send @BirdCentralPark a DM (direct message) on Twitter or email me privately. If you prefer to post on eBird directly from the field, that works, too — alerts are issued almost instantly and I monitor them and will relay them.

November is the best month for Manhattan owling. Let’s have a good one!

 

 

 

 

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Autumn Birds Arrive

September 9 brought at least two Bald Eagles and some Broad-winged Hawks over Central Park. Though the park had Broad-winged Hawk sightings at least several times after this date, there was no day where even a hundred (much less the thousands that are regularly seen from Westchester hawk watches) were reported.

September 10 delivered a Lark Sparrow at Triplets Bridge that was seen just before 10 a.m. and by 10:20 a.m. was not seen again. Toward midday a Connecticut Warbler, possibly the same one seen in the evening two days before, was reported at Sparrow Rock. Some saw it pop out of the brush during the afternoon. I watched for at least an hour and then went home. Observers were crowding around the brushy area, hoping to get a close look at the bird. This crowding discouraged the the Connecticut from doing the very thing they were waiting to see. When I returned after 5 p.m. fewer observers were there, but some still continued to watch close by the brush rather than at a binocular distance. I got lucky in that the bird finally decided to fly out of the brush and land nearby, so I had close views of it for fifteen seconds. Then it flew into the woods adjacent to Tanner’s Spring.

Nearly three weeks went by without my having a new year-bird. Then on September 29 I had the year’s first report of Nelson’s Sparrow at the northeast-shore saltmarsh of Randall’s Island.

On the next day, a Saturday, as I was birding the Pinetum with Robert DeCandido and others, an alert arrived of Dickcissel at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island on the east side of the Renwick Hospital ruins. The bird was in a fenced-in area with a small sparrow flock, so I knew the odds of a successful chase were high. I was also in touch with the finder, Joe Girgente, an excellent birder who spends much time on the island. I was on the scene quickly and enjoyed extended, close looks at the Dickcissel.

On October 12 I ran to Randall’s Island in the late morning, after another birder had reported two Saltmarsh Sparrows on the northeast-shore marsh. I walked into the marsh near low tide and had close views of both Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows walking on an area of exposed mud.

Two days later I would be called out to Randall’s Island again, as Vesper Sparrow was reported on the northeast ball fields. Ryan Zucker, a prodigiously accomplished birder just beginning ninth grade, was already on the scene. We quickly re-found the Vesper Sparrow among a small flock of Savannah Sparrows near the rocky shore.

The morning of October 17 had much migratory flight, and just after sunrise I heard the the call of American Pipits flying over the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. In recent years I have made many trips to Randall’s Island in November and December specifically looking to find this species feeding on one of the many lawns. I was delighted to put it on my year list early.

That brings us to yesterday, October 21. A Yellow-breasted Chat was reported at the Heather Garden of Fort Tryon Park mid-morning. Normally I would be running out the door and across the park to do the chase, but I had already birded much of the length of Central Park earlier that morning and had experienced firsthand the delays and service changes of the NYC subway’s A line that runs to Fort Tryon, which encouraged me to walk home from the North End rather than ride. With the subway’s website still indicating delays, I did not want to duplicate a bad experience. I also had in mind the Yellow-breasted Chats are notoriously shy birds and can remain hidden for hours on end. So I passed on the chase. As it turned out, no one observed the bird in the afternoon despite some watching for nearly four hours.

Today the chat was reported by the same observer in the same location again at 10:47 a.m. This was valuable information: the chat was likely to remain in the general area, having already spent at least a day there. A quick chase would have decent odds.

I still had to deal with the A train not making northbound local stops nearby, so I took the 1 train at 86th and Broadway, which required a bit more running both on the way to it and on the way to Fort Tryon from it. But by 12:15 p.m. I was in Fort Tryon on a sunny and unseasonably-warm day.

After some climbing and walking along paths, I reached the north end of Heather Garden to find several birders looking for the chat. One said that it had been in view three minutes ago, low on some vines bearing the blue berries it sought to eat. Encouraging news, so I began waiting and after 45 minutes the bird still had not re-appeared.

Then someone saw it fairly high up in a nearby tree, and I caught a glimpse of it. I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert to let everyone know that the Yellow-breasted Chat continued. Ten minutes later I saw it again, this time much more clearly, perching on a limb, viewed from the raised terrace immediately north of Heather Garden. It was soon time for me to leave, but others continued to see the chat occasionally throughout the afternoon.

I arrived home and had only a little time to eat and rest before another alert chimed in: Eastern Meadowlark at the Central Park North End ball fields. This is a very hard species to get in Manhattan, generally reported only once per year in the park (usually late October or early November) and perhaps once or twice at Randall’s Island. So I laced up my shoes again and ran! Within ten minutes I was on location with the bird, alone on a fenced-in field, clearly in view.

204 species for the year in Manhattan as of October 22. That’s my best count ever for this date (by two birds), but given the strength of my winter and spring seasons (the latter including some birds more often found in the fall) I do not expect to be break my record (213) this year.