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 Surge

Since my last post, on September 5, I had what seems to be my best-ever September and October, completely turning my year around. On this table I have bolded the names of species reported by relatively few birders.

Year
bird Date Species Location
183 6-Sep-16 Connecticut Warbler Central Park
184 9-Sep-16 Virginia Rail Central Park–The Ramble
185 11-Sep-16 Red-shouldered Hawk Central Park
186 12-Sep-16 Red-headed Woodpecker Central Park–The Ramble
187 19-Sep-16 Green-winged Teal Central Park–Harlem Meer
188 21-Sep-16 Northern Pintail Central Park–Turtle Pond
189 25-Sep-16 Vesper Sparrow Central Park–North End
190 27-Sep-16 Clay-colored Sparrow Central Park
191 28-Sep-16 Marsh Wren Central Park
192 1-Oct-16 Nelson’s Sparrow Randalls Island
193 3-Oct-16 Saltmarsh Sparrow Randalls Island–NE fields and shoreline
194 3-Oct-16 Eastern Screech-Owl Inwood Hill Park
195 6-Oct-16 American Wigeon Central Park–Harlem Meer
196 8-Oct-16 Eastern Meadowlark Central Park–Great Lawn
197 9-Oct-16 Wilson’s Snipe Randalls Island–NE fields and shoreline
198 12-Oct-16 Blue Grosbeak Central Park–Wildflower Meadow
199 19-Oct-16 Yellow-breasted Chat Central Park–North End
200 20-Oct-16 Northern Harrier Randalls Island
201 23-Oct-16 Cackling Goose Inwood Hill Park–Dyckman Fields

Let’s go through the list quickly. The Connecticut Warbler stayed at its Pilgrim Hill location all day and was seen by 50+ observers. Those few who missed that one had many other chances, as at least six others were reported and chaseable. Similarly, the Virginia Rail stayed in the Ramble all day, wandering sometimes from the outlet of the Gill on the Lake to the fenced-in Swampy Pin Oak area.

Very few birders had Red-shouldered Hawk this fall, even though it is generally a common flyover migrant. East and northeast winds that prevailed for over two weeks during the height of September hawk migration made this species and Broad-winged Hawk difficult to get.

Only a handful of birders got and reported this first Red-headed Woodpecker of the season, but several others of the species showed up in October and lingered.

Green-winged Teal — at least two — lingered for weeks on the Meer.

This female Northern Pintail stayed on Turtle Pond for only a day, but many saw it.

I had the only eBird report of this Vesper Sparrow, and surprisingly, the species did not end up being seen my many. Last year one lingered for days at Locust Grove.

A Clay-colored Sparrow was seen by a handful of birders on the grassy hill east of Lasker Rink and immediately alerted, but I was minutes late in responding and the bird was not seen there again. I ended up getting a different one near Wagner Cove.

A Marsh Wren lingered for at least a few days on the southern shore of the Lake.

Both Nelson’s  and Saltmarsh Sparrow again showed up on the northeast marsh of Randall’s Island, as they usually do.

An Eastern Screech-Owl was seen and reported at Inwood Hill Park. It proved to be a difficult chase, taking hours, as little information was provided as to location. I eventually found the roost and stayed to hear it calling after sundown.

The female American Wigeon on the Meer looked so similar to the many transitional-plumage Northern Shovelers with which it associated that a few birders were unable to find it on their first try even after my Twitter alert indicated that the bird was on the eastern section of the water. It stayed for more than a few days and was seen by many.

Deborah Allen reported the Eastern Meadowlark on the Great Lawn with her birding group. I ran out to see it immediately. It did not linger for more than an hour. Other meadowlarks appeared in the North End and on Randall’s Island, but these were seen by only a few.

I ran out to Randall’s Island’s northeast shore to chase a Caspian Tern seen earlier in the day by Andrew Farnsworth. I did not get the tern, but my hour there was well-rewarded by a Wilson’s Snipe that flew across the East River from Queens and landed nearby on a ball field. There were no snipes reported in Central Park this fall.

I chased an Muscota Marsh Blue Grosbeak that had already been reported to have flown, as birds do sometimes return to good locations. This one did not. Nevertheless, within ten days another Blue Grosbeak was reported at the Central Park Wildflower Meadow, and with a little patience I got that one.

My first Yellow-breasted Chat of the fall was heard only, in the thick brush south of the Children’s Glade. I was delighted to get it, as I had spent many hours on multiple occasions trying to observe the well-reported Chat at Maintenance Meadow in mid-September. I ended up getting another Chat visually on the 24th. This one apparently remained in the area and took up residence in the vicinity of the Sparrow Rocks, just east of the West Park Drive at 82nd Street, allowing many to see it.

The Northern Harrier — bird #200 of my year — was flying low downstream on the East River.

The Cackling Goose was initially reported at the ball fields north of Spuyten Duyvil, after which it flew. I re-found it on the Dyckman Fields at the opposite end of Inwood Hill Park.

This excellent fall helped to made up for a poor winter and a disappointing shorebird season. I am looking forward to what November and December will bring.