Three Owl Day in Central Park

On Friday, 23 November 2012, and on days immediately following, it was possible to see three owl species in the Park, an extremely rare occurrence.

1) Barred Owl continues west of the Great Lawn.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl (Photo credit: Bob from Caledon)

If you want some great video footage and photos of the Barred Owl, see Bruce Yolton’s last post and his previous post on UrbanHawks.

2) Great Horned Owl appears SW of Azalea Pond, S of the Gill. It has moved around since then.

English: Great horned owl

Great Horned Owl

3) Northern Saw-whet Owl continues in the Shakespeare Garden area. On 25 November a possibly different Saw-whet was reported at Conservatory Garden after being loudly harassed by a variety of other birds.

Northern Saw-whet Owl Aegolius acadicus

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Remember if you go to see any of these owls, but in particular the Northern Saw-whet, which tends to roost much lower in trees than the other two, keep a respectful distance. The Saw-whet tends to stay still when approached, a defense against predators that look for motion. Do not be fooled into thinking the owl likes having a human being near it.

–David Barrett

Central Park Owls

Barred owl

Barred Owl

2012 has been an excellent year for seeing owls in Central Park. Four owls have appeared so far: Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. All of these owls were non-resident visitors.

This post will discuss the occurrence of owls in Central Park in recent years.

Central Park used to have resident owls. Eastern Screech-Owls, for example, nested and bred in the Park throughout the first half of the 20th century. The last documented sighting was in the Christmas bird count of 1955 — that is, until six young owls were reintroduced to the Park in August 1998. In 2001 and 2002 a total of 32 more were released.

Though many of these owls survived and even fledged owlets, the species did not thrive in Central Park. By late 2010 only one Eastern Screech-Owl remained, living in tree holes in the North Woods. The last confirmed sighting of this owl occurred in late March 2011.

On 19 December 2004, during the Christmas Bird Count, a Boreal Owl was seen in Central Park. This was the first recorded occurrence of the species in all of New York City. It remained in the Park through mid-January 2005. Phil Jeffrey provides photos and an account of its discovery here. The winter of 2004-5 was an irruptive season for the Boreal Owl, which, as its name implies, generally lives far to the north in Canada (and also in some Western states of the US). The Boreal Owl has not been observed in Central Park since then.

There was speculation that 2012 might bring another Boreal Owl irruption along with the ongoing irruption of finches. As of late November, no Boreal Owls have yet been observed in the northeast US.

The winter of 2011-12 brought a historic Snowy Owl irruption. Though many Snowy Owls were seen in New York City, they did not appear in Central Park, nor have they ever been recorded there. They prefer open spaces such as beaches and airport fields.

The Barred Owl had been considered an extremely rare visitor to Central Park. A long-time birder recently told me that prior to 2011 the last sighting known to him was in 1996. Aside from a single report on 5 November 2007, eBird agrees with this claim.

Just over a year ago, on 30 September 2011, a Barred Owl was found in the Ramble and seen by many. Again on 10 October 2011 a Barred Owl — most likely the same one — was seen between Tupelo Meadow and the Gill. This owl continued to be sighted in the Park, in other locations, off and on through January 2012. After 15 years of not seeing any Barred Owls it suddenly was possible to see one, with some searching effort, on most days.

Great Horned Owls are rare in Central Park, visiting once every two or three years according to eBird records. I knew that one had been residing in Inwood Hill Park since late 2011, so I went there for a sighting in February 2012 thinking it would be my only chance to see one in New York County.

I had no idea that on 19 April 2012 a Great Horned Owl would show up just south of Evodia Field. This owl was reported widely, on NYNYBIRD and elsewere. At one point over a hundred people, including a large contingent of primary-school students, gathered at the southeast end of Evodia to peer over 60 feet up a tree at this large, powerful bird. The owl remained nearby for the rest of the day and caused quite a stir. While looking for other birds later in the day I was often approached by birders asking if I knew that there was an owl in the Park.

[Update: on 23 November 2012 a visiting Great Horned Owl was again seen in the Ramble.]

Long-eared Owls are an infrequent winter visitor to Central Park, seen at least once in most years. They appear most often in January and February in search of prey, usually after areas to the north have been covered with deep snow. They often come in groups of two or more and they tend to stick around — a two-week stay is not unusual.

A group of Long-eared Owls, as many as three at one point, began roosting in the pine trees atop Cherry Hill in early February 2011. They were still being seen in the Park a month later.

This year a single Long-eared Owl was found on a fall date, 17 October 2012, when you would not expect to see one. It was in a pine tree in Strawberry Fields. Because of the secluded nature of the eastern trail on Strawberry Fields — trees hide the birders looking up that usually tip-off others to an owl — and because no one reported the owl publicly, it was seen by very few.

Another owl sighting occurred less than two weeks later on 28 October 2012. At 4:58 pm someone on NYNYBIRD anonymously reported a Northern Saw-whet Owl at the Point, a location in the Central Park Ramble. Why do I mention the exact time? Because in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, Central Park was being closed early that day — at 5 pm!

I did not see the alert until 5:15, and my first reaction was that it must be a prank: report an owl just minutes before it becomes impossible for birders to actually get to it! Nevertheless, I ran out the door to the nearest Park entrance at 79th and Fifth and already barricades were in place. At 72nd and Fifth a cadre of New York’s Finest were making it clear to all that, no, you cannot go in the Park. That was good enough for me. I turned around and ran home, figuring that there probably had not been an owl and even if there had been, no one else was going to get to see it.

Several hours later my assumption was proved wrong: I received an eBird report of a Northern Saw-whet Owl sighting at the Point that had been made by a reputable birder. Apparently the west side of the Park had been guarded much less rigorously and this birder managed to gain entry well after 5 pm.

I knew that the Park was likely to be closed for many days and this only added to the frustration! Northern Saw-whet Owls are rare visitors to Central Park, appearing only a couple times per decade, and generally not staying long. I figured the storm would probably discourage the owl from leaving the Park, but the Park would likely stay closed for many days after the storm subsided (which it did) giving the owl time to exit unseen.

The Park re-opened on Saturday, 3 November 2012. After several days of chasing Northern Gannets and other hurricane-driven birds I was no longer thinking about owls. I wanted an Eastern Bluebird, which I found on the Great Hill.

Since the Park had been closed for so long, and the storm had brought many unusual birds to the city, I figured I should bird as much of it as I could. So I walked back to the Castle and then into the Ramble. I saw a handful of birders at the southeast corner of Evodia Field looking almost straight up. I went over to them and looked up the same tree that had held the Great Horned earlier in the spring and saw a Barred Owl! I was thrilled to have my first of the year, and soon things would get even better.

On the following morning a Northern Saw-whet Owl was observed in the Oven, and by midday it moved to a pine tree on the Shakespeare Garden viewing platform. I heard about this owl on my way back from seeing the Evening Grosbeaks on the Great Hill. What a break! But was I too late? I went directly to Shakespeare Garden and looked around. It took some time, but when I finally saw the owl I could not believe how low in the tree it was and how close to the walkway it had chosen to roost. A tall person could reach up and touch it, and some people actually were reaching into the tree. I read that a Park ranger came by soon after to block off the area adjacent to the tree and keep viewers at a distance more comfortable to the owl. This owl was not seen again in days following. [Update: on 19 and 20 November a Northern Saw-whet was again observed in the Shakespeare Garden area.]

Barred Owls are back and continuing. Beginning on Sunday, 11 November 2012, as many as three Barred Owls have been seen together in Central Park. These have been widely reported and seen by many in the area just west of the Great Lawn. Since midweek only one owl has been apparent — perhaps the others have found better hiding spots. [Update: on 21 November two owls were again seen.] The tall trees, still with some leaf coverage, give the owl plenty of altitude and make it a challenge to find even if you know where to look. This is good, as the owl can pay no attention to admiring ground-dwellers and get some rest.

Always remember to view owls only from a respectful distance. Many times the owl will make this easy for you by roosting so high that you cannot possibly bother it. Other times, as in the case of the Northern Saw-whet Owl at Shakespeare Garden, you need to use good judgment and the power of your binoculars to make sure the owl is not stressed.

–David Barrett

Barnacle Goose, Inwood Hill Park

(Photo credit: Andrew Farnsworth; Inwood Hill Park, 12 Nov 2012)

Yesterday evening an observation of a Barnacle Goose in the Inwood area came across on eBird. Though the person who submitted the observation on her list of birds did not provide more precise detail as to location, the physical description of the bird was entirely consistent with Barnacle Goose. A large flock of Canada Geese was also listed, so I assumed that the Barnacle was associating with it.

Barnacle Goose is a very, very rare visitor from the far north Atlantic Ocean.

I decided I had to try to find this bird!

I knew that there were two places in Inwood Hill Park where geese tend to congregate. One is the baseball fields off of Dyckman Street on the west end of the Park by the Hudson. This is where I went first this morning. A dense fog made for very low visibility. At the northernmost end of the fields, around the picnic area, I found a flock of a dozen Canada Geese but no Barnacle.

The other place for geese is on the eastern end of the Park by the large inlet. I went there next and on the second baseball field north of the entrance by the tennis courts I found a large flock of Canada Geese. I scanned the flock and quickly saw the white-faced bird that stuck out: it was the Barnacle Goose!

I wrote back to Andrew Farnsworth — a Cornell researcher who helps manage eBird and who had been looking into this sighting — that I had found the bird. He put out an announcement on NYNYBIRD and then sped off to Inwood Hill. Despite a flat tire on the way he was first to arrive about an hour later at 11:35.

We got close views of the Barnacle Goose, which appeared healthy and had no band that might indicate origin from a farm or zoo. It was not bothered much by the baseball practice going on nearby.

I phoned Starr, who lives nearby in Inwood, shortly after finding the bird. She was on the scene quickly and mentioned that she knew of no other previous sighting of Barnacle Goose in Manhattan. A memorable morning for all involved!

–David Barrett

White-winged Crossbills Arrive in Central Park

White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) male...

White-winged Crossbill, male

Yet another irruptive finch species has appeared in Central Park! On Sunday, 4 November 2012, a flyover White-winged Crossbill was seen near the Meer in the North End. On Monday the 5th at least two and perhaps as many as seven White-winged Crossbills were seen well and at close range feeding in the conifers surrounding the balcony that overlooks Shakespeare Garden.

These birds appeared in the same place that the Red Crossbills did on 31 August 2012. This comes as no surprise. White-winged Crossbills are rarely seen feeding on trees other than hemlock and spruce. The tree map of Central Park shows only a small number of such trees, so I knew that there were only a few places to look. The last prior sighting was on 10 January 2010 in Shakespeare Garden; there was also a sighting on 25 January 2009 in Strawberry Fields. If you want to see crossbills, these are the two places to go!

The White-winged Crossbills were again seen in the the same Shakespeare Garden trees the following morning, on the 6th of November.

— David Barrett

Evening Grosbeak Arrives in Central Park

Evening Grosbeak. Visitor Centre, Algonquin Pr...

Evening Grosbeak, male

Low coniferous seed supplies in Canada are causing irruptions among many finch species this year. Evening Grosbeak, which is Starr’s favorite bird, has been moving south across the northeastern US in recent weeks.

Two days ago I ran an eBird report that showed observations of Evening Grosbeak in New Jersey at about the same latitude as New York City and in Westchester County just north of here.

Yesterday there was a report of flyover Evening Grosbeak near the East River in midtown.

Today two Evening Grosbeaks appeared in Central Park, in the berry-filled trees ringing Storm Field (also called Blowdown Meadow) on the SE side of the Great Hill. The bird alert came at 12:04 pm and I raced out to see them.

Evening Grosbeak has been absent from Central Park for a long time. The last report on eBird is from 1998.

Their overall size, coloring, and large bills make them unmistakable. They love bird feeders and will flock to them. (The only feeders in Central Park are at Evodia Field in the Ramble. These feeders are well-hidden beneath large trees and it will take birds some time to find them. Right now fruits and seeds are still widely available so birds do not need to look for feeders.)

If you learn their calls you’ll know when they are around. Good luck!

–David Barrett

Starr Saphir Gets Two Unusual Birds


English: Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) at S...

Forster’s Tern (nonbreeding plumage)

American Pipit 4-20101102

American Pipit (Photo credit: kenschneiderusa)


Starr called me today with some good news. On Wednesday, October 31, she walked from her residence to the Hudson near Dyckman and she had her first Manhattan Forster’s Tern of the year! Normally you do not get Forster’s Terns in upper Manhattan at this time of year, but Hurricane Sandy has driven many birds more commonly seen off the south shore of Long Island to the north and west.

Then Starr told me she had an even better bird the same day: an American Pipit (not a hurricane bird, but a regular fall migrant), seen around the Columbia University athletics complex (Baker Field). There are no eBird reports in New York County of the Pipit this year — it is an rare and excellent find.