Central Park Owls

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. 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