Friday, January 20, 2006

Nightshift

Late this afternoon I pedalled into the park to see if the Long-eared Owl was still hanging around. I was planning to remain near the roost until sunset and witness his fly-out. It was approximately 4:15pm when I left my home.

As I cruised passed the north end of the Long Meadow I noticed a bat flitting about. The recent string of unseasonably warm weather has activated dormant insects and the bat was taking advantage of the rare winter bounty. It was a Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) and the late day sun made his luxurious, rusty fur glow orange. His small size and ability to make sudden, erratic changes in direction reminded me of a Chimney Swift (or is it that the swift reminds me of a bat).

It took me a long time to locate the owl. His cryptic brown pattern, breathless silence and dead stillness fused the soft bird with the tree’s rigid, wooden surface. I leaned my bicycle against a sapling and circled the roost tree several times. Standing on the northeast side of the tree I scanned light patches of sky passing through the canopy. Through one of the holes I spotted what looked like an inverted triangle extending below a thin branch. It seemed out of place and, on closer examination, turned out to be the lower half of the Long-eared Owl. I stepped back across the path and waited for the sun to set.

As I stood owl-like at the side of the path a flock of robins flew into the patch of woods. Some of the birds foraged in the understory while many others remained vigilant in the trees above. Fifteen minutes went by when suddenly the entire flock panicked and flew off towards the north. I looked around for a predator and spotted a Cooper’s Hawk coming my way. He landed in an oak tree directly above my head. I spent the next ten minutes splitting my time between watching the owl then the hawk. A cocky Downy Woodpecker tried to dissuade the hawk from using his tree as a roost. He flew back and forth over the hawk’s head while emitting a gentle “pik, pik, pik”. The Cooper’s Hawk ignored the small bird’s pathetic threats and the woodpecker eventually gave up and flew off. I assumed that the hawk was settling down for the night when he abruptly burst from his perch and headed towards a stand of pines. I heard the whinnying cry of a robin followed by silence. It appeared that the hawk captured his last meal of the day.

It was nearly 5:00pm on the dot when I noticed the owl moving. He fluffed his feathers and shook off the sleep. It was getting difficult to see details but I could at least tell that he was lifting his wings and preening. He turned around and faced south so I moved my position. At 5:20pm he flew from his roost a few yards to the south and perched on a narrow, broken branch on the side of a pine tree. His long, rounded wings and silent flight seemed moth-like. It was now too dark to see any details but the illuminated, city sky behind the owl created a perfect cookie-cutter silhouette. He frenetically jerked his head from side to side, his feathery “ears” flexing in the light breeze. A restless cardinal was still awake and alarmed by the owl. He sat in a low shrub and cried a loud, repeated “tik, tik, tik”. The owl didn’t seem to notice and continued energetically scanning the darkness. At 5:30pm he left his perch, silently threaded his way through tree branches and flew over my head on his way to work over the Nethermead Meadow.

I hopped on my bicycle and headed home. Near the maintenance garage I spooked a young cottontail. He had been nibbling on vegetation within the small, orange circle of light beneath a low street lamp. I thought to myself, this little bunny will have a much longer life if he learns to stay better hidden when the nightshift is working.

-Click here for a photo of a Long-eared Owl in flight-

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Prospect Park, 1/20/2006
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Pied-billed Grebe
Northern Shoveler
Bufflehead (3.)
Ruddy Duck
Cooper's Hawk (Adult, Lookout Hill.)
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Long-eared Owl (1.)
Hairy Woodpecker (2.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch (3.)
Brown Creeper (1, Breeze Hill.)
American Robin (Flock of ~30-40.)
American Goldfinch (2.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird

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