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Monday, March 06, 2006

Looking for owls

Willow & blue sky

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Shane picked me up at first light yesterday. We were determined to locate some owls. In particular, we were looking for Barred Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl. There are some habitats around the five boroughs where owls are rare, but regular winter visitors. Barred Owls are very rare in New York City. I’ve only observed one. It was in Prospect Park over the winter of 1999/2000 and he stuck around for about two months.

Our plan was to begin our search in the Bronx at dawn then, if we struck out, we’d head up to Croton Point Park. I have a couple of requests before I continue. Roosting owls are sensitive to disturbance and easily stressed. I would assume that individuals residing around New York City have a lot to contend with so it’s important to be respectful. If you decide to search for owls keep your groups very small. If you locate a roosting owl, remain quiet, stay a reasonable distance away from the bird and limit your stay to only a few minutes. Keep in mind that owls have incredible hearing and that, even when you think that they are counting sheep, they will have one eye slightly cracked to watch you. Finally, it’s considered improper by many folks to post the location of an owl roost. With that in mind, this report will be rather short.

Over the years and through word of mouth many NYC birders have learned where to look for owls in the Bronx. It almost takes the fun out the hunt when one knows exactly where to search. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the Barred Owl and saw-whet owl were not where we expected to find them. We drove up to Croton Point hoping for another chance.

When we arrived at Croton and a screech owl, that had been roosting in one spot all winter, wasn’t located I began to feel a bit pessimistic. At each location we scoured the base of every conifer for white-wash and pellets but found none. I’ve been told that Great Horned Owl nest at Croton Point Park but over all the years that I've birded there I’ve never found one. Today my scoreless streak ended and we got to observe one of these huge owls sitting on her nest. It wasn’t one of our target species but it was still a great find. We checked out a couple of other spots in the area then decided to go back to our starting place.

Sleeping Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

We ran into George Dadone who was also looking for owls. He was with a friend and his young daughter. George was hoping to show them their first owl. Striking out again we began walking back to our cars. At one point Shane look down at the base of a tree and pointed out what seemed to be fresh white-wash. He looked directly overhead but couldn’t find anything. The wind was blowing hard so I visually estimated the angled trajectory and stepped back to scan the branches. It look me a only about a second to recognize the small brown bump on the branch as a cute, little Northern Saw-whet Owl. She was roosting uncharacteristically high in the tree and far out on the branch. The blowing wind was moving the tree and bouncing the owl up and down like a bungee jumper. She didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it helped to rock her to sleep.

Just waking up

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Shane retrieved his scope from the car and set it up so George’s friend and his daughter could easily view the owl. I was really happy that Shane and I finally found a saw-whet owl. It made my day, though, when the little girl looked up from the scope, beaming and whispered, “she opened her eyes and is looking at me!”

-Click here for photos of saw-whets being banded-

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Pelham Park & Croton Point Park, 3/5/2006
Great Blue Heron
Mute Swan
Common Merganser
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Horned Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Carolina Wren
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow , Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird

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