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Friday, November 13, 2009


I've been thinking about owls a lot lately. November is usually the month when migratory species begin to move through our area, which has motivated me to start checking stands of conifers for any signs.

The most common species of owls (but which are rarely seen in abundance) that spend the winter in New York City are Long-eared Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl. Both are highly sought after by birdwatchers and are usually confined to only a few regular locations around the five boroughs. Saw-whet Owls are adorable, little birds only about the size of my fist and are easily overlooked. The first one that I ever saw was in 1994. I was walking in Prospect Park with my friend Jerry Layton when he suddenly stopped and said, "I can't believe I'm looking at an owl!" He pointed off in the distance (at least what I thought was the "distance"), but I couldn't find it. After several minutes trying to describe the location, Jerry finally walked about two yards away, pointed his finger at a shrub to a point about four feet off the ground and said, "Right there!". It was so close and unexpectedly compact that I was looking right passed it.

To get me into the spirit of the birding season I just read a wonderful book called "Wesley the Owl", by Stacey O'Brien. It is a very sweet memoir by a woman who, as a biologist, adopts an orphaned Barn Owl with a damaged wing. The story chronicles her 19 year relationship with this incredible animal. One of the things that I learned from the book is that owls create audio "maps" of their surroundings in much the same way humans create visual maps. They have such sensitive hearing, I now realize how important it is to remain quiet when observing them. With regard to sounds and stressing out owls, I also just learned the reason why the Great Horned Owls abandoned their nest in Green-Wood Cemetery. I thought long and hard about whether to post this, knowing that it will probably stir up an email firestorm, but, be that as it may ...

When the owls in Green-Wood were incubating eggs, one of the guys in the landscape crew would stop his truck on the road adjacent to the nest tree and honk his horn to try and make the bird move. I don't think this man intended on harming the birds, but just did it out of ignorance. Last year's nest tree succumb to a fungi and had to be cut down. I'm hoping that the owls find a new tree that is more isolated. Perhaps I should also give a brief lecture to the landscape crew about proper owl etiquette and the importance of respecting their roosting spots.

Here's a slideshow of some of the owls seen in New York:

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