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Monday, January 11, 2010

Winter Owl

I've been holding off posting this story because owls are a special group of birds that require a different set of considerations.

Most birds are like humans, they spend the daylight hours feeding, avoiding predators and, in general, trying to make a living. At night, they sleep, regenerating their brains and bodies. Imagine what would happen if we could track down a sleeping sparrow and chase it around all night. It probably wouldn't be able to operate at peak performance come daybreak. Finding food would become a challenge, as well as, avoiding hungry predators. The same holds true for owls and other nocturnal species. Owls have a couple of things working against them when it comes to surviving in the urban environment; 1) Everybody loves seeing them and 2) they tend to stick with a preferred daytime roost. Once the location of a roosting owl begins to circulate through the birding community, it is only a matter of time before lots of people come to see the bird. Last year, at Jones Beach, it got so bad for one particular owl that the park rangers had to put up a fence surrounding the roost tree. It felt like I was viewing a zoo animal when I arrived because a large group of people had encircled the "caged" owl, staying just outside the fencing. It is for that reason that I never post the location of a roosting owl and try to remain vague in my descriptions.

I had been regularly checking for owls in December and, as New Year's Eve approached, decided to check a few more locations. The weather had been unusually cold, with strong northwest winds dropping temperatures all along the east coast. My gut told me that there was a very good chance that the season had deposited an overwintering Northern Saw-whet Owl somewhere in the borough. Saw-whets like to roost in dense conifers, so my first stop would be one of the few places where I'd seen one within the last 10 years.

The winds were gusting to 30 mph that day making it feel like 17 degrees. I tried to stay out of the blasting wind by walking a longer, indirect, but warmer route. Maybe it was the cold or me being lazy, but at the last minute I changed my mind, deciding not to go to the stand of conifers, but rather to make a short loop back towards my neighborhood. My head was down to keep the wind out of my eyes, and I had only walked about 5 yards from my detour, when I noticed white splatters on the sidewalk. I stopped and tipped my head all the way back until I was looking straight up. At first look, there appeared to be a clump of leaves or pine cones near the end of a sparsely needled pine bough. I lifted my bins and focused on the clump. It was neither and staring straight down at me was a tiny, wide-eyed saw-whet owl. She looked so funny and cute that I laughed out loud. Had someone been walking passed, they probably would have thought I was a madman and took off in the opposite direction. This was the first time I'd seen one of these owls in Brooklyn in nearly a decade. It was worth the wait. To give you an idea of the size of this owl, notice the oak leaves caught on the branches next to the owl. This bird is only a little larger than a single leaf!


Yojimbot said...

Great find...what a cutie!

OpposableChums said...

Very cute! And thanks for keeping owl roosting sites sacrosanct.

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