On Thursday, I caught up with an owl in the northern end of Central Park. It got mobbed by crows and blue jays. It also got a visit by about 25 elementary school children, on a tour of the North Woods with two Urban Park Rangers. The children were on their best behavior and did their best not to disturb the owl. However, two younger siblings started to play in some leaves. This noise and not the presence of all of these people peaked the owls attention. I had noticed this ten years ago when I watched Eastern Screech Owls in these same woods. Owls are hyper sensitive to the rustling of leaves.
Also on Wednesday, aka Boxing Day, I got to watch a Barred Owl hang out in a open tree in one of the busiest areas of the park. The owl let out the loudest call at fly out. It was like a scream followed by a standard call. I can't imagine what I would have felt like as a young child camping, if I had heard this call!
Last Sunday night, I witnessed a circus. Robert DeCandido, aka Birding Bob, led an owl walk that included about fifty participants at Shakespeare Garden and Turtle Pond charging $10 per person.
The tour would have been fine, if Bob had the group watch the Great Horned Owl quietly, but Bob needed to put on a show to earn his fee.
So after fly out, Bob played Great Horned Owl calls continuously for over twelve minutes. Then when that didn't bring the owl into view he played both Northern Saw-whet calls and Barred Owl calls. When I saw that the Great Horned Owl had flown back into view, I let his group know where to look for the owl and I asked Bob to stop playing the calls since the owl was in plain sight. Bob responded by playing more calls, saying "Let's see if we can bring the owl closer" to his group. When the owl didn't respond to the playback, Bob led his group closer to the owl and then used a high powered flashlight to illuminate the owl multiple times.
The American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics, under section 1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment, states
1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.
Many birders are against using any kind of audio playback. But even those who do use it, know to use it in moderation. Ethical birders know that using calls to bring in birds should be done with great caution, and especially so with owls who react strongly to them. A few calls, if you are doing survey work may be fine, but once the owl is in view or you hear a call be returned you should always stop your playback. To play calls over and over again is irresponsible, and to keep playing them when an owl is in view is manipulative.
In addition to the issues with the audio playback, there was no reason to shine a high powered light into the eyes of the owl multiple times. The park has lots of artificial light at night and one does not need a flashlight to spot an owl.
Sadly, the tour had many beginning birders, who were being taught all of the wrong lessons about how to respect wildlife. One should never do anything to entice, manipulate or harass wildlife. It also takes the fun out of it. How can you watch an owl's behavior if you are tricking it with audio playback or blinding it with flashlight?
Bob has been doing this crazy stuff for years. Thankfully, there are great alternatives to his walks from New York City Audubon, the American Museum of Natural History and the Linnaean Society of New York, among others. I would encourage folks to use tours sponsored by these fine organizations. When selecting a walk, I would suggest asking if the leader respects the American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics, before signing up. Birding is a lot more enjoyable when you know the leader of your walk will do his or her best to respect the birds you are observing.
Luckily even with the circus, I was able to get some good views of the Great Horned Owl. Unfortunately, I was unable to watch any natural behavior, due to the audio playback and the flashlight.
On Wednesday the Great Horned Owl changed roost during the day, ending up just south of the Maintenance parking lot. It moved east after being harassed by a group of Blue Jays. (There is construction going on where it had been roosting for a few days. On Thursday it had gone back to that roost. It might be noisy there, but the other birds leave it alone there.)
The Great Horned Owl was difficult to photograph today. There wasn't a single angle to get a clear shot of the bird. At fly out, the owl landed on the rocks just north of the Castle. The bird then few east. It was unclear where it ended up.
There were three Barred Owls reported in the Central Park today. This one looked to be enjoying the morning sun when I arrived. This Barred Owl amazes me in that it has been roosting in plain sight in one of the busiest sections of the park. Thousands of people walk by this owl every hour. Sadly, few people notice it.
On Friday, there was a Northern Saw-whet Owl just south of the Recreation Center in the north end of the park. The two photos of the alarmed bird are when crows and a Red-tailed Hawk were nearby. We've really been blessed this fall with a great number of owls.
The Barred Owl that has been in Sheep Meadow was relocated today by Karen Evans. It was a bit further south then it had been. It took me a bit of time to find it on my own, and just a few minutes after I did, it moved to another tree after an encounter with a Gray Squirrel. I'm glad it's sticking around.
I wanted to watch an owl by myself tonight and I got my wish. Except for two small groups of owl watchers who stayed for only a few minutes, I had the Sheep Meadow owl all to myself tonight. It was high up in one of the Red Oaks and flew around the roost tree and adjacent trees to about five different perches before I lost it. This was one of four (maybe five) Barred Owls located in the park today.
The neighbors haven't been very welcoming to the Great Horned Owl. This morning two Red-tailed Hawks forced it to find a new roost and while I visited it in the afternoon it was mobbed by crows. Hopefully, it will stay and have an easier time in coming days.
On Saturday, we had the first Great Horned Owl of the season in Central Park. We've had one consistently over the last few fall/winters, so it was great news that one had arrived. We're having a great fall with Long-eared, Northern Saw-whet, and Barred Owls already having been seen. Earlier this spring, we also had a Barn and Eastern Screech Owl in the park making 2018 a great year for Central Park owls.
The Great Horned Owl was in the Ramble and flew off on a long flight towards the northeastern shore of the lake. This has been a common habit of previous Great Horned Owls. I wonder if the noisy call of the ducks going to sleep on the shore of the lake, sounds like a dinner bell to the owl?
Central Park has had three Barred Owls this week. Two have been in fairly consistent locations. However, one has been moving around since it arrived, preferring deciduous trees but leaving a roost when the tree loses its leaves. This has had the same owl changing trees by about 100 to 300 yards every few days. So, the question about this owl, who has now been seen on two nights in a conifer this week, the same owl that had been preferring deciduous trees earlier in the fall? Or a new owl?
A small group is respectfully watching one of the Barred Owl's fly outs in Central Park. They're doing a great job of spotting the owl after it leaves its roost area. On Friday night the owl went to the small island in Turtle Pond, north of Belvedere Castle. I'm happy to have company watching the owl now, since some of the newcomers have great night vision. I was able to stay with the owl to 5: 30 p.m. It gave a full "Who cooks for you" call before flying off into the dark.
Saw-whets are so small they can't eat their prey all at once. They are knows to roost with their prey and eat the second half of their prey during the day. Today, I was lucky enough to watch the "Second Course". After picking at the White-footed Mouse, it eat the whole thing in one gulp.
One of the Northern Saw-whet Owls that is in the park was found sleeping with a mouse today. It would wake up from time to time and take a bite. Yesterday, the meal was a Northern Cardinal. We won't have to dissect pellets to figure out what this owl is eating.
Fly out was sudden and the owl went a few trees to the east, but folks had trouble seeing it. I played a hunch and went to the east side of the Delacorte Theater. I was joined by a photographer who was watching his first Barred Owl.
After about five minutes we heard two hoots and thanks to the photographer who had great night vision, got to see it on one of the stage posts. It then few off, but returned to a branch about 2o feet from the Turtle Pond dock/blind. It stayed for at least five minutes giving us wonderful, if very dark looks.
Wonderful sights like this really heal my soul. New York City gets a little crazy at Christmas time, but this was so joyous and restorative.
(All pictures taken without flash.)
These pictures are from Saturday. Saw-whet mania seemed to be in play, and folks were downright abusive of the bird. Why would you stick your cell phone up into the center of a small tree so you can take a picture? So, I waited until today, when no Saw-whet was reported in the park to post these pictures, which were taken from about 35 feet away.
On Saturday, at dusk those watching the Barred Owl got a special treat. A Cooper's Hawk came in and harassed the Barred Owl. There was calling by both birds, which included the strange Cooper's Hawk sounds. After this the Barred Owl went to a low branch giving everyone great looks.
The Barred Owl watchers were well behaved and kept quiet. All of a sudden we and the owl heard loud clapping. It turns out that while we were looking at the owl, an Italian couple got engaged! It is Central Park not a nature preserve, so other things do happen!
The fun continued as the Barred Owl flew to an Oak Tree and went after squirrels. It didn't seem to get them, but they are in its view all day so I guess it's worth a try. I've seen a Great Horned Owl exhibit similar behavior. So, just when I think I understand the fly out behavior, the owl or in this case a Cooper's Hawk mixes things up.
Yesterday, we had two Northern Saw-whet Owls in Central Park. One was well hidden in a Holly tree and the other was in the open in a small tree at eye level.
Unfortunately the one in the open was being awoken by photographers when I arrived, who to get an unobstructed view, were going within a few feet of the owl, moving brush aside and talking loudly. For me if an owl is awake, there are no other birds/animals around and it's not near dusk, then the bird watchers (including myself) are the problem. Bircdchick, Sharon Stiteler, wrote a nice piece How Close Is "Too Close" To An Owl in 2013 as a guest writer for 10,000 Birds.
I think it's up to every bird watcher to decide their own limits. I'm not so worried about what each person decides. I just want everyone to consider what the impact of their bird watching and photography might be. Keep in mind that the Manhattan Bird Alert now has over 12,000 subscribers. While David Barrett is thrilled to has such a wide audience, it means that a single tweet about an owl's location (especially when David includes a map) can now bring over 100 visitors to an owl in a day. So, think about your behavior in the context of 100 people doing the same thing or worse throughout the day.
I'd recommend visiting owls just before dusk rather than making a trip during mid-day. The owl will be getting up at this time and you'll be able to see the owl naturally wake up, preen and you might get to see it fly out.
While I don't think most owl locations should be reported, with social media and eBirds locations will end up leaking out. This puts pressure on the bird watching community to police itself by educating new birders about owl etiquette, only tweeting about an owls location when you know the bird won't be disturbed and calling out our peers when in our excitement of seeing an owl, we get too noisy, too close or stay too long. This can be done in a friendly way. 99% of all bird watchers want to respect the birds they watch and will be open to a polite conversation about respecting the bird they're watching. I like to reread, the American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics every few months, especially the parts that remind experienced birders of their responsibility to educate others about ethics.
I managed this problem for myself yesterday by setting up a tripod with a less than an ideal shot, letting the camera record and walking thirty feet more away. I had lots of wasted footage, and a partially obscured view but for most of the time the owl stayed asleep. It woke up because of squirrels, titmice and a Red-tailed Hawk so with my camera rolling I got some nice images. I also asked new visitors to give the owl some space, and showed them good vantage points which allowed them to stay far from the owl but get good looks.