Tonight ended up being a special night. Two species of owls Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl flew out within a few hundred yards of each other within about ten minutes.
I watched the Barred Owl first.
Then, I choose to watch the Great Horned Owl, while other watched the Barred Owl fly out.
The Great Horned Owl did its usual "Owl Yoga" before jumping up a branch, and then working its way to a higher branch. It ended up being in a more open branch and flew out to a nearby tree. But then it flew to a tree across a body of water, only to return to a tree near the roost tree. It then went very low and ended up on a lawn after going after what looked to be a squirrel. Then it was up to a small tree, and then high in a large tree. Then it was a wide circle over water and I lost track of the Great Horned Owl.
I packed up my camera and got ready to go home after everyone else had left and something amazing happened. The Great Horned Owl and the Barred had a little fight in the roost tree of the Barred Owl. It was fantastic to watch them fight. It was very much like an American Kestrel and a Red-tailed Hawk fighting. The fight seemed to be just a territorial fight. One that wasn't intended to injure either party. I'd love on some future night capture at least one image of the interaction.
This wonderful evening was enjoyed by about fifteen folks. I doubt any of this behavior would have been observed if there had been a large walk with a leader used a flashlight and audio playback. No one should be allowed to interfere with an other person's desire to view natural avian behavior in a public park.
I went up to Riverside Park today and had a very enjoyable time watching a sometimes cooperative and sometimes not so cooperative male Evening Grosbeak. Common further upstate, this is a rare bird for Manhattan, but one I got to see a few weeks ago in Central Park. I love watching any grosbeak eat. They separate the food from the seeds or with grains the chafe.
I'd also like to thank the many birders who came up to me and thanked me for bring up some of the ethical issues we're having in Manhattan. It made me feel reassured that as a community we can minimize the impact we have on birds, and keep our generous sharing of information and images from being co-opted for the personal gain of others. Birding is a lot of fun, and no one should get in the way of that joy.
My first was a Northern Saw-when Owl. It was tucked into a pine tree and was asleep and relaxed except for two occasions. Once when a truck went by and once when a Yellow-belled Sapsucker found the owl. After the Sapsucker left, it didn't seem to be falling asleep, so just in case I had become the problem, I left.
My second owl was a Great Horned Owl. It was much lower down in a tree it had been using regularly. I could figure out how to photograph it without being right under the bird, so I choose to walk away.
My third owl was a Barred Owl. This owl was high in a tree that a Barred Owl had used over two months ago. I wonder if it is the same owl? It rested most of the time, but at least three times was attacked by Blue Jays and Tufted Titmice.
Tonight, I had the good fortune to do some quiet, respectful birding by watching a Great Horned Owl wake up, preen, fly out and spend 20 minutes with the owl after fly out./p>
I was able to do this despite of Bob DeCandido and his group. He used a flashlight on the owl while it was roosting, played owl calls and used a flashlight all across the rocks of Belvedere Castle to look for the owl. When his group arrived at the Turtle Pond Duck Blind just as I was leaving, he made a number of jokes about playing calls from all three species of owls endlessly. At least he reads my blog! Bob's little more than a middle school bully. While his bullying doesn't bother me, I do feel concerned for the birds he taunts.
My realization at the end of the night was that despite all of his heavy handed use of flashlights and audio playback, my evening was full of great, natural observations of an owl and I doubt his group saw little more than the back of an owl's head.
Ethical birding wins every time. I highly recommend asking any bird trip leader if they subscribe to the American Birding Association Code of Ethics and decline to take a tour with them if they don't. I still can't believe that anyone pays Bob money to show them an owl, when you can do it for free and have a much more pleasurable experience.
In most counties and states across America there is a bird alert system, generally based on an email listserv or yahoo group. They're generally sponsored and monitored by a local birding group or the local Audubon Society.
In New York City, there were and still are a variety of services which are a little difficult to use. So, David Barrett, as an individual set up a wonderful Twitter based Manhattan Bird Alert as an alternative to some older systems. David's Manhattan Bird Alert filled a void and was adopted by most Manhattan birders. I also enjoyed David re-posting some of my photos and videos.
But as David gained many followers on Twitter due to the notoriety of the vagrant escaped Mandarin Duck, something changed. What had been great, over the last month has diverged from its original mission and
1) Started advertising T-Shirts.
2) Promoted commercial Owl Walks that point flashlights at owls and use excessive audio playback. Owls are very easy to watch in New York City, so there is absolutely no need to resort to invasive methods of observation.
3) Reported owls with exact locations, which resulted in the over birding of some owls, especially a specific Northern Saw-whet Owl. David's guidelines say post about any bird including all owls. There needs to be some limits, just as there are on most alert systems. At a minimum some rules on reporting exact locations of nesting birds, smaller owls and Snowy Owls.
4) Promoted the feeding of ducks on The Pond, which is against Park regulations, is unhealthy for the ducks and ends up supporting the rodent population. If any duck on The Pond really needs to get fed, it is not a wild bird. It should be captured and put in an appropriate bird sanctuary.
So, for 2019 I think it is time to return to an alert systems that simply provides alerts, without any advertising or promotions, and which has a well thought out set of guidelines on what is appropriate to post. Ideally, the system should also require an opt-in to the posting guidelines before allowing users to post sightings.
Since it doesn't look like David is interested in going back to a simple alert system with some reasonable posting guidelines, I've stopped following the Manhattan Bird Alert and will no longer post using the #birdcp tag.
I'm sure the system will live on without me, but at least I won't feel like I'm participating in a site that uses my sightings or photography to promotes commercial products or unethical activity. eBird already offers hourly email alerts, so I see no need to continue using David's system.
I know at least two folks who are talking about building alternative notification systems. Please let me know when they're ready. If possible, try to get your systems sponsored by NYC Audubon or any other birding group! It would be really great if an organization with a long history of supporting conservation, could assist in setting posting standards.
This morning, two mobs of crows converged on a Great Horned Owl, leading anyone birding in the area straight to the owl. The owl took the invasion of crows in stride, elongating for only a few minutes before relaxing. The crows brought with them a Cooper's Hawk who I've seen go after the crows on other days. May the bounty of owls continue into 2019.
(The two Northern Saw-Whet Owls that were horribly over birded on Sunday, were not found today. Tweeting an owl's exact location, when someone can literally reach up and touch it to thousands of people, isn't the best idea. While most of us have common sense, there are those who don't.)
On Sunday, the Great Horned Owl choose a roost far from everyone in the middle of a construction site. From way across a pond I could get a few photographs. While the owl was not bothered by people, a mob of crows did find the owl. Luckily for the owl, they only stayed for a few minutes.
On Saturday, the Great Horned Owl that has been difficult to view for the last week, choose a nice low branch to roost in. It afforded folks a nice view and a chain link fence keep people at a distance. It also had some of the best light we've seen this owl in. I stayed for the fly out, but wasn't able to track the owl afterwards.
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!
On Wednesday, I got to see two Peregrine Falcons in a tree just south of the No. 28 Bridge (aka Gothic Bridge), SW of the Reservoir's North Gate House. Last winter a single falcon would hang out in this tree during the afternoons, so it was wonderful to see a pair this year in the exact same spot. In Manhattan, we usually see Peregrine Falcons perched high on a building, so seeing these two birds in a tree was a special treat.
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 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.
Sometimes you get to see something magical when birding. Today, I got to see a Cooper's Hawk make three amazing swift turns and catch a Tufted Titmouse in midair. It was too sudden to catch with my camera. I did however get to record the meal being eaten.
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.
Today, I caught up with one of two Red-shouldered Hawks that's been in Central Park. This bird is in the same family, Buteo, as Red-tailed Hawks. We first saw the Red-shouldered Hawk at Turtle Pond. It then went just south of the Obelisk (a.k.a. Cleopatra's Needle). After about twenty minutes it then went to Cedar Hill before we lost it. In searching for it we found Pale Male, America's most famous Red-tailed Hawk. I've included him in the pictures so, you can compare these two species from the same family.
The Merlin that has been hanging around the Great Lawn this December, was eating what looked like a Tufted Titmouse this afternoon. It was fun to watch it fan its tail to help keep its balance while eating.
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.