Sunday, April 17, 2005

Screech-Owl Story that is not about Screech-Owls


As you may remember from Donna's field report of two days ago, the little owl family that had moved to an oak down in the dark woods known as the Ravine, were not found by the owl hunters the next day [4/14]. We wandered around the dark, creepy woods for an hour or so, and never heard a single haunting whinny or fledgling chitter.

The day after that, [4/15], I planned to get up to the North Woods nice and early, well before sunset, to try to find the new Screech-Owl roost. That was my plan until an e-mail arrived just as I was leaving my office: Prothonotary Warbler at the Lower Lobe. Of course I had to check it out before heading for the owls. A prothonotary warbler is a big event in Central Park. And I had missed an early sighting of the golden-colored warbler the day before.

At around 5 p.m. I got out of the subway at Central Park West and 72nd Street. Though for some political reasons the south-western end of the Lake had been renamed Wagner Cove quite a few years ago, birders never call it anything but the Lower Lobe. As I came out of Strawberry Fields and waited for the traffic light at the West Drive to change, I could see the Lower Lobe through the still un-leaved branches of the bushes at the water's edge. There I could already see a crowd of birdwatchers peering through binoculars at something low and nearby.

The light changed and I broke into a run. Up the path to the parking lot, then to the top of the little hill with steps leading down to the Lower Lobe I trotted. As I reached that spot, that was the instant that all the birdwatchers lowered their binoculars. Rats! Double rats! The bird had just flown away.

I was just just rounding the corner from the disappointing Lower Lobe to head for the uptown owls when I ran into Chris Cooper, a superb birder whose presence in Central Park signals the real beginning of the spring migration. He shows up at the very beginning of the migration as dependably as the first Pine Warbler. At the end of May, when the last batch of Blackpoll Warblers are beginning to trickle out, Chris Cooper disappears until the following spring.

He too had received an email and was there for the prothonotary. In self-pitying tones I told him that I had missed the bird by a few seconds.

He looked at me in disbelief. "You're not giving up so easily?" He asked.

"Well, I ..."

I returned to the Lower Lobe with Chris. Just as we got to the top of the stairs heading down to the water we could see a small group of birders gazing at something with binoculars. One of them was Barrie Raik, a birding friend who clicked her camera just as Chris and I lifted our binoculars and gazed too. The photo at the top is what her camera captured at that moment.

The warbler stayed until it was almost too dark to see. And I never got to the screech owls that day.