Saturday, December 24, 2005

Great Horned Owl is back

Photo of the Ramble Great Horned Owl by Lloyd Spitalnik

Yesterday he [or probably she, since the owl looks huge and females are bigger than males] was absent from his usual tree. Looked like our GHO extravaganza was over.

Today Jack Meyer, a Central Park birding Regular who also leads walks during the migration seasons, reports:

He just took the day off. He was there today! Probably heard the strike was over and took a bus ride.


About the Trump Parc nest

Photo by Bruce Yolton -- 9/05

Donna Brown writes:

Rumour to the contrary, Pale Male Junior and Charlotte's nest on the Trump Parc has NOT blown away. The central mass is still there, just as they left it at the end of last season. In fact, through whatever process, decomposition of materials, excrement, or whatever, the whole thing seems rather safely glued down, waiting for Junior and Charlotte's upcoming visits bringing this years new layer of twigs. And perhaps even, like last year, rectangles of styrofoam and lengths of yellow caution tape.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Pale Male vs. the Great Horned Owl

John Blakeman writes about Great Horned Owls:

Red-tails and great-horneds in the East, South, and Midwest, have a remarkable relationship, an ecological détente, as it were. Here's how it works (mostly and usually).

The crucial fact is that great horned owls don't build nests. They simply expropriate (read that as steal) existing ones. No one -- even if they could see at night -- will ever observe an owl bringing twigs to a nest site. Owls don't do that. For the great-horneds, they just perch themselves on an existing red-tail's nest in December or January and claim it. GHO's are larger and more muscular than red-tails, and at night, red-tails can see about as well as we can. Red-tails will intelligently abandon a nest claimed by a great horned owl. The hawks will frequently go just a short distance and build a new nest, sometimes even in the same woodlot, perhaps only a few hundred yards from the old nest.

At night, a great horned owl could easily drop down upon an incubating red-tail and have her for a midnight snack. Conversely, in broad daylight, when a female owl is hunkered down over her owlets, a red-tail could do a classic red-tail stoop, a dive, and take the head off the owl before it knew what hit her.

But these things seldom happen. There is, as I mentioned, an ecological détente, an understanding, that the owls will do their things at night, and the hawks theirs in daylight. By this arrangement, the owls find beautifully formed, existing nests to claim each December (long before the red-tails resume nesting activities). For the red-tails, they don't get killed by the larger, more aggressive owls. This is a raptorial version of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, the tenuous but effective arrangement between American and Soviet thermonuclear powers.

So far, there have been no MAD things in Central Park. So far, there has been only one ecological Super Power, the red-tailed hawks. But, are things changing? Has a new super power emerged? Great horned owls have apparently been seen in Central Park in previous years, but only for short, incidental periods of time. The owls have not persisted.

But might that change? I think it could. Great horned owls hunt for and kill the same prey as red-tails. They use exactly the same habitat, only at night instead of in the hawks' day-hunting periods. And clearly there is an abundance of available food in Central Park. Because they are nocturnal hunters, great-horneds aren't going to take many pigeons. But at night there will be a surfeit of rats that owls could thrive upon.
The recent CP residency of a single great horned owl could only mean one of two things, another temporary, incidental "I'm just passin' through" visit, or more ominously (or interestingly) an extended reconnoitering of the prospects for a permanent CP residency.

What if this bird really likes what it finds, as did Pale Male, lo, those many years ago? What if this is a male on the search for a new, unoccupied territory where he could set up a territory and try to attract a female? There is plenty of food, of course.
There are two impediments for a great-horned residency. The first -- as originally with Pale Male -- would be the disruptive abundance of all those giant two-legged animals in the park. Great horned owls, like rural red-tails, just don't like humans close to their perches or nests. But the red-tails overcame this instinctive restraint, and great-horneds probably could, too.

The greater problem for the owls would be the nest one. They would have to find some existing nest to use, and we know which ones those might be. Now I really don't think great horned owls would go up to either the Trump Parc or 927 nests and expropriate them, as they are way above the tops of the trees. Great horned owls don't nest at those heights. But when I first learned of Pale Male, I said the same thing about red-tails. I was wrong for the urban red-tails, and I could be wrong for an emerging urban great horned owl population, too.

Finally, great-horneds are noted for nesting on just about any flat surface that has only a scattering of nest-like materials. In desperation, a pile of old leaves on the corner of a flat roof could work. If a pair of great horned owls is noted in Central Park for a winter, a platform tree nest could be erected, to see what happens.

All of this is speculation, with the new owl perhaps soon departing. But if it hangs around, another unanticipated chapter in Central Park raptors might emerge. As before, let's watch and see what happens.

--John A. Blakeman

Thursday, December 22, 2005

FLASH! Tonight's GHO and Screech Pix

Bruce Yolton, how does he do it? -- just sent the pictures below of both of TONIGHT'S fly-outs: of the Great Horned Owl AND the nearby screech couple. I believe Bruce's are the first pictures showing both the screech owls in their roost-hole. Sunset tonight. by the way, was at 4:32 pm, a minute later than yesterday's.

Two Screech Owls in roost-hole just before fly-out - 12/22/05

Eastern Screech Owl -- on nearby branch after tonight's fly-out

Great Horned Owl at 4:35 p.m., December 22, 2005
Fly-out was at 5:10pm.

all photos by BRUCE YOLTON

GHO report

The Great Horned Owl is still in the park -- day five.

Last night's solstice fly-out for the Big One was at 5:06 pm. The fly-out times of the two screech-owls who have begun to share a single hole a bit too close for comfort to the GHO were 4:45 and 4:57 pm for the gray-phased and red-phased screech, respectively.

Blakeman on the Well-fed Hawk

Pale Male with bulging crop
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Lincoln's photo today of Pale Male perched on a window railing above Fifth Avenue shows that he continues to eat well. Viewers will note that his chest, between his chin and belly band, is a bit swollen. He's just consumed an entire crop-filling meal. That happens only when the bird has captured a large animal. With our rural red-tails that subsist on voles, large gerbil-sized field mice, we seldom see this full crop on perched birds. A vole is a very nice meal, but it never causes the crop to bulge, as in this photo.

Only a pigeon or rat or squirrel is big enough

Even in the heart of winter, Pale Male is eating well, and Lola must be, too.
This explains the other photos showing the lifting of a large egg remnant on the 927 Fifth Ave nest. Our red-tails out here in rural Ohio aren't spending any time or efforts tending to nests. The rural birds have to concentrate entirely on finding and capturing their sustenance voles. Here at the beginning of winter they have only about eight hours of hunting time in the short early winter days. And for the last three weeks, Midwest red-tails have been hard pressed to find the voles. We've had continuous thick (for us, 3-5 inches) snow cover. The voles are scooting about joyously beneath the snow pack along their networks of runways that connect one softball-sized vole nest with others. The hawks simply can't find the voles as long as the snow persists, and it's getting tough out there for them. Owls have the entire night to hunt, about 16 hours now, and they can actually hear the voles walking under the snow. Our red-tails, however, have only their eyes, and unless a vole pops its little nose above the snow to see what's happening out there, the red-tails won't eat. And that's what has happened.

In the last week, I've made two several-hundred mile jaunts across Ohio, one to the west to Indiana, and another south into Kentucky through Cincinnati. In a normal winter, when snows last only a week or so between melts, the experienced red-tails hang around, not bothering to laboriously fly south beyond the prey-concealing snow. But this year, I'm seeing very few winter red-tails in northern Ohio. It's clear that the majority have headed south to areas with no snow, impelled by hunger. In February these old birds will start drifting back in, and will be on nests in March once again. This snow-caused exodus happens infrequently here, about once very decade or more.

If Pale Male were to pull out his cell phone and ask his rural cousins how the winter's going, they'd have stories to tell. PM, with a slight smirk on his face, would give account of his fruitful winter in Central Park. He might remark that there seems to be a lot fewer large vehicles on the streets, and for unknown reasons a lot of humans have stepped out into the winter weather and are jaunting all over, just like the summer. But mostly, Pale Male would say that as always, he and his mate are eating exceptionally well. His rural relatives would wish him well, still not comprehending how he can so agreeably disregard all those humans so close to him.

Pale Male and Lola have the time and resources that allow them to moderately tend the nest, a very good sign.

[Tomorrow: Blakeman on Red-tailed Hawks vs. Great Horned Owls].

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Birds of Central Park --the page references in the Foreword need correcting

If any of you are giving Cal Vornberger's fine book Birds of Central Park as a Christmas present, [or if you are already lucky owners of the book] you can do me and other readers a favor by correcting some errors in the Foreword. Between the time I handed in the copy for my essay and the time the book went to press, some major changes were made in the book's design. This made all the page references wrong. Alas, nobody seems to have proofread the Foreword and it was published with the incorrect references.

So please take a nice black pen, turn to pages 6-7, and make the following corrections, crossing out the wrong page numbers and putting in the correct ones.

On p. 6 - par. 5-- the Woodcock is on p. 23 [not p. 11]
par.6 -- the Oriole is on pages 94-95 [not 82]
par. 7--the Flicker is on p. 194 [not p. 184]

on page 7 - first par:
Robins are on p.110-111 [not p.98]
the Woodthrush is on p. 114-115 [not p. 102]
the Red-winged Blackbird is on p. 137 [not p. 125]

I am extremely unhappy to have these mistakes appear in my foreword to this beautiful book. I'll feel better to think that at least a few copies will send readers to the right pages.

Fourth day for Great Horned Owl

The owl on Monday - photo by Lloyd Spitalnik

It was still in the willow at 7 a.m. this morning.

Other birds of note seen by the hardy Early Birders this morning:

Catbird [on W. side of Balcony Bridge
Red-breasted Nutthatch [at feeders]
Swamp Sparrow [at Bank Rock Bridge

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Third day in a row

Photo by Bruce Yolton

The Great Horned Owl continues its stay in Central Park for a third day. In my experience this is the longest stretch a GHO has stayed in the park.

The fly-out was at 5:15 tonight, 11 minutes later than yesterday's. And while the city of New York has come to a virtual standstill thanks to a transit strike, the large owl seemed quite unaffected as it sailed out into the depths of the Ramble for its night hunting. With aching feet [yes, New Yorkers are becoming real hikers thanks to the shutdown of busses and subways] I envied the bird its huge, silent wings that would take it wherever it wanted to go without the need of public transportantion.

Getting ready

Photo by Lincoln Karim

Lincoln posted this remarkable picture on his website today. Taken on Sunday, December 18, 2005. It shows Lola removing a large egg fragment from the Fifth Avenue nest. It must be one of the eggs that didn't hatch last April. [There's a close-up on the website showing the egg more clearly than in the version above.]

Yes, it breaks our hearts to recognize that those eggs didn't hatch because of the willful and arrogant behavior of the powers-that-be at 927 Fifth Ave. who had the nest torn down on December 7, 2004. As we all know their act raised the city's anger, and ultimately caused the building's Board of Directors to put up a new structure that would enable the hawk pair to rebuild their nest.

To me, Lincoln's photo is not only heartbreaking; it is also hopeful. It tells me that preparations are under way for a new breeding season.
Soon, as the days get longer, our hawk friends will begin adding new sticks to the nest . We hope that with an additional layer the eggs will have a more solid resting place. We hope that 2006 will be a chick-full year for Pale Male and Lola.

Grackles still around, but not as many

Common Grackle - December 13, 2005
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Fewer Grackles are spending the night in the trees of the Grand Army Plaza, and almost all of them at the north end near the burnished gold-colored statue of William Tecumseh Sherman. The trees there still have leaves, though fewer every day.

Poor Pomona, the lady atop the fountain at the south end, has lost not only her clothes but her bird companions. No wonder the General on his shining horse looks so triumphant.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Amazingly, the Great-horned Owl stayed around for a second day. Here are some photos from today.



The Christmas Count

Our Cosmic Mindbender at yesterday's Christmas Count

At the end of the annual Christmas Count everyone  congregates at the Arsenal, the Parks Department headquarters, to report on the birds they've seen. The counters are divided into seven different groups,  each accounting for a different section of the park.

In Redtails in Love [p 148-152] I tell the story of the year I was assigned the southwest quadrant at the Christmas Count. That is the least popular assignment -- the only section of the park with no water body. That means a lot of house sparrows, pigeons and gulls. But that year we triumphed over everybody with a great bird.

At yesterday's Count I ended up on a team in one of the park's richest sections--the northwest. Perhaps it makes for a more appealing story when the poorest section gets the best bird. But this year, fortunately for me, it didn't turn out that way.

The poor southwest section reported 450 pigeons,151 House Sparrows, 223 Common Grackles [probably the ones still roosting for the night at the Grand Army Plaza] 93 Starlings and not much else. Meanwile the rich and desirable northwesters ended up with the best bird of the count -- indeed, a cosmic mindbender bird that had certainly never been reported in a Christmas Count before, and had only been seen in Central Park once or twice before during the last 150 years.

Half of the 20 member Northwest team was covering an area near the West Drive around 106th Street. Another group headed for the Blockhouse, a spot deep in the woods where various lowlifes often hang out -- not a place to go alone. There were about ten of us when a team member named Alan called out -- Hey everybody, here's an unusual bird. His binoculars were aimed at a bird perched near the top of a bare tree just east of the Blockhouse.

It had a long tail like a Mockingbird. It was sort of grey. But we could see that the bill was not long and straight like a Mockingbird's. This bird's bill was hooked. I don't know who first said the word Shrike. But soon many field guides materialized out of backpacks and pockets, and the bird was compared with many pictures. Our conviction grew stronger, though the light was poor. No it couldn't be a Mockingbird. Then what else could it be? A Northern Shrike? A Northern Shrike!

One team member, Steve Baldwin, had a camera, and took a few shots. One of them is at the beginning of this posting. [You can click on it to enlarge.] I don't know if it will completely convince the final arbiters at the Audubon orThe Rare Bird Alert, or whoever it is who makes final decisions about such things. But we few, we lucky few who were at the Blockhouse this morning, knew we had seen a marvelous bird.


A bit of history about Christmas Counts
From Paul Baicich, via the Birding Community E-Bulletin

It started in 1900 when Frank Chapman introduced the concept of a Christmas Bird Count as an alternative to a Christmas Bird Shoot (also called a Side Hunt). Why not count and appreciate birds instead of hunting them
indiscriminately? The effort caught on, and in a few years the pioneers of
the Audubon movement institutionalized the practice as their own.

Now let us fast forward to the next century. The 106th consecutive CBC, a
massive effort in citizen science effort is currently upon us. Last year
there were more than 2,000 CBC circles and more than 56,000 participants,
who counted and reported birds from throughout the U.S., Canada, the
Caribbean, Latin America, Guam, and the Northern Marianas.

We encourage you to find a Christmas Bird Count near where you live and
participate. This year's CBC period extends from 14 December 2005 to 5
January 2006.

Great Horned Owl in Central Park

Here are some pictures of the great Great Horned Owl that showed up during yesterday's Christmas Count. The photographer, Bruce Yolton, sent them yesterday, a few hours after the owl flew out. I thought I had posted them immediately, but I must have pushed the wrong button. So here they are, with Bruce's notes and comments:

From Bruce [12/18/05].:

This Great Horned Owl was in the Oven today I arrived just as the light was fading at 4:30. The owl few out around 5:10 stopping in a tree just to west of the path on the west side of the Oven. Then it flew off due west towards the Lake. Beautiful, graceful flyer on a crystal clear night.

I see from the NYC Bird Report that there was also a Northern Saw-whet in the park today.

Did these two owls arrive for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count? It's almost as though they want to get their kids into Dalton or something and needed to make sure they got recorded in the census as living in a good neighborhood.

PS from Marie: The two owls found yesterday are perfect examples of a phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic-table Effect. If many good birders converge on a single spot [in this case Central Park] many more unusual birds are bound to be found than under normal circumstances. Odds are the birds are not as unusual there -- just sighted less often. I tell more about this in Red-tails in Love - on p.25.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Screech Owl Surprise

Bruce Yolton writes on December 17, 2005:

Tonight was a surprise. Only the Red morph Eastern Screech- Owl flew out of the hole that had been shared by both the Red and Gray morph pair earlier this week near the edge of the Lake in the Rambles. The first sighting was around 4:40 p.m. The fly out was at 5:08 p.m., with the bird flying NW.

Attached [see below] are some pictures, including the upstairs neighbor in the London Plane. I wonder if the Gray owl is the male, who I understand would be responsible for securing a few possible nest sites, and the Red is a female, who's told her mate, "We need a better apartment if we're going to have kids", and sent him off to find a home without squirrels in the attic?

(All pictures taken without flash. Sorry for all the noise, blur and color issues, but I would rather shoot at a high ISO and slow shutter speed than use a flash with the owls. Note how much wider the owl's pupils are open as it gets dark.)
Red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl, 4:44 pm

Red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl at 5:02, just before flyout

The upstairs neighbor, looking down

Photos by Bruce Yolton - 12/17/05