Tuesday, February 14, 2006

West Drive owl-watching and star-gazing report

Saturn, by telescope

After watching the West Drive owls' fly-out pattern for so many months, it's fascinating to see a consistent change in behavior now that there's a thick snow cover everywhere.

Until now the exiting owl[s] always flew to low perches on trees or bushes. Sometimes they were seen almost at ground level. But now their post-exit perches are high, usually in the upper third of their landing tree. Clearly they can see over the park wall from these high perches. The owl-watchers speculate that perhaps they are checking out garbage-can rodents on the side streets off Central Park West. A few years ago Lee and Noreen saw a screech-owl on a brownstone ledge around 74th or 75th street. It was gazing at a curbside garbage can. This might be a better hunting strategy when the park is snowed in.

Last night Regular owlers Lee, Donna, Jean, Gabriel, Mitch and myself saw the male owl fly out at 5:40, making his first landing on a high branch quite near to us. A few minutes later he flew to another branch to the north. Just about then the female appeared at the hole's entrance. She popped down again as she usually does. Now she surprised us by zipping out of the hole, heading directly west. She perched on a fairly high branch about half way between the Drive and the wall.

Not a sound was heard. Suddenly there he was, His Spiffiness himself, perched right next to her. The two owls were exactly the same size -- no sexual dimorphism among Screech-owls, according to authoritative accounts. Finally we could see this for ourselves. This is not the case with Great Horned Owls, by the way. In that species, and among most other owls and hawks, the female is considerably bigger than the male.

The two little owls sat there companionably for quite a few minutes. Then they were gone, not to be seen again that evening. It's possible that the female looped around and returned to the nest-hole. That would have to be what she did if there were eggs there; otherwise they'd cool. Perhaps she had already dined. Perhaps the male would bring back a meal after a successful hunt. Eventually we'll know more about what's going on down there. But not yet.

It was an enchanted evening. The air was exceptionally sharp and clear. The snow glittered and though the path was treacherously slippery we all avoided falling on our faces. The stars and planets seemed as bright as in the country. Mitch, an amateur astronomer, named many of them for us. The brightest one we'd been seeing low in the east was, indeed Sirius the Dog Star as someone had suggested a few days ago. We were all familiar with Mars -- we'd been watching its progress for months. But now Mitch pointed out Saturn shining brightly and steadily in the east.

Most exciting of all, we saw Space Satellite LaCrosse III gliding past Beltelgeuse above Orion's belt and then making its way between the two stars of Gemini. Lacrosse III was launched in 1989, Mitch informed us, and was flying at an altitude of 400 miles. It was supposed to appear at 6:37 according to an Internet site Mitch had consulted, but it appeared at 6:39. Why the delay? Atmospheric drag, Mitch explained. The term delighted us. We hadn't much of a clue as to what it meant but it sounded sort of racy. A moody dance? An airy disguise? On a note of high silliness we, like the owls, dispersed.