Saturday, January 07, 2006

Screech-owl sings while the GHO preens

Pale Male confronting the Great Horned Owl --1/2/06
Photo by NABIL

On Wednesday, Jan 4, 2005, The Great Horned Owl moved to a new location, a sheltering pine not far from its previous Willow refuge. On previous days the owl had been observed in hostile confrontations with crows and, on several occasions, with one or another of the Fifth Avenue Hawks. They cannot be happy to find another top predator settled into their territory. The owls previous day-roost was a deciduous tree -- very exposed to mobbing. Its new roost in an evergreen may make life easier.

Both its previous roost and its present one are not far from the hole where two screech owls, one gray and the other rufous-red, have been teasing their human admirers with an on-again off-again romance for almost a month.. The little owls have not been seen together for a few days and, indeed, the gray one has not been seen for the last few nights.

In an e-bird report Bob Levy, a writer whose book about Central Park birders and especially the park's red-winged blackbirds will be out in a few months, wondered about the screech romance and uttered the thought on everyone's mind: Maybe the gray screech had been on the losing end of a confrontation with the Great Horned Owl.

That evening, the Big One left his/her new perch at 5:01 pm. He flew just a few feet, to a branch near the top of a tall tree just above the path where a few owl lovers had gathered to watch him go.

Then the Great Horned Owl proceeded to preen. The bird preened for a long time. At about 5:20, as he was working on his tail feathers, the observers below heard a thrilling sound: The weird, musical call of a screech owl. I had my binoculars focused on the big bird at the moment the little bird called. It was clear that the big owl did not give a hoot about what he must have heard. After all, owls' hearing is superior to humans'. The Great Horned Owl didn't turn his head at the eerie screech owl call, nor miss a beat of his preening action. Perhaps our fears that the GHO might be a screech-kebob fancier are unfounded.

The GHO departed into the night at 5:35 p.m. A small number of faithful [and shivering] owl-watchers were there as usual to see him go. While waiting they too heard the screech-owl calling. After the fly-out Jimmy, standing with Lee and Noreen just a few feet away from me, was the first to spot the little owl on a low branch almost too close to see with any but the closest of close-focusing binoculars. None of us wanted to disturb the bird by shining a flashlight on it -- OK, none of us even HAD a flashlight that evening -- and so we couldn't tell if its color was red or gray.

PS Here's the GHO catch-up for the following days:

On January 5th the owl had moved into yet another tree, closer to the Azalea Pond. It was easily found during the day by many owl-watchers. Fly-out was at 5:08, after which the bird landed on several other nearby trees to preen. It flew off for the night at about 5:30.

On January 6th the fly-out was a little after 5.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Chickens and the GHO's toes


About the picture you chose to illustrate my owl report: [1/4/06]

Great photo: I was talking about preening and that's what the picture shows. But I'm wondering if you also chose it because of the feet.

It's a perfect display of the GHO foot trivia I mentioned in my report: The foot that's up has the traditional three toes front, one toe back arrangement, while the perching foot has two and two. I would assume that the two and two arrangement is sturdier for one-legged perching. It's also better for grabbing prey, according to the experts. As for three and one, that seems to be better for walking, which I understand is how GHO's get into your chicken coop: they walk.

I don't know why, but I find the thought of it absolutely hilarious.

Of course if that were my own chicken coop, eventually I'd have to run the owl off to save the chickens . But the idea of a big chunky owl walking up the ramp to that little house, horns erect, bobbing back and forth...dum de dum de dum... something about it just slays me


Blakeman on GHO preening

Photo by Cal Vornberger

Donna Browne's obser-
vations on the great horned owl [see post of 1/4/05] are exceptional. At heart, she's a field biologist.
Two comments. First, her graphic depictions of the owl's preening are perfect. I'll add that the reason the bird spends an inordinate period of time preening the base of the tail, the rump, is that that is the location of the sebaceous or oil gland. Birds, especially big ones like hawks and owls, are much like turtles in that they carry their houses around with them. They live inside their feathers. The feathers must keep out wind and rain and keep in warmth. The owl's attentions with it's rump and tail attend to these essential matters.

Before flying out for a night of hunting, the owl was stropping its beak across the oil gland, loading it with water-repelling feather oil. Then it strokes other feathers, rubbing the oil into the feathers to keep the night's rain out of the soft, downy underfeathers. These are the ones that keep the bird warm. The outer feathers can get sopping wet and the owl will be just fine. But if oil isn't sufficiently kept on all of the body feathers, the bird will die of hypothermia.

My red-tail often spends an hour each morning primping and preening for the day. She appears as vain as any show girl prepping back stage for a frothy role. But it's not vanity or role-playing. This careful and prolonged preening is survival. For the hawk, she needs to keep her feathers as free of water as possible. If she gets water-logged, as sometimes happens in a summer downpour, she takes on the weight of the feather-embedded water, and that decidedly reduces her ability to fly. If she can't fly, she can't hunt and eat. It's all survival, not vanity (although it sure looks like that). A thirteen-year old school girl couldn't possibly be more attentive to a new hairdo than an owl or hawk must be to the oiled, water-free status of its feathers. Donna described the process wonderfully.

My second comment surrounds the sounds Donna heard the owl making. Great-horneds can have a rather large, and to me, unintelligible vocabulary. I won't suggest any specific meaning to the sounds Donna heard. But the fact that the owl was vocalizing at all is a rather clear indication that the bird has now taken up permanent residence in Central Park. Vocalizing at this time of the year is often a part of mate attraction. The bird sounds like it's lookin.' Should another great-horned of the opposite sex wander in (unlikely this late in the season), an owl pair almost surely would be formed.

But even it this big hooter doesn't encounter another of its own species this winter, it appears that it will settle down in permanent residence. Because it's vocalizing, it may pull in a mate next fall or winter. Great-horneds don't migrate in any concerted way. The young of the year just sort of wander around. I don't think many are likely to start flying down the Hudson or across the water over from in Jersey. But this one obviously got to Central Park, so if some other errant great-horned ever silently flies overhead, it may be lured in. The chances for this happening this winter are small. But if the owl hangs around all year (and I think he will -- he's got massive amounts of prime food with the rats), things, indeed, could get very interesting next season.

And I ponder once again, how could all of this wonderfully observable raptor biology can be happening in, of all places, Central Park? What a special place. Don't dismiss any of this, you New York residents. I marvel.

John Blakeman

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Little Adorable?

Yesterday morning two Early Birders, Ardith and Naomi, discovered a Saw-whet owl in some lakeside foliage. The Birders' Grapevine began with Ardith's call to Lloyd who took a taxi and arrived soon afterwards. One of his great photos follows, along with his note. It should act as a warning to the more squeamish of you:

Hi Marie
Thanks to Ardith's call this morning, I was able to take several photos of this Saw-whet Owl with a headless mouse in its talons. I hope it's not too gruesome for your readers.
See you soon.

Photo by Lloyd Spitalnik
January 4, 2005

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Donna and the Owl

Photo by Cal Vornberger -- 12/30/05 -- GHO preening

Hi Marie,

Walking past the The Falconer statue a bit after 3 p.m. I hear the cacophony of Grackles and Starlings. Getting out from under the umbrella a bit, I look up and there they are, HUNDREDS of them in the deciduous trees on top of the knoll directly behind the statue. I don't know whether they ended up roosting there or had just stopped to converse.

By 3:30, though still cold and windy, the rain has stopped for the moment. A crow caws repeatedly from the east. The Great Horned Owl, in the familiar tree, is preening her breast. (Has anyone decided what gender she is?) Though the outer feathers are wet and stuck together, the under fluffy layers appear completely dry when she ruffles them up. Her "horns" are no longer standing up but are now sticking out the sides of her head.

By 3:45 she's begun to work on her back feathers and then starts the long sliding preen of her tail. A process reminiscent of an old time wringer washing machine. But instead of rollers doing the squeezing, it's the beak pressing the feathers, starting from the base of the tail and pressing the water out and off the end of the tail.

Next the right foot. During this process a very strong gust hit the tops of the trees and standing one footed the owl is suddenly off balance. With an easy spread of her left wing, she's back in balance and doesn't miss a preening beat.

Great Horned Owl foot trivia: Their outside toes can be placed forward at will in order to have the usual bird toe configuration, three toes front, one back OR can move back at will to the configuration found in creepers and parrots, two toes front and two toes back.

By 4:00 the rain begins again heavily and the Great Horned tucks her beak and goes back to sleep.

A check of the Gray Screech's hole reveals nothing. But a passing birder reports that the Red Screech is visible in her hole.

By 4:33 the wind is gusting mightily in the tops of the trees, cold rain is still falling, the park has pretty much cleared of the few people who were around in the first place, and the Great Horned Owl is methodically giving her head a good scratch. This does interesting things to her horn feathers. She's now an owl with a punk hairdo.

At 4:45 she begins preening her right shoulder and, unlike when the upright alert Red-tails preen that portion, the owls wing waggles all over the place as if it's barely connected. It's obviously not damaged in any way. It just looks different: incredibly relaxed and bobbling around. Though it's kind of funny, I don't laugh. After all it's down to just her and me.

4:55, A Red-tailed Hawk appears from the southeast and soars in small circles over the east bank of The Oven. The Red-tail looks at the Great Horned Owl, the Owl looks at the Red-tail. Then after a few more circles the RT sails off to the west.

4:57, the Owl raises both wings and does a mighty stretch, then a few long preens of the tail.

5:01, FLYOUT. But it's a short hop to an oak to the northeast. It's one of the trees just across the path from the "point" of The Oven, where the water flows across the trail in wet weather. She preens her tail again. Then I hear a meeeeeeoeow. The owl!

5:05, She up and flies soft as silk to the west into the high branches on the hill. I take off westerly on the path and then cut up the hill. I lose her, then find her again in the branches. Then I hear her a second time, but it's a different sound. Not anything resembling their five part Whoooo or the cat sound. It's in a minor key. It sounds pitiful, sad. Something about it reminds me both of the baby Screech Owls at 104th St. last spring and of the Trump Parc fledged RTs begging, two sounds that don't sound anything alike. The sound I'm hearing this time doesn't fade off in the end but rather has a close to it.

5:08, She's off again. I lose her in the dark towards the west.

I head for the path lamp near Bow Bridge. From the end of the bridge, I search the trees, and I'm about to give up when she comes out of the dark and I see her over the lake, silhouetted against the lights of the Westside. Beautiful. Then she's gone again in the dark trees. It's sleeting. I head for home.

Donna Browne

Grackles at the Grand Army Plaza

Date: Christmas eve, 2005:
Time: 4:30 pm
Place: Grand Army Plaza - 5th Ave. and 59th St.

A month or more ago I predicted that the large grackle flock outside the Plaza Hotel was about to head south. Well, amazingly, they're still here. Tonight they arrived at 4:35 pm, many hundreds of them, together with a smaller number of starlings.

As I've reported, the flock has moved from the southern stand of pear trees surrounding the Pulitzer Fountain to the northern stand of trees around the shiny bronze statue of William Tecumseh Sherman. Those trees still retain a few wrinkled, shrunken brown leaves. Question: Why did the southern trees lose their leaves a few weeks before the northern trees, though they're the same size and species? My guess: the southern trees get less sun, since they're in the shadow of the tall buildings immediately to their south.

While the influx of birds into the roost trees has heretofore been completely unnoticed by the large number of people milling around the Grand Army Plaza, now that the trees are bare the birds are too conspicuous to remain unobserved. I heard several comments along the lines of "Look at all those birds, Mom."

Tonight at 4:55pm the crowd of birds roosting at the northern trees became too big. About 50 or 75 grackles flew back to the completely bare trees at the fountain end of the plaza and settled there for the night. More people made comments about "all those birds".

12/25: Off to California to visit kids.

1/1/06: Final report:

Grackles Gone.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Photo by Phil Jeffrey, December 30, 2005

Depression set in when Jack Meyer's morning walk report did not include a Great Horned Owl. Looked like it was gone at last after a record-breaking fifteen [15] day stay . The gloom lifted dramatically when the owl was found back on its usual willow limb that afternoon. Rumor has it that the owl was disturbed by a red-tail and a crow, took refuge elsewhere and then returned.

Talking about rumor, another one has been circulating about the provenance of this owl. A falconer in Massapequa, on Long Island, seems to be claiming that he has lost a Great Horned Owl. [Also a gyrfalcon, but that's a different story]. Meanwhile, John Blakeman answered a query about this odd possibility. He wrote:

"Virtually no one ever uses a great horned owl for falconry. The most obvious reason is what are you going to hunt with the bird, inasmuch as these great beasts hunt and kill only at night. Secondly, great horned owls are infamous for being untrainable after they leave the nest. Any owl used for falconry must necessarily be taken from the nest and raised by the falconer. And when this is done, all sorts of problems can occur with owls. The main thing (and this pretty much negates the fellow's contention that he lost an owl) is that owls quickly become imprinted or psychologically fixed or attached to the human "parent" that raises them. Many rural people over the years have raised "orphan" great horned owl nestlings and have recounted this intense attachment. These birds refuse to leave or get lost."

It was raining at fly-out time, but that didn't daunt three owl worshippers from arriving to witness the owl's exit. It did, however, daunt the owl. The large bird just sat and sat on its perch in the rain, showing no signs of leaving. By 5:30, about 30 minutes later than the owl's usual take-off, the three soaked-to-the skin stalwarts called it a day. "Maybe the owl just decided to sleep in," one of them observed the next day.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Owl and hawk report from Donna

photo by Cal Vornberger


Hi Marie,

The Red Screech was back in her hole by the Boathouse today. I didn't see the Gray, though he might have been there as I left before flyout.

The Great Horned Owl was again roosting in its tree in the oven and was completely alert at 4PM. There were lots of dogs and people today.

Two reports that Charlotte sat for several hours late afternoon in her favorite nest viewing spot on the Hampshire House.

HAPPY '06!
Donna Browne

PS: The Great Horned Owl flew out at 5:05pm this evening [1/1/06] and perched on two different trees near its usual daytime roost before heading in a northward direction. A number of observers headed in the same direction and found the owl perched in a Pin Oak near the Bird-feeding Station at the Evodia Field. [The scattered seeds there must attract rats.] After ten minutes the owl sailed off towards the south-west, and was not found again.

The gray screech owl was seen flying out of its usual roost hole [the Riviera] a little before 5pm. [MW]

A New Year's Day report

Photo by Bruce Yolton - 1/1/06

There were two Cooper's Hawks in the Ramble this morning. One spent a few minutes in the tree next to the GHO, before flying in the direction of the Sheep Meadow.

The Red ESO was back in her hole on the path between the Boathouse and the Maintenance Field. (Warm day.)

Discovered a Raccoon in a tree at the Pool end of the Loch.

Veronica reported seeing Charlotte on her standard left chimney Hampshire House spot staying there most of the afternoon. Saw three Hawks myself, an immature around 97th near 5th Avenue, an adult between the Great Hill and the Pool, and one of the 5th Avenue hawks in a tree between the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond.

Nice views of American Coots and Hooded Mergansers on the Reservoir.

Not too bad for a gray winter afternoon.

Happy New Year!

Bruce Yolton

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Eve with the owls

It was the eve of a new year. As tradition would have it, a small group of owl worshippers gathered a little before fly-out time to raise a glass of champagne to the Central Park owls. And as tradition would have it, the bottle was Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, the very champagne we drank at the first fledge party for Pale Male and family in 1995. Jim Lewis brought eight plastic flutes and our glasses were full and raised at the moment the owl flew. It was five minutes before five and snowing gently at the moment of fly-out.

What about the little screech owls? The day before, December 30, the budding screech -owl romance seemed to have hit a snag. Observers at the fly-out on Friday night saw each one of the "pair" emerge from separate holes.

While the champagne revelry went on at the Great Horned Owl tree, Lincoln Karim was monitoring the grey screech-owl's roost hole just a little to the west. We had just watched the big one fly to the north west, towards the upper part of the rowboat lake, when Lincoln arrived with the news we'd been hoping for. Reconciliation! Both owls flew out of the grey's roost hole. Hurray.

A gift to a small group of us heading home for a special dinner before the Central Park midnight fireworks: a rare post-fly-out sighting of the Great Horned Owl. The bird was on a bare, witchy-looking tree near Bow Bridge. It looked enormous. Its ear-tufts were raised. Its head was scrunched forward, alert. Obviously it too was looking forward to its New Year's Eve dinner.