ONE night in Central Park, when the screech owls were teaching their babies how to fly, a group of birders were scanning the canopy of a white oak tree at the Loch, the stream that meanders through Frederick Law Olmsted’s designed wilderness.
“I’ve got them,” Caroline Greenleaf said in a low voice. Her two little dogs, Zoe and Willa, trained not to bark, sat at her feet.
“Three of them, all together on that thin branch out to the right.” Marie Winn handed me her binoculars, and pointed to the shadowy mass of branches and leaves.
Ms. Winn, who chronicled Pale Male and Lola, the hawks that nested on the 12th floor of a Fifth Avenue apartment building, in her 1998 book, “Red-Tails in Love,” has been exploring the lives of owls, bats, moths, slugs and the people who love them, resulting in a new book, “Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife.”
Humans are hard-wired to avoid dark places, especially the forest. “We are daytime mammals, after all,” Ms. Winn writes, “and evolution has programmed us to respond to failing light by crawling into a safe, snug place and going to sleep.”
Except for New Yorkers.
Here, on that warm night, with Ms. Winn and some of the humans she writes about, I was among a few people who were not only defying evolution, but who were perfectly at home in the urban forest after dusk. Central Park had its dangerous days, to be sure, but restoration projects and cultural programs administered by the Central Park Conservancy since its founding in 1980 have brought it a long way. And as any urban dweller or hiker knows, the more people who enjoy a place, the safer it becomes.
We had met at Central Park West and 103rd Street, and made our way down the hill, along the north side of the Pool, into the North Woods. I was struck by how much light there was, even in the trees, with the city rising all around us.
“It never really gets dark here,” Ms. Winn said. “There’s always so much ambient light. And when it’s overcast, light bounces off the clouds.”
That night a half-moon glimmered through the trees as we made our way to the Pool, where we passed a family of raccoons, their masked faces illuminated by a street lamp.
“They’re waiting for the Russian woman, who arrives every night in her wheelchair to feed them pasta and pizza,” Ms. Winn said. “I asked her one time, ‘How do you say raccoon in Russian,’ and she said, ‘Rrrrrraaaccoon.’ ” We laughed, because there are probably very few raccoons in Russia. They are native to North America.
The stately trees, the way our voices echoed against the stones of the Glen Span Arch as we walked beneath the West Drive, and the rocks and waterfalls of the Loch were all familiar. Yet the shapes of things were all in shadow, almost dreamlike, as we made our way deeper into the woods. Joggers ran by. Some even asked about the owls in that hushed, conspiratorial tone that people use when they know about something that might be ruined if too many others knew its pleasures.
Tramping down a dark path, speaking in low voices, stopping at the sound of a bird: “Hear that?” Ms. Winn interrupted herself in the middle of a sentence. “That’s the oriole. That would be the male.
“I’ve been studying the songs. I’m not good at spotting, so I compensate by listening.”
I’d heard the haunting, melodic song hundreds of times calling from the woods in Maryland, but never knew what it was. Here, in the middle of the city, Ms. Winn had put a name to it. I longed to see this oriole, but it was hidden in the night.
Now we stood in a swampy glade, trying to locate the three screech owls that Ms. Greenleaf could see, way up in the tree. “They’re all together on a very thin branch out toward the right,” she said.
Which thin branch? It always amazes me how birders give directions, but this is how you learn.
“See those three branches that make a big triangle?” she kept on. “O.K. now, go to the top of the triangle, follow that branch up and just below the next branch that goes to the left, you’ll see a little brown mound.”
I found the triangle and focused Ms. Winn’s binoculars on the branch that went out to the left. Nope, nope, nothing. Then. Oh, yes! A baby screech owl stared back at me, its big eyes like dark pools, ringed in yellow. Its feathers were fuzzy and soft, with horizontal stripes across his gray chest.
“Oh, he’s playing with his foot,” said D. Bruce Yolton, a photographer. “That’s adorable.”
I could hear his camera clicking away like mad.
We could see the horizontal stripes on the kids’ gray, fuzzy chests, and the vertical stripes on the parents, whose markings look more like bark, which is why they are nearly impossible to see, perched in the cavity of an old tree.
“Ooh, somebody dropped down from above,” Mr. Yolton said. “They’re bouncing!”
Owls sleep most of the day, so as night falls, they slowly wake up.
“They’re half asleep, so they’re doing some stretching, getting ready for school,” Mr. Yolton said.
They stretched their necks, way up, then down, into their chests.
They stretched their wings. First, one long wing, leaning way over to the side. Then the other.
These birders have been following this family of screech owls since December, when Mr. Yolton found them nesting in a cavity in a black walnut tree. He has been documenting the owlets’ growth and education on a blog, urbanhawks.blogs.com.
That night in the woods we heard the hoot-hoot-hoot of the parents warning their children of raccoons, which like to eat baby owls.
“The father is the policeman,” Mr. Yolton said. “Two weeks before they fledged, he terrorized the raccoons. He scratched them when they came down the tree. He made them know they weren’t welcome.”
It was early April when the group first saw the baby owls venture from their nest.
“They climb up the tree like monkeys, using their bills to help them get to the top,” Ms. Winn said.
They can fly pretty well right off the bat, but landing, they said, is tricky.
“It was very funny,” Ms. Winn said. “We would see an owl landing, then hanging upside down, then falling to the next branch.”
By the time the young have fledged, I learned, they are the same size as their parents, which is only about eight inches tall. The same thing holds true for most songbirds.
But enough of these little screech owls. I admit I love them more than the tiny moths I saw one night in June with Ms. Winn and her friends, who call themselves mothers (pronounced MOTH-ers) when they are stalking these fragile creatures of the night. The moths are drawn by the black light the mothers shine on a white sheet laid over a bench by the Delacorte Theater, where we could hear Hamlet declaiming on the other side of the hydrangea bushes.
“See that little white stigma on its wing,” Ms. Winn said, pointing to a tiny moth, hardly a half-inch in size. “It’s a celery looper, Anagrapha falcifera.” She added, “The common name usually refers to what the larvae eat.”
It was slim pickings on that night, but by now there are many catocalas, or underwings, moths with colorful markings on their hind wings that vary from about an inch to three inches. They come to sip the sap that oozes from the Moth Tree, an English oak near the East Drive just past 72nd Street.
That’s where they saw the black witch, a rarely seen moth, seven inches across. It’s the largest moth in North America, and it’s only been sighted this far north a few times, said Jim Lewis, another regular who showed me a very handsome slug. (The slugs refused to perform for us that night, but their romantic mating is fully recounted in Ms. Winn’s book.)
The screech owl children have finally left to find their own way in the world. And the mothers are immersed in underwing sightings at the old English oak. “We’ve seen a girlfriend, though it could be a he, a once-married, an ilia and a little,” Ms. Winn said, using the oddball common names of the moths.
The moths open their wings to reveal striking patterns of orange, yellow and black. But only for those who venture into Central Park in the dark.
##########Here's a link to a little audio story on today's NYTimes website: