Saturday, January 14, 2006

About the Great Horned Owl


One of my favorite accounts of the Great Horned Owl appears in a book [unfortunately now out of print] called Owls--Their Life and Behavior. It was written by Julio de la Torre, an ornithologist and naturalist whom I came to know when he was president of the New York City Linnaean Society more than a decade ago.

He paints a vivid picture of this nocturnal bird of prey now in the 27th day of its Central Park stay:

",,,great horned owls are probably the most successful predators in North America. They will not hesitate to take on a bobcat, fight a fox, or even tussle with a coyote. Even if the owl loses, the large mammal will know it has been in a real fight.

"What we have here, undeniably, is a case of survival of the fittest-- and great horned owls are fit indeed. In the last half century they have shown a startling ability to adapt to drastic change wrought by our invasion of their primeval haunts. Landfills and dumps on the outskirts of cities are ideal for the proliferation of rats and scavengers like gulls and crows; the great horned owl feasts on all three. Artificial impoundments -- be they reservoirs, industrial park or shopping mall ponds, or lakes in suburban parks and estates -- are magnets for waterfowl, wading birds and gulls (not to mention muskrats), all of which are gourmet fare for this bird. Suburban development, indeed, creates a supermarket full of opossums, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, shrews, mice, and rats --- all of which the horned owl will readily toss into his shopping cart."

De la Torre notes that " With the exception of the golden eagle all birds of prey are in awe of the great horned owl's ferocity, formidable talons, and murderous beak."

Pretty exciting to have a bird de la Torre calls "the tiger of the air" now a regular resident of Central Park.

PS. Yesterday, Friday the 13th, the owl put on a particularly dramatic show for its growing coterie of admirers. At about 5:10 p.m. a photographer stationed just under the branch where the large bird was preparing for his nightly take-off, dropped a piece of equipment on a rocky outcrop at his feet. The owl was startled by the loud sound and whooshed off without any of his usual preliminary head bobbings and wing stretchings.

Four seasoned owl-followers noted the direction of his flight and had no trouble finding the owl. It was perched at the top of a very tall tree near the eastern shore of the Lake. It sat there for about 15 minutes, then headed north, towards the upper part of the Lake. But before the owlers had reached the bridge that crosses the outlet of the Gill into the Lake, the owl appeared again, flying right back to the place it had started -- not to the exact tree, but one quite near to it, at the very edge of the Lake.

By now the moon, almost full, had come up in the east, and the owl was bathed in light. Hard to reconcile the poetic image of the owl in moonlight with the vicious killer described in just about every account of the species.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Lost and Found and Lost

photo by Lloyd Spitalnik

Website correspondent Margie Siegal writes:

Has anyone seen the Grey Screech lately? If not, I guess the pessimists were right. Too bad.

Here's the scoop, Margie:

Day before yesterday [1/11/06] a member of the Feeder-filling Squad reported that he'd seen the grey screech owl in its usual "Riviera" hole earlier that day. General rejoicing. But at fly-out time that evening, as well as the next evening, no owl was seen coming out of that hole. A number of observers came to the Riviera site early last night and waited for quite a long time to be sure that an owl wasn't missed. They left unfulfilled.

So, my own thought is that the Wednesday reporter who saw grey showing at the hole's entrance was actually seeing squirrel fur. The gray-phase Eastern Screech-owl and the Eastern Gray Squirrel are almost identical in color.

There's still no reason to be sure that the Riviera owl hasn't simply moved to another, yet undiscovered hole.

Meanwhile, here's Jack Meyer's report, sent earlier today:

Red Screech in its hole. Two squirrels playing tag in & out of Gray Screech hole.

PS Great Horned Owl Fly-out yesterday was at 5:08 pm. The owl flew due south to a tree at The Point, where it perched, quite motionless, for about ten minutes. Then to the northwest, where it was seen again on the east side of the Lake with the almost-full moon shining over its shoulders.

Junior and Charlotte reports

The Trump Parc nestlings a few days before fledging - 7/06
Photo by Bruce Yolton

The obliging doctor whose 65th floor window offered me and others great views of the Trump Park nest last spring and summer writes:

"Not much action on the nest as yet. One of the hawks landed on it one day in December for about 10 minutes, but no egg.

"We'll keep you posted about any hawk we see making preparations for egg laying."

And Donna writes:

Veronica [whose apartment looks out on the nest site] says that Charlotte was sitting on the Trump Parc nest at 7:15 this morning [1/12/06] and there were a number of new twigs up there.

Would Charlotte just have been checking out the comfy
factor of the new furnishings? I know the Moms sit
around on the nest periodically pre-copulation phase
but doesn't January seem a touch early?

My answer:

Not at all too early for periodic house re-decorating. Pale Male and Lola have been bringing an occasional twig to their nest regularly during recent months. Copulation and real, hormonally-induced nest-building should start towards the end of January or beginning of February.

Both pairs show every sign of nesting again on their last-year's nests. Let's keep our fingers crossed that
the Trump-Parc couple will have renewed success this year. And let's hope that last year will prove to be just a small glitch in PM and Lola's grand record.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Big Bird and little pest

GHO harrassed by gray squirrel - 10 January 2006

This morning [11 Jan 06] the Early Birders found the GHO with no trouble at all. It was back in the sweetgum tree where it was seen earlier in the week.

Also seen, the red-phase screech owl sleeping at the entrance of its Black Locust tree residence.

Other of the morning's special sightings: Rusty Blackbird, Carolina Wren [singing loudly--"Video video video!] Brown Creeper, Immature Redtail near feeding station, Cooper's Hawk

Rebekah reports flocks of Grackles seen yesterday near the bandshell and this morning near Tanner Spring.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Donna Goes Owling

The Ramble Great Horned Owl
Photo by Cal Vornberger -- 12/30/05


Once again, another large group of birders gathered for the Great Horned Owl's fly-out today. You'd think Spring was in the air as pairs of squirrels cavort and chase after each other all over the Ramble.

4:40 The Great Horned Owl does a slight preening of chest and wings.

4:50 Two of the cavorting squirrels chase each other up The Big One's tree and onto adjacent branches. The owl is completely still. The squirrels are at times extremely close to the owl and the question arises as to whether they know the owl's there. A third squirrel races up the tree next to the owl's roost.

5:00 One squirrel is within a foot of the Great Horned's back. The Owl does a stunningly fast turn towards it and the squirrel whisks to the far side of the tree trunk.

5:03 The owl does a big double wing stretch.

5:05 Fly-out, the first hop to a tree just north of the roost tree. Lee and I walk around the knoll to face the owl and there is Noreen. I'm happy. I'm standing there with two of the best, the sharpest- eyed, the sharpest-eared owl stalkers in Central Park. Or I imagine anywhere else for that matter. There is a third. Lee says quietly so as not to disturb the owl, "Marie should be here."

5:08 The owl makes another short jump. And as it always does, the complete silence of her flight surprises me.

5:09 Another hop but this one back towards her original roost. Lee notes that Great Horned Owls in the air look like flying muffins.

5:12 She's off and for a longer go towards the Lake in the west. Then we're off as well. Lee and Noreen both in black, their silver hair shining in the moonlight, as silent as the owl. I try to be silent too but haven't their knack as yet, the knack of never stepping on that twig in the path that rolls crunchily under one's shoe, never crushing a leaf against the concrete. And they don't just walk as regular people do. Oh no, not when owling. There is no side by side striding together down the sidewalk. But rather they float in all directions, here, there, back, forth, all senses open, searching, fingertips alive, feeling, tasting the air.

I occurs to me once again as it did the first time I saw the three of them, yes three, there would have to be three, Noreen, Lee and Marie, leaning with complete focus into the moth light, that if this were a few centuries earlier, they'd have been burned as witches.

The ducks begin to sound, Lee's face is up, bathed in moonlight. I know she sees it. I look up and see it too. There on a tree just across the path the Great Horned Owl sits with the moon shining just above her shoulder. Her feathers take on the glow, they shimmer. And it is clear why this creature has long been used for family totems, why it's seen as the bearer of omen and supernatural news.

Fine, fine but not her business. She has dinner to catch. She works the oil gland above her tail and preens it. Then gives her neck a good vigorous scratch.

5:21 She's off again. This time heading south. The sparrows begin to sound. Our eyes meet, we all hear it. Off the owlers go again, floating, bobbing, weaving. The sparrows are in the thicket on the other side of Bow Bridge. And there's our owl in the very top of a very tall tree on Cherry Hill. The view obscured, we go back to Bow Bridge -- we can see it perfectly from there. Now others start to congregate there. Tripods and cameras rattle in the dark. There is laughter and conversation.

5:30 The owl with wings fully extended glides off her tall tree and passes right above us, over the curve of Bow Bridge, continuing the downward arc. Where? The Point, she's must be at the Point! "The games afoot!"

We continue on towards The Point but we've lost the owl and finally have to admit it. In the meantime, after seeing the owl 's long, gliding flight over our heads Lee relents. "I was wrong when I said they look like flying muffins, " she admits. We laugh out loud and start walking away, leaving a wish for good hunting behind us.

Donna Browne

PS Other owl and hawk news today:

The orange [red-phase]Eastern Screech Owl was in her hole today for all to see.

<>Veronica reports that Pale Male Jr. and Charlotte have taken to keeping an almost constant vigil on their nest site and the surrounding area. Charlotte sits on the chimney of the Hampshire House in both the AM and PM with Junior periodically spelling her. Is this a possible RT response when a Great Horned Owl comes to town?

Junior was also seen sitting on the ESSEX sign yesterday. He was photgraphed there by Bruce Yolton.

The Hawk Bench Gang reports an immature RT sitting in a small tree near the Bench and standing by the sandbox next to the bathrooms on the east side of the Model Boat Pond.

Two squirrels were seen entering the hole in the London Plane just north of the Bench, a hole that was home to two baby squirrels last season.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Pale Male, not Lola

In my posting of 1/7/06 the title of which begins "Screech Owl sings..." I included an amazing picture of a red-tailed hawk confronting the Great Horned Owl. The red-tail in that photo turns out to be Pale Male, not Lola.

No privacy for Pale Male

Watching PM and Lola dine - 8 Jan '06
Photo by Cal Vornberger

Received from Cal Vornberger this morning:


Yesterday afternoon around 3 pm I discovered Pale Male near the Maintenance field eating a pigeon. Since I got there early I have the whole gory sequence from beginning to end. I have posted a couple of less gory shots on my Web site [see link above --MW] including one with Pale Male and Lola in the same frame. The size difference is very obvious in this photo. [She's bigger - MW] She sat high in the same tree for most of the meal and only swooped down and perched above him at the end. By the time he was finished his Sunday brunch a crowd of between 20-30 people had gathered...




1. The Great Horned Owl: [Today is its 22nd day of residence]
It's rumored [all right, the source is John Blakeman] that GHO's are particularly fond of mallard meals. The good news [for GHO's]: There are many mallards on Central Park's water bodies. The bad news [for the rest of us]: the mallards are very beloved by the park's human visitors.

2. The Grackles at the Grand Army Plaza: The park is still full of Grackles, as seen in the picture below taken on 7 Jan '06. Though I reported on January 2 that they were gone from their roosts at Fifth Ave and 59th St., speculating that they had finally gone off to their winter roosts down south, rumor has it that they've been seen on at least one occasion since then.roosting in the trees across the street from Bergdorfs. I'll check it out soon.

3. Little Red -- is still building up his cache for the winter. Photographed [see below] on 7 Jan 06. An odd rumor is going round the nature community that another red squirrel has been sighted in the north part of the park... The beginning of a new dynasty?

4. The screech-owl pair: Though it is no rumor [see picture below] that a squirrel has taken over their old trysting spot, rumor has it that they moved to a new location because that hole was too near the GHO's regular daytime perch.. A contributing cause to their defection, again according to rumor and surmise, is that they got sick and tired of all the flash cameras going off at fly-out time, consequently moving to a quieter, darker neighborhood. Of course there's still the other, dismal possibility discussed in yesterday's posting.

All photos by BRUCE YOLTON

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Rare shot of Pale Male film-maker

photo by M. Winn via cell-phone camera

After last night's GHO fly-out, a group of regular CP owl-prowlers gathered at a nearby hangout to celebrate a birthday. Among them was local heart-throb Frederic Lilien, creator of the prizewinning documentary Pale Male, making one of his rare and colorful public appeances.

Screech question and GHO update

Margie Siegel writes:

Various friends and I have been following the ups and down of love in tree hollows. It has been suggested that the female screech has kicked the male out of the hole because she is sitting on eggs. I understand that January is brooding season for Great Horned, but what about small screeches?


That's a nice thought. The usual egg-laying dates for screech owls are towards the end of March, with hatchlings emerging in late April. However all bets are off in Central Park, where a family with three fledglings was discovered in the north part of the park on March 19th, 2005. Counting backwards, then, the eggs that produced those fledglings must have been laid in January!

I hope against hope that your idea is the right one. But a photo Bruce Yolton took yesterday [see below] introduces a gloomy note. The shot is fuzzy, but it shows a squirrel emerging from the hole our romantic gray/red pair used to share. Well, maybe they both moved to the hole up the hill from the Boathouse where the red-phase screech was originally seen...Let's see what the next few weeks reveal.

Anyhow, thanks for writing.
Photo [for documentary purposes] by Bruce Yolton

PS Yesterday was the
Great Horned Owl's 20th day of residence in CP. Looks like he's settling in for the winter. Fly-out was at 5:01pm. The owl sailed off to the west, and was relocated some time later in a tree overlooking the Lake, quite near to Bow Bridge.

Latest update: Jack Meyer reports that the bird was seen early this morning [8 Jan 06] in a tree just next to the one he'd been using as a daytime perch for the last two days.