Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Long-Eared Owl

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Long-Eared Owl, Central Park

Birders have a complicated relationship with owls.

Owls are beautiful, and mysterious, and thrilling--the sight of a hunting owl skimming silently over a field is not something you will soon forget. So they are very desirable to see.

Owls are usually very hard to spot. They're mostly active at night, hunting in the dark. During the day, they sleep. They roost in trees, with foliage the denser the better. Other birds know owls are dangerous, so if they find one, they set up a racket to try to drive it off or at least disturb its rest. Their alarm calls attract more birds, who make more noise, which brings more birds--this is called "mobbing". For a birder, the best way to find an owl in the day is to listen for jays or crows mobbing it. In turn, jays and crows are smart and know that if a bunch of people are looking in a tree, there might be something interesting going on.

So birders want to find owls, but they worry about disturbing them, and they worry that other birders will disturb them, and they worry... anyway, a lot of birders don't like having an owl roost reported on "social media". But a lot of birders want to see owl reports. On any given mailing list or forum, there's likely to be a flame war about owl reports every six months or so.

On the Manhattan Bird Alert twitter recently, someone reported where an owl roost had been five hours before, and holy cow! the screaming. The report had been on already (I guess eBird reports don't count somehow?) and said that the bird had been flushed by Blue Jays and wasn't there anymore. Apparently, it is now unethical according to some people to suggest that a particular section of the park might be worth looking closely at. Also. it's terrible to lead people to birds instead of letting them find them themselves, according to some guy subscribed to a bird sighting alert. OK, then.

Anyway, there's also word-of-mouth.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Long-Eared Owl, Central Park

On Saturday afternoon, I was birding in Central Park. I walked down Locust Grove pondering if going straight to the Ramble would be better than a diversion through the Shakespeare Garden. Two people passed me, parents of an avid young birder. Had I heard about the owl? they asked. They told me their son had just texted them about it. He was at Inwood Hill and had gotten a text about from someone who heard t from the guy who found the owl. (Anyone remember that ad, "if you tell two friends, they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on..."?) Anyway, he said that there was a Long-Eared Owl "low in a tree in the Shakespeare Garden".

And so there was. It was quite low, about 12 feet up a Yew tree; about eye-level if you were standing on the path going up past the sundial (if you know the Shakespeare Garden, that will make sense...) where a photographer was already set up with one of those lenses that cost as much as a decent used car and weigh only a little more.

The bird was actually quite well-hidden from that vantage. I found my best views on a path farther away from the tree and a little below it on the other side. Within twenty minutes, there were around twenty people there, all standing at a fairly respectful distance. People filtered in and out; probably fifty or so came and went over the next couple of hours, the crowd size remaining pretty constant.

Birds filtered in and out as well. A few jays came around a couple of times and yelled at the owl for a few minutes; but they didn't hang around long, which was odd. Usually they keep yelling until there's a big crowd of birds around the roost.

A score or so of House Sparrows occupied a nearby tree for ten minutes or so making tsip alarm calls. Then they left. A single Titmouse visited every few minutes, scolding. All-in-all, it wasn't exactly peaceful, but it wasn't a full-scale mobbing.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Long-Eared Owl, Central Park
why not another owl photo? why not, indeed!

The owl was asleep some of the time, but woke frequently with the wild-eyed "who dares disturb me?" look that is typical of Long-Eared Owls. I'm not sure how much the people disturbed it, overall. The Shakespeare Garden is pretty well-trafficked on a nice weekend afternoon, and the path directly under the tree is normally popular. The birders were steering the crowds away from that path, and some Central Park Conservancy staff came along to watch and keep order.

Nobody tried to climb the tree. People have told me that that has happened in the Park sometimes. Also, nobody ever put the sighting on the twitter alert, which is pretty remarkable restraint. It's not clear to me whether that actually cut down on the crowd much. Most of the Park birders know each other, so the grapevine was pretty effective in getting the word out. Also, I think reports did start to show up on eBird while I was still in the Park.

I heard there was a pretty good crowd watching the owl fly out at dusk. It didn't return to the Shakespeare Garden on Sunday, or anywhere else in the Park that I heard.

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