B.A.R.B. at SongStar

Dotty and Hank Go North in Search of Owls
y Sylvia Alexander
With Photos by Richard L. Becker

Sat., 1/15/05, 10:30a.m.–4p.m.; Central Park meeting point: Tavern on the Green, 66th St. and Central Park West, NYC.

As a new member of the group, Richard suggested that I submit this report on the trip to Central Park. Richard, Joan and I arrived from CT first, followed shortly by Dotty and Hank, up from FL, and Claudia and Jim, over from NJ. Soon we were joined by Dotty’s sister Betty and friend Helena from LI. No doubt in honor of Dotty’s arrival, we were also met by Lloyd Spitalnik (alerted to Dotty’s presence by Marie Winn), one of New York’s premier birders, and photographer Cal Vornberger, whose photo book The Birds of Central Park is about to be released.

Even with all this fire power, let me say upfront, we didn’t find the Boreal Owl. We looked in all its usual haunts near the Tavern on the Green, across the street in a tall Spruce, and right alongside the restaurant. However, you can see some beautiful photos of the Owl on Cal’s web site: www.calvorn.com.

The day was nevertheless filled with delights, not the least of which was the high spirits and good company of everyone present, despite the cold weather (the sun did nothing to warm the air and some were grateful to Joan for bringing heating packs for cold hands). While “waiting” for the Boreal near the Tavern, we saw a Hermit Thrush hopping on the ground, flicking its tail, as though it were a spring day; a very busy Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, obviously at home in his much-drilled tree; two roosting, possibly immature, Red-tailed Hawks; and the usual House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, Blue Jays, and a woman with pure dark purple hair. We also saw three Buteos, perhaps more Red-tails, soaring high above the park.

Bundled up for the cold weatherFortified with cups of hot coffee that Claudia and Hank found during a fearless trek down Central Park West, we followed Lloyd’s suggestion to visit feeders in the Ramble, just beyond the Boathouse Cafe. So we bundled up (Joan was particularly good at tucking in Dotty’s blanket around her wheelchair, and no one moved until Hank got over the feeling that he might still be in Florida and actually put on a wool hat that he and Dotty had purchased in Alaska; though Jim never did put on a hat or gloves). This hardy group then proceeded to follow Lloyd and Cal through the Park, marveling at all the dog walkers, and joggers, and joggers with dogs, and joggers with baby strollers, and, well, you get the idea.

We stopped for lunch at the Boathouse Cafe (thank heaven Lloyd knew that we didn’t have to order in the “gourmet” corner of the Cafe, because there’s a snack bar where we found hot dogs, chili and chicken soup.) This is also the corner of the Café where the Central Park bird log lives, and it noted that someone had seen the Boreal Owl 1/14/05 “in the usual haunts.”

Thus warmed and rested, we walked over to the Ramble feeders. They’re wonderful home-made affairs: about 20 suspended plastic bottles with frisbee squirrel baffles and square holes big enough to act as sort of fly-in eateries for the Titmice. We also saw Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees to Dotty’s southern delight; and House Finches, Mourning Doves, two gorgeous active Fox Sparrows (red race), White-breasted Nuthatches and a Red-breasted Nuthatch, a lifer for me (as was the Hermit Thrush). We also saw male Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers at suet bagsand Joan noticed something new for many of us. The red on the Hairy’s head is split into two patches, whereas the red on a Downy’s head is one single patch.

By this time, many in the group were beginning to acknowledge the cold, and started moving back toward the Boathouse, but not before Helena and Cal discovered they had mutual friends in the opera world. Lloyd and Cal then went off to find a Savannah Sparrow elsewhere in the Ramble (there was also talk of Long-eared and Saw-whet Owls in the Shakespeare Garden; and a Harris’s Sparrow in the public park in Baldwin, Long Island).

Preening Red-tailed HawkEveryone else made their way back to civilization, except Joan, Richard and me. We were dragging our feet, admiring an earnest young pointer who was stalking some squirrels, when the squirrels suddenly went berserk. A pale Red-tail had flown in to perch, in elegant profile, a few yards in front of us where he stayed for maybe ten minutes. The smaller birds were calling loudly, and the squirrels did the darndest thing. We saw five of them run up a tree near the hawk (on the opposite side from him, as though to hide) where they froze like refrigerator magnets on the trunk of the tree. They didn’t move a muscle, although Joan thought she heard a couple of them whining. And the hawk just sat there, rotating or cocking his head occasionally, but he didn’t seem to be hunting. Joan set up the scope and we could see that this was a mature Red-Tail, with dark eyes and red tail, but also with that very pale head and breast. However, the three of us couldn’t say whether it was Pale Male or not because we’ve heard that a couple of his offspring are pale too (and many of them have chosen to live in Central Park rather than migrate). But this was a raptor at home, perhaps a King on his turf, who knows. He finally flew off after Joan had given several grateful passersby a look in the scope; and Richard got some photos. We then hurried to join the group warming up in the Boathouse.

Reunited, we walked back through the Park, making one detour because some stairs near Bethesda Fountain would have challenged the gallant Claudia who insisted on having the honor of pushing her mother-in-law’s wheelchair all day. Richard pointed out some Mallards in the lake (which Dotty eagerly checked out lest they be “true” Mallards and not some sort of hybrid). We continued past one of two remaining allees of mature Elm trees in the U.S., past the Sheep Meadow with none of the usual sunbathers, past yet more joggers, and so back to the Tavern and our various cars.

Everyone was looking forward to meeting Chuck and others the next day in NJ for the Long-eared Owls. Sadly I had a prior engagement, but I’m sure it was another wonderful birding daythough not too wonderful for those who couldn’t go.

Dotty and Hank's Quest for the Long-Eared Owl

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Copyright © 2005 by Sylvia Alexander and Richard L. Becker