There’s something special about owls. They capture the imaginations of folks who otherwise have no interest in birds. They live at the edge of our senses, flying silently and unseen through the night in search of prey. They have familiar, human-like faces framing intense eyes: brilliant orbs of gold or deep, dark pits. They range in size from adorable to imposing, they inhabit a wide range of habitats, and they are found the world over. These impressive predators have an undeniable magic about them, and they have always ranked among my favorite animals.
I make it my business to see owls as often as possible, and I have been fortunate to experience a good run of finding them with some regularity. 5 different species have crossed my path in 2016 alone, and with the exception of the Burrowing Owl I’ve seen each on multiple occasions. I visited the same Snowy on back-to-back days, got very lucky with Barn Owls down south, and encountered distinct subspecies of Eastern Screech-Owl between New York and Texas. There have been a number of recent meetings with the classic North American owl: the Great Horned.
Previous blog posts have mentioned the individual that spent the winter in Central Park, as well as the singing individual on the Christmas Bird Count in January. One even put in an appearance on the Texas trip, flying down a channel in Aransas being pursued by a Belted Kingfisher. A pair of the birds have been seen with consistency at a known roost site in nearby Hempstead Lake State Park, especially when the trees are leafless. Since spring migration is beginning to ramp up, I had an incentive to make a trip after work this Friday, hoping to see the resident owls.
It’s a genuine pleasure to have a few hours of daylight to use after returning home from work. I drove to the park and headed to the “semi-secret” spot where the owls roost. As usual, I found one very quickly but could not see the second bird. I snapped a few photos and admired the visible individual as it gradually began to stir and look around. I love getting to observe this remarkable species so close to my home.
The sun continued to sink and the shadows grew longer. Knowing that the other birds would go to sleep before the owl left its perch, I set off to search the area. Even though migration is still in its earliest stages, I was able to find a variety of quality species. Pine Warblers have returned alongside the Yellow-rumped Warblers, and an Osprey circled the park throughout my visit. An early Barn Swallow joined a flock of Tree Swallows wheeling above the waterfowl on the lake. I spotted pairs of Wood Ducks and Northern Shovelers, and the local flickers were playing chase and courting each other. Non-avian surprises included muskrats, chipmunks, and bats: all welcome sightings and signs of spring. Eventually twilight settled and the diurnal creatures of the park headed to bed.
I returned to the owl spot and waited for the night shift to start. Birds passed overhead on their way to roost, and the bats came fluttering out of the woods. The owl stretched its wings, fluffed its feathers, and prepared for its nocturnal hunt. I suddenly heard a whistled scree, and I whipped around to see the second owl dipping from a hidden perch in a broad, U-shaped dive. It landed on a new branch, shaking itself and looking towards its mate. The gathering gloom pressed in around us, and before long both owls flew deeper into the forest. I took this as my cue to turn towards home, admiring the scenery as I went.
As I walked along the shore of the lily pond, I glimpsed a shadow slipping through the trees towards the water. The owl swooped low over the surface, noiselessly gliding through tangled branches on its way down the channel. It alighted on a low branch near the picnic area, not far from where I used to camp with the Boy Scouts. The last rays of sunlight disappeared below the horizon as the owl surveyed the scene, turning its head to stare after the calls of Wood Ducks and songbirds. I delayed my return to the car in order to admire its stately silhouette a while longer, hoping that the pair would start a territorial duet. No hoots this time, perhaps due to the light rain that began to fall after sunset. I eventually pried myself away from the bird and returned to the vehicle, kicking off my weekend on a very high note.
Year List Update, April 1 – 259 Species (+ Barn Swallow)