I had a clear, simple goal when I set out on Sunday morning: photograph the Barn Owls at Jamaica Bay. I’ve spent a fair few hours holed up in the photography blind across from their nest box at Big John’s Pond. These stakeouts have been detailed in other posts, but the end results have invariably been fleeting glimpses of movement flickering in the dark. I usually find plenty of other wildlife nearby to entertain me, and any owl encounter is a good one, but I was always left wanting a little more. I hoped that this vigil would be the lucky one, and my outing began with an auspicious sign of good fortune: I managed to travel the Belt Parkway in record time without touching the brakes once. Miracles do happen!
When I arrived at the blind with binoculars, camera, and scope in hand, I found a familiar scene. Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons rested at the water’s edge, birdsong floated across the pond from the reeds and treetops, and the box was dark and seemingly empty.
Other nature enthusiasts came and went at the beginning of my watch, nodding appreciatively at the herons and scanning for more signs of life. “Anything in the box?” was the default greeting, and most departed shortly after receiving a “not yet” in response. A cuckoo streaked through the sky and perched among the branches, showing well enough to be IDed as a Black-billed and photographed before continuing onwards. It crossed back the other way, low to the water, some time later, and I heard a Yellow-billed loudly vocalizing behind me. The good times kept on rolling when, merely 20 minutes into my observation, something stirred in the dark.
It was difficult to see detail within the nest, but there was definitely movement and it was definitely an owl. Another team of observers showed up, so I pointed out the ghostly box-dweller and mentioned my other sightings. They soon took off in pursuit of distantly-heard cuckoo calls, and I decided to shift my scope to a different viewing hole for a better angle. By the time I crossed to the other side of the blind, the situation outside had changed.
WE HAVE AN OWL. IT’S GO TIME. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. I swung my camera into position and began snapping photos, bracing it against the wall as my hands trembled with excitement. I notified the birders just outside the blind, and several other delighted groups arrived to join the party. The bird perched at the edge of the entrance hole, surveying the area. It seemed especially fixated on something off to one side of the box, staring intently in that direction for long periods of time. This encounter was the most extended, well-lit view of this majestic species that I’ve experienced to date, even considering the recent spate of sightings I’ve had this year. Little did I know, the show was just getting started.
As the owl was scanning its front yard, I noticed that it had locked its gaze on the tree next door and assumed a crouched position. I knew what was coming, and I made sure my lens was trained on the action. A chorus of hushed exclamations swept through the assembled onlookers as the bird spread its spectacular wings and launched into the air.
Following the raptor’s flight to the tree, I noticed that there was another creature nestled among the foliage. A second owl was perched on a lower branch, close to the tops of the swaying phragmites reeds. The original bird eventually worked its way down to its mate, settling on the same limb where they sat and preened together. On this humid, warm day, it must have been pretty stuffy cooped up inside the nest box. Perhaps that’s why yet another form was spotted fidgeting at the opening: a fluffy, pure-white owlet. It was hard to tell which end was which as the downy mass squirmed in and out of view, but I briefly spied its face and coal-black eyes as it positioned itself to get some fresh air.
After about an hour of activity, things finally started to quiet down at Big John’s Pond. The owlet ducked back into the darkness, the first owl returned to the box, and the second retreated deeper into the tangled twigs to hunker down for a nap. With the curtain closing on an amazing performance, I managed to pry myself away from the charming little family and explore the rest of the refuge.
Migrant activity was greatly reduced compared to the warbler bonanza the previous week, with only a few transient Blackpolls joining the locally-breeding Yellows, Yellowthroats, and Redstarts. Highlighting the turn of the seasons, Tree Swallows, House Wrens, and Ospreys were seen at nests provided by manmade structures. I heard the clicking calls of a Clapper Rail emanating from the saltmarsh adjacent to the trail. A Peregrine Falcon wheeled over the West Pond as numerous waterbirds picked the shoreline below. Spring is in full swing.
I returned home to wrap up my weekend in classic Sunday style: brunch, errands, house repairs, family time, a delicious grilled dinner, and some quality relaxation before the madness of the work week. A few miles away, I knew the Barn Owl family was undergoing their own preparations to get ready for a night of hunting, the challenges of the breeding season, and the eventual growth of the owlets into fully-fledged nocturnal predators. It was a complete pleasure to enjoy a casual morning with them, witnessing a slice of life for these remarkable creatures in a wonderfully intimate setting. Nature is truly awesome.
Year List Update, May 22 – 317 Species (+ Black-billed Cuckoo)