Cold, Snow, Owls and those Winter Birds of Central Park
Updated: Mar 1
Snowy Owl at Jones Beach (Long Island) on 29 November 2013
27 December 2017
Detailed SCHEDULE NOTES! Another OWL walk for the hardy! This Saturday (30 December/$10), at 4:30pm (yes 4:30pm - this is not a typo), we meet at Van Cortlandt Park (Bronx), the Golf Course parking lot - extensive directions/link - see below for more info, but here is the golf course: https://tinyurl.com/yar6dkyq . The official address of the parking lot: 115 Van Cortlandt Park South at Bailey Avenue (10471 zip code). Free parking! Plenty (as in no problem)...If taking the train, take the #1 (Broadway local) to the last stop (242nd street) and walk east through the park. I will meet people at the train station (park side) at 4:15pm - but please call to let me know to look for you! It is a 10 minute walk through the park to the golf course. We will do a 90 minute survey for Eastern Screech-owls at two locations in the park, and will try for Great Horned Owls if people are not frozen after an hour. I'll bring my owl calls (tapes) and big speaker. Any questions, send an email or call us at home: 718-828-8262. Again, keep your eye on the weather for late Saturday afternoon - as I write this (Wednesday morning) the chance of significant snow is increasing...so check our web site on Saturday for any final changes/updates.
Our bird photos come from Deborah Allen (see her links below), and show female Rusty Blackbird; some local gulls including a Ring-billed Gull grabbing a crab-apple; and Tundra Swans in New Jersey...plus more!
This week's historical notes provide information on the Cardinal Grosbeak in winter and summer in Manhattan including Central Park (1888); Ruffed Grouse and Bobwhite Quail for sale in markets along Third Avenue in Manhattan (1887); a Tundra Swan shot at Jamaica Bay on 24 December 1901; the winter invasion of Snowy Owls in North America in 1886-1887; and finally, reminiscences of lower Manhattan in 1848.
Ring-billed Gull about to eat a Crab-Apple, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx, on 23 December 2017
Deborah Allen sends Photos from the NYC Area:
Central Park, Sunday December 24, 2017: Female Rusty Blackbird, Turtle Pond: https://www.photo.net/photo/18447417/Female-Rusty-Blackbird
Gull Behavior: Black-headed Gull, Pelham Bay Park, Friday, November 3, 2017:
Ring-billed Gulls Feeding on Crab Apples, Pelham Bay Park, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017:
Ring-billed Gull Carrying Clam, Rye, NY, Tuesday Dec. 26, 2017:
Herring Gull Greeting, Rye, NY, Tuesday Dec. 26, 2017:
The Greater NYC Area:
Tundra Swans, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, NJ, March 6, 2014:
Link to Deborah Allen photos on Agpix site:
Good! Here are the bird walks for late December/early January - each $10
1. Saturday, 30 December - 4:30pm - Eastern Screech-owls of Van Cortlandt Park (Bronx)**** 2. Sunday, 31 December - 9:30am (only) - Central Park - Boathouse (74st/East Drive) 3. [CANCELLED] Monday, 1 January 2018 - 9:30am - Central Park - Boathouse (74st/East Drive) [CANCELLED - due to wind chill of -2f (yes minus 2f) for the HIGH temp]
****We meet at 4:30pm (yes 4:30pm) at the Golf Course parking lot (plenty of free parking...lot remains open until 11pm), at Van Cortlandt Park which is on the southern side of the park. For your GPS, the approximate address is 115 Van Cortlandt Park South 10471 Bronx. Try using this web site for directions to the Golf Course parking lot: https://tinyurl.com/y9lbd2lq
We expect to be out about 60 min to 90 min in search of owls. We want to do two sites: near the Golf Course and then drive north along Broadway for 5-7 minutes to the Riding Stables (called "Riverdale Stables") parking lot at the very north end of Van Cortlandt Park - and try for owls near there. The VC Golf Course parking lot (stop #1) is also easily accessible via train/bus - call us for help/directions getting to that site. Basically, take the #1 (Broadway local) train to the last stop (242nd street). I will meet people there (park side at 242nd and Broadway) at 4:15 pm (don't be late!!!); we will walk east together (10 minutes through the park). Please let me know by calling or by email that you will be coming by train on Saturday evening so I can look for you (and wait for you).
After we finish with site #1 near the Van Cortlandt Golf Course, we will find a spot in someone's car for you when we travel to the other nearby location (stop #2: the horse stables - at the north end of the park - about a 5-7 minute drive north from stop #1). We will head north along Broadway to the Yonkers border...we will park at the Horse Stables (plenty of free parking). We might also try for Great Horned Owls here if people are not frozen - remember Saturday night is forecast to be cold!
a. How likely are we to find owls on Saturday evening, 30 December at Van Cortlandt Park? Pretty good - I'd rate it as 75% - same as Inwood Hill Park. Last year at this time (early Jan 2017) we had our best Eastern Screech-owl walk at VC Park, with two owls coming in to perch very close to us - right where we will be going on this walk. On the other hand, this weekend is forecast to be very cold - it might be the owls prefer to go find food rather than interact with other owls (Bob's recordings) - I just don't know...but am optimistic. But nothing is ever a guarantee!
b. How likely are you to get parking near the Environmental Center? Arrive by 4:25pm and I'd give it 110% chance of parking in the Golf Course parking lot - no problem. We are starting just before sunset because I want to get us to the spot where the owls before active at dusk (about 5pm). I'll give a brief intro talk - and then we need to walk about 7-10 minutes along a mostly level path (about 50 feet wide) to the place where we brought in the owls last year. I think they roost near there - but may go off for some distance to go hunting...hence we are starting early to find them as they leave their roost trees...At the second location, from experience, we know the owls stay in that area all the time - so it is a matter of, "Do the owls want to interact with us?" Again, usually the owls do/will...but sometimes conditions work against that (the worst is strong 20+ mph winds).
c. What to bring: warm clothes; I will have a powerful flashlight...and screech-owls often come in close (no need for bins), but a camera would be good. (Please no flash - my flashlight is powerful enough for digital photography - many photographers got great photos last January at VC Park with only the light from my flashlight.) If we have time, and no one is frozen, we will play the tape for Great Horned Owls - they are much larger and tend to stay further away...so bins would be good for them. Mostly bring warm clothes. Leave your flash at home (please don't make Deborah and Bob upset)...and for the trails just use a small flashlight or even the light from your I-phone/Smart Phone. ================== 4. Saturday, 6 January 2018 - 5pm - Eastern Screech-owls of Inwood Hill Park (Manhattan). 5. Sunday, 7 January - 9:30am (only) - Central Park - Boathouse (74st/East Drive)
The fine print: In December-January, our walks every Sunday meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approximately 74th street and the East Drive on the lake; it is NOT one of the buildings on the nearby Model Boat Pond). Bathrooms are nearby and ok; they open at about 7:30am. On Saturdays we sometimes meet at the Boathouse (74th street and the East Drive) at 9:30am - but check schedule on web site and here because we often go further afield such as NYBG in the Bronx. Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (= email@example.com). We have a new web site...if in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not, check the web site the morning of the walk: info will be posted on the main landing page as well as the "Schedule" page by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 7:30pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk!
We end all our weekend Central Park walks at the Boathouse at about noon - you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total - coffee is now $2.75). Our Friday walks, we usually end up at (or very near) Conservatory Garden, most often at 106th street and 5th Avenue.
Here is what we saw last week (selected highlights) with some anecdotal notes and observations. Not all species we saw are reported here - we list the best:
Saturday, 23 December - OWLS at night (start at Inwood Hill Park, upper Manhattan, at 6pm) - I arrived at 3pm and parked opposite a small restaurant bar (Indian Road Cafe) at the entrance to Indian Road (the end of which is the Environmental Center). No rain! Folks began arriving at 5:45pm, and the rain started at 5:55pm. Thankfully it was almost Christmas so folks were in a holiday spirit - and we were off to find owls. Just the idea of owls makes people happy, even though most were probably hedging their bets and thinking that there is no way in hell any owl anywhere would be in this park, let alone show itself to this group of people. We walked up a hill and I played the tape. Within 10 seconds I heard a woman say, "What's that, that just flew in?" "That" was an Eastern Screech-owl the fastest response I have ever had to my tape - almost like a lost soul on a deserted island who heard a familiar voice for the first time in years...We watched this owl for a bit: I put the flashlight on, and we could see it was a grey morph individual. If I had to guess I'd say it was a male - but I can't point to any plumage details or anything else for support - just my hunch. We watched for five minutes or so and then we headed further up the hill. I took the people here because with dense cover overhead, screech-owls will come in very close. I pointed to a nearby small tree and told everyone we were going to put the owl in that tree - about five feet from us and at/just below eye-level. So I put the big speaker on the ground, pointed it at the tree and made everyone stand behind me or at my sides. Within a minute the owl had landed in that small tree, everyone oohing and aahing. (One learns a few things through the years about how birds will respond to sound...one starts to think like an owl in winter, or a warbler in May. Don't worry it is not rocket science - I will teach you.) So we watched this small owl with yellow eyes, round face and no ear tufts that we could easily see - it is nice when birds come this close to perch, it is easy to point out the field marks. For the record, the screech-owl made both the bounce call and the monotonic trill. The rain was increasing steadily at this point, and declaring that discretion is the better part of valor, we called it a night and resolved to meet at Van Cortlandt Park in a week (December 30th) to look for screech-owls there. As we approached our cars, the rain was stopping...people were happy to go home...and I drove back to make dinner for Deborah - it was 6:40pm. ================================= Sunday, 24 December (start at the Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am) - how can Deborah and I say THANK YOU! to the people that come on our bird walks? As we understood it, the people on this past Sunday's walk were chosen to represent everyone that came on a bob/Deborah bird walk in 2017. It was a motley crew: I counted at least three lawyers, mostly retired but you know lawyers when they sense an innocent victim floundering in rough water; there were doctors ready with folded arms for DNR (do not resuscitate); and there were the other rabble rousers chosen because they had (on several occasions) pointed out that bob had misidentified yet another bird. So up the hill from the Boathouse we went. I don't remember many birds from this walk...no need really: the two British folks were doing a great job finding birds; the two Australians were smiling through bad bob jokes ("two peanuts were walking down the street toward Tom Ahlf's house" etc.); and two folks from Alabama managed to disappear before we learned anything about them (were they IRS agents?). As for birds: one Goldfinch at the bird feeders and a flyaway Cooper's Hawk; six Fox Sparrows in Mugger's Woods; an amazing Rusty Blackbird female at the Dock on Turtle Pond (bring peanuts to get that bird close); Brown Creeper in Shakespeare (Vicki Seabrook); lots of American Robins - almost as though they had moved back north again with the advancing mild weather; Dr. Gilian with Ruby-crowned Kinglets; Patti Pike (she is fine after having her hip replaced) and Ruddy Ducks; and Peter Haskell trying to point out waterfowl to bob to no avail; of course Diane and Elizabeth found birds that bob missed...but overall Deborah and Bob had such a wonderful time they will keep doing these walks through 2018 or until no one shows up any longer.
Deborah's bird list for the day: https://tinyurl.com/yaht498q ======================================= HISTORICAL NOTES
CARDINAL GROSBEAK IN NEW YORK IN WINTER . On Tuesday, Jan. 17., I saw on 156th street, near Eleventh avenue, a young male Cardinalis virginianus. The species is not uncommon in Central Park in summer, and has been reported more than once as occurring in winter; but the circumstance is perhaps sufficiently unusual to warrant this brief mention. G. B. G. (New York, Jan. 20). ======================================= SNOWY OWLS IN 1886-7.
THE winter of 1886-1887 will be remembered by naturalists and collectors throughout the country as a remarkable one for the number of these birds of prey. Throughout the Northwest they were very abundant, as well as in the Eastern and New England States. Immediately after the big storm in the middle of November they put in an appearance and remained until late the following spring. Scarcely a newspaper throughout the country but had an account of the killing of one or more of them, and it is usually the case that only a small per cent of the number killed find an account of the killing or capture in the columns of any newspaper; so the number killed must have been remarkable. Quite a number were recorded in the FOREST AND STREAM and other papers interested in ornithology. Within a radius of twenty-five miles from this point no less than a dozen were killed, and of their entire number I know of but two that were preserved. I have been collecting birds for ten years, and have watched and waited patiently all that time to add one of these birds to my collection, but was not successful until last winter, when I secured six; one I killed near here and recorded it in the FOREST AND STREAM, and the others were procured by my brother in Calhoun county, Iowa.
A friend of mine, J. Y. C., of Whatcom, Washington Territory, writes that they were very plenty there. Late in April, 1887, I saw one on some bottom land fifty miles south of here while gunning for ducks. A friend was with me and he was very anxious to kill one. We had seen this one several times, but did not know it was an owl, and thought it was one of the large bones of which there were many scattered about. He had been shooting that morning half a mile from me, and when he returned to my blind I pointed to the object I thought was a bone telling him it was a snowy owl. He seemed surprised, but at once proceeded to make a detour, and then getting on all-fours commenced creeping toward his prey. I was watching the proceedings carefully and chuckling to myself at the joke I thought I had on him. Suddenly I heard two reports in quick succession, and on looking up saw the owl flying rapidly away, and my friend, with a look of dismay, holding the smoking gun in his hands. Now I was thoroughly surprised at the way my joke had turned out. We laid many plans for his capture and tried various ways to get within gunshot of the old fellow, but all to no avail. The weather at this time was very warm and many of our summer birds had returned from their southern homes. Wounded ducks were numerous all over the bottoms, so be must have had a good living, which, I suppose, accounted for his tarrying so long.
Up to the present time I have only learned of one being killed this winter. The report comes from Vermont. One was reported seen six miles from town last week, but it may have been a light-colored, rough-legged hawk, although the person who saw it was quite positive, as he was within easy gunshot, but had no gun. Just why so many migrated to the United States last winter I am not prepared to say. It may have been the severe weather or a scarcity of food. The bird is a regular migrant south in winter, but has never, to my knowledge, appeared before in such numbers. H. A. KLINE. FORRESTON, Ill. =============================================== NEW YORK. 22 Jan. 1887. Ruffed grouse and quail [Bobwhite] are displayed for sale in most of the uptown markets of New York. A game protector walking the length of Third avenue could average about one seizure for every two blocks. MARK WEST. [Quail may be sold until Feb. 1.] ============================================== Olor columbianus. A Whistling [now called Tundra] Swan was killed at Flatlands, a village within the boundaries of Greater New York, by Asher White, a farmer living there, on Dec. 24, 1901. He had the bird mounted and I recently examined the specimen at his house on Mill Lane. I was informed that the bird had been killed on Flat Creek, one of the tide-water channels emptying into that portion of Jamaica Bay known locally as Flatlands Bay. The father and grandfather of the White who shot the swan, and who also lived here, on occasion 'gunned' for the market, but never met this species. On the day on which he made this capture he had gone to this creek for water-fowl, where tall grass formed a natural blind. The swan was first seen in flight and took to the water not far off, but out of gun-range. After long waiting, however, it swam within range when the farmer killed it by a heavy charge of shot, with which he was fortunate enough to break the neck of the immense bird. ============================================== FORTY YEARS AGO [= 1848].
When I read in your interesting paper the pleasant reminiscences from the pen of Mr. Frank J. Thompson, memory carries me back to nearly forty years ago, when I was a boy employed as a clerk by Mr. Thompson in New York. The firm was then Sanborn & Thompson, on Water street, below Wall. In our building there were half a dozen volunteer firemen, all members of “No. 8 City Hose,” then lying in Cedar street, between Broadway and Nassau street, on the ground where the large life insurance company building now stands. From that little carriage house turned out some of our best merchants then in business down town, when the sweet and never to he forgotten music of that clear old bell in the City Hall tower (it rang many a brave fellows death knell) came in for a fire m the seventh and eighth districts there was fun in the old store on Water street. Mr. John Clancy was the first out; he was a little lame, but he got there all the same; he was foreman of the hose cart. Then followed Larry Clancy, Will Hubbell, Phil Lawrence and myself, the whole party soon overtaking Mr. John Garcia. We made a merry crowd and the little hose cart was quickly rattling over the pavements with as kind-heated and manly a set of firemen as ever manned a rope. And when the fire was out and Jack gave orders to take up and “man the rope boys,” the music of the silver-toned bells and merry songs from the boys, the bright-colored lanterns, with which the little cart was decked, as we wended our way to headquarters through the then quiet and deserted streets of the big city, were all something grand to me and never to be forgotten.
As I sit here tonight in my quiet country home, with all my dear ones around me, the wind sighing through the skeleton trees, the patter of snow on the windows, and my old dog Quail at my feet on the hearth, resting from his day's labor on the golden stubbles after the little brown beauties, a feeling of sadness steals over my heart, when I think where are all those noble fellows. It all seems but as yesterday. So far as I can learn they have all crossed the unknown gulf to join the great majority, all but Mr. Thompson and myself.
ALFRED A. FRASER.
THE CEDARS, Oakdale, L. I., Dec. 26, 1887.
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD www.BirdingBob.com
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Elm in the snow on 17 January 2011
Central Park (north end at approx. 100th street and the West Drive)