top of page

The Invisible Connection: Migrant Owls, Pine Siskins, Red-breasted Nuthatches - the Invasion Continu

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

Northern Saw-whet Owl in February 1990 at Pelham Bay Park, Bronx

14 November 2018

Notes: This Friday, 16 November looks like a rainout - do keep an eye on this web site for the likely cancellation. Looking ahead, there will be no Friday, 23 November walk - that is the day after Thanksgiving; however, there will be a 9:30am Thursday 22 November (Thanksgiving) walk meeting at the Boathouse.

By now many NYC area birders are aware of the ongoing invasion of seed-eating birds such as Pine Siskins (see Deborah Allen's photo below), Purple Finches and Red-breasted Nuthatches, some of whom arrived in our parks by mid-July. We are now waiting and hoping for the appearance of significant numbers of other seed-eaters from the north: Evening Grosbeaks, White-winged and even Red Crossbills. What many people don't immediately recognize is that when there is a crash (lack of) seeds in northern forests other species are affected too: small mammal populations decline and forest owls such as Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared and even Barred Owls head south in higher than usual number in search of food. Indeed, in the last couple of weeks, the Wild Bird Fund on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has received at least five injured Northern Saw-whet Owls (see image above) including two from the Lincoln Center area of Manhattan.

In this week's Historical Notes, we present information on local and migrant owls here in NYC: (a) a 1906 article about resident Long-eared Owls in Flushing, Queens; (b) a 1912 note about a Northern Saw-whet Owl captured in Central Park in November and brought to a local bird club meeting; (c) a 1901 article by Elizabeth Britton of a Barred Owl in the Hemlock Forest of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx; (d/e/f) Long-eared Owls in Central Park (early 1980s) and a Barrio Owl in Harlem (1990s); (g) a summary of the weather right here in NYC for October 2018. Science-writer Rob Frydlewicz compares last month with trends in October weather for the last 100+ years. For example:

"So far this year, there have been 130 days with measurable precipitation up to and including Halloween, the most ever in the first ten months of a year, besting the previous record from 2003 by six days and this was twenty-two fewer than 1996's current annual record number. Even if 2018 would experience no rain and/or snow through mid November, its year to date record number of such days would still stand."

Surprise! Deborah Allen's photo of this Pine Siskin (one of a flock of 25 or so) is eating a caterpillar from Seaside Goldenrod at Jones Beach (Long Island) on 12 November 2018. A flock of these came in to my calls and landed in front of us...we thought all were eating the seeds of this wildflower until Deborah looked at her photos yes Siskins love seeds - but they eat other things too!

Good! Here are the bird walks for mid-November - each $10***

All Bird Walks in Central Park 1. Friday, 16 November - 9:00am (ONLY!) - Conservatory Garden at 105th st. and 5th Ave.

This walk will likely be cancelled due to the forecast of rain throughout the morning. 2. Saturday, 17 November - 7:30am/9:30am - Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park. 3. Sunday, 18 November - 7:30am/9:30am - Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park. 4. Mon, 19 November - 8:00am/9:00am - Strawberry Fields (Imagine Mosaic) at 72 st/CPW.

Any questions/concerns send them our way: or call: 718-828-8262 (home) ***NOTE: on MORNINGS when two walks are scheduled (e.g., 7:30/9:30am), you can do both walks for $10/ get two for the price of one. Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here:


The fine print: On Saturdays and Sundays, our walks meet at 7:30am and again at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!. Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (= On Mondays we meet at 8am and again at 9am at Strawberry Fields (the benches near the "Imagine" Mosaic. Enter the park at 72nd street and Central Park West and walk about 1 minute due east on the main, paved path and find the Mosaic - we are sitting nearby. On Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden located at 105th street and 5th Avenue. Enter through the main gates and walk down the steps - head straight ahead along the long, grassy area - we meet by the giant water spout between the men's room and the women's room. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm 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 and Monday Central Park walks at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). For our Friday walks, we usually end up at (or very near) Conservatory Garden, most often at 106th street and 5th Avenue. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.

Barn Owl: these owls still nest in the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and perhaps even Brooklyn

Here is what we saw last week

(selected highlights; the full list for each day is available at the links below): Friday, 9 November (Conservatory Garden at 105th St. and 5th Avenue at 9am) - the morning started out sunny but quickly clouded over - and unpredicted light rain began at intervals at about 11am. Winds the previous night were from the Northeast...taking migrants inland away from us. That being said, the flock of seven Purple Finches at the southwest corner of the Great Hill that came in to land just over our heads (thank you tape) was great; a close second was/were the Golden Crowned Kinglets of the Wildflower Meadow that came in to land at our feet (thanks ditto). On the other hand, I could not bring in any Evening Grosbeaks or Pine Siskins, and one Field Sparrow flew the other way when I first played its call...but it came back shortly after.

Deborah Allen's list of birds for Friday 9 November:


Saturday, 10 November (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and 9:30am) - quite a wind today, though we have felt worse breezes from the northwest: today only 20-25mph. With it we had some new birds from a flock of 2 Black Vultures traveling with 7 Turkey Vultures, a Red-shouldered Hawk over the Great Lawn; several Cooper's Hawks and an American Kestrel here and there. For all of this we thank Gillian Henry MD, Peter Haskell, Carine Mitchell and the many others of the bird walks...Laura from Australia found us the male Eastern Bluebird feeding on Amur Cork fruit in the Ramble and we had a silent toast to Tom Ahlf - Mr. Bluebird himself! When he misses a bird walk, we see Bluebirds - but we are hoping to see him tomorrow and break tradition by finding him a flock of these birds...and an owl or two. Speaking of which, there was a Barred Owl in the Ramble, and Brad Kane found a Northern Saw-whet roosting next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other highlights today included a few Golden-crowned Kinglets on the Great Lawn, a Red-breasted Nuthatch (Pinetum) and the absence of any Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Purple Finches...gone with the Bluebirds and waiting for Tom Ahlf and the rest of the gang on Sunday.

Deborah Allen's list of birds for Sat. 10 Nov:


Sunday, 11 November (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and 9:30am; then an Owl Walk at 4:30pm at Inwood Hill Park at night) - today was quite the day: the first bird walk that began at 7:30am produced the usual assortment of sparrows, woodpeckers...the usual suspects. For those that remained for the 9:30am, everything got better. At Turtle Pond we used the tape to call in Hooded Mergansers and the males were displaying to the females while our friend Bruno Boni of Brazil was taking photos using his 800mm lens. We found the Barred Owl that had moved to the area of Azalea Pond (thanks to Will Papp and his laser pointer). At Tupelo Field, I used the tape to bring in two PIne Siskins much to the amazement of John Day who now owes me a nice dinner (and Deborah too). Moving on to the Great Lawn area we had Red-shouldered Hawks passing over us, while a male American Kestrel perched in the tallest tree on the west side of the lawn. In front of us not 30 feet away was a large flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets foraging on the grass (about 40...and yes they often forage on the Great Lawn when it is closed to foot traffic), along with a few Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Then the amazing happened: the male American Kestrel swooped down not more than 50 feet from us to catch a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Bruno has photos) and all the attentive saw it happen! The kestrel repeated these swoops a couple more times in the next hour, but we did not see him catch any other birds. At the Pinetum, we found Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (adult female - not a good fall for sapsucker numbers here) and Red-breasted Nuthatch. By this time folks were tired and Tom Ahlf agreed that the Eastern Bluebird we would see could be saved for the next walk... Deborah Allen's list of birds for Sunday, 11 November: overwhelmed us, and despite having the birds we saw written up in our notes, we never posted that list to the NYS Birds List...apologies.


Monday, 12 November (Strawberry Fields at 8:00am and again at 9:00am) - Deborah Allen's list of birds for Monday, 12 November: No Bird Walks - Both morning and then the evening owl walk were cancelled.

Long-eared Owl in Central Park by Deborah Allen


Long-eared Owls resident at Flushing, Long Island, N. Y. [1906]. Some time ago I wrote (1902) regarding the Barn Owls which formerly occupied a church steeple on Bowne Avenue in Flushing, Borough of Queens. It may be of interest to you to know that within a few hundred yards of my studio here on Bowne Avenue, there are now roosting six Long-eared Owls (Asio wilsonianus). This family of owls has been in and about this neighborhood for several years. They breed here, and this last season they wintered here. Probably they have done so all along. I have examined a number of their pellets and found in them nothing but the remains of mice with now and then the bones of an English sparrow. If this is the regular diet of these birds, which from different authorities consulted I infer to be a fact, it might be well to plant a colony of Long-eared Owls in every city and village in the United States. The birds roost in the thick foliage of an evergreen tree, but when watched too closely do not hesitate to leave the tree and fly about in broad daylight, and the manner in which they dodge obstructions when approaching their former perch, makes it evident that their eyesight is very good even in daylight.

Dan Beard, Flushing, N.Y. [Dan Beard was a co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America]

Saw-whet Owl. November 12, 1918. The President in the chair. Ten members (Dr. Dwight, Dr. G. C. Fisher, Dr. Janvrin, and Messrs. Gladden, Hix, Marks, J. T. Nichols, L. N. Nichols, Pearson and Weber) and five visitors (including Mr. William Palmer) present. A Boy Scout present, Albert Pinkus, who had captured a Saw-whet Owl (Cryptoglaux a. acadica) in Central Park on November 5 [1918] and brought it to the Museum, reported having photographed another at the same place on November 11, about six feet up in some bushes, and showed the negative. Mr. Gladden raised the question as to how well the Saw-whet Owl could see in daylight. He was of the impression that it could not see well. A general discussion followed on the ability of Owls to see by day. It was generally agreed that the Barn (Aluco pratincola), Barred (Strix varia), Screech (Otus asio) and Horned (Bubo virginianus) Owls could see very well in the day-time, the only adverse evidence being contributed by Mr. L. N. Nichols who had boyhood memories of Screech Owls which were much more readily alarmed at night than by day. It was agreed that the Saw-whet Owl was very inactive by day and allowed a close approach, so that it sometimes could be taken in the hand, but the general experience was that it seemed to see rather well and would elude capture in most cases at the last moment. Mr. Weber spoke of a Screech Owl he had had confined for about a year in his cellar and for which he had merely set out liver about once a week. At the end of the year the bird was in excellent physical condition in spite of its continued residence in the dark cellar, and was liberated.


The Barred Owl in Bronx Park [1901]. For nearly two years there has lived in the Hemlock Grove [NYBG - Bronx] a Barred Owl, or rather a pair of them, and though neither of them were often seen, yet at morning and early evening their weird hoots were familiar and delightful to us all. Early in February, an old dead hemlock was cut down, and the Owl's nest was discovered to be in it, much to our regret, for it might have been spared. During the next snowstorm an Owl was reported to have been seen perching low down in an old tree, and after the next storm it was found on the ground too feeble to fly. It was brought into the museum, and found to be very thin and sick, for while trying to feed it with finely chopped raw meat, it was discovered that it had two large ulcers in its throat, which prevented its swallowing, and that it was slowly starving to death. It died after ineffectual attempts at curing it by swabbing its throat with kerosene, and it seems likely that it had caught "the roup" from some chicken, stolen from our neighbors' poultry yards. The symptoms were pronounced to be the same, extreme lassitude and indifference, sitting with its head down, running at the mouth, an inability to swallow. Its mate has been seen since near the place where their nest used to be.

Elizabeth G. Britton, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx Park.

Barred Owl in Washington state 2017

OWL BREEZES IN FOR THE HOLIDAYS AND FINDS A CENTRAL PARK HOME [1981] By Paul L. Montgomery It's not the first one ever seen there, and bird watchers hope it won't be the last, but a lonesome long-eared owl is prowling Central Park these winter nights. The wanderer apparently blew into town around Christmas - ''For the nightlife,'' suggested Rick Friesen, an actor and one of the few bird watchers to see it - and has been eking out a living since among the park's scattered wildlife. When spotted yesterday afternoon the foot-tall owl was peering suspiciously from the topmost branches of a pine, opening its yellow eyes wide at a hand clap and monitoring the indignant bluejays screeching nearby. Owls, including the long-eared species, are relatively common in the suburbs but are rarely seen because they fly by night and hide during the day. Every year or so one of them will show up in the park, spend a few weeks and then depart on silent wings. The last sighting of owls devoted bird watchers in the park could remember was in October 1979, when a barn owl and a barred owl were found roosting together. Saw-whet owls, which look like little disconsolate bundles of feathers, have also been seen from time to time. Last Christmas, Bill Edgar and Morris Swift, two park regulars, saw a long-eared owl near the Ramble. Owls of the same species are difficult to tell apart, but experts presume the one seen this week was the holiday visitor. The raptor's exact roosting place is being kept secret for fear harm will come to it. Sarah Elliott, co-author of the pamphlet ''Birds of Central Park,'' said during yesterday's owl stalk that she couldn't tell if it was a male or female. ''I can't sex owls by sight,'' she said. ''I don't think anybody can, except other owls.'' Long-eared owls generally feast on field mice and roost in groups. The Central Park habitue is solitary, and field mice there are in short supply, though there are plenty of rats. ''He seems nervous, maybe he doesn't have a full stomach,'' Miss Elliott said. ''Why is he here?'' the bird watcher was asked. ''Ultimately,'' she replied, ''you could ask that question of all of us.''


TOPICS: Owls NYC (January 1981) There is a long-eared owl roosting somewhere in Central Park. Judging by his feathers he's warmer than anyone else in town. Judging by his stare he's amazed by what he sees. Or possibly she is amazed; only other owls know for sure. Long-eared owls are convivial; this owl is alone. They dine on field mice; this one must find an alternate cuisine. This owl is braving hardship to be here. This is an owl who loves New York. It has long been axiomatic in city life that access to a tree is useful when navigating Central Park. Cynics may say that only a bird should try it. The cynics may also point to the reputation of owls and warn that a bad omen just breezed our way. Nonsense. A long-eared owl choosing residence in Central Park is a compliment to the landscape, a welcome vote of confidence.



Wide-Eyed Wonder at a Visit from the Barrio Owl

JANET ALLON 7 January 1996 For a few days in early December, only Brandon Shackelford, 8, and his teen-age sister, Tawanna, knew about the large owl in the tree in the James Weldon Johnson Houses courtyard in East Harlem. Brandon had glanced out the window of the family's third-floor apartment on a Saturday morning, and there it was, not more than 20 feet away, asleep. It was a barred owl, named for its bands of dark neck feathers, but during its weeklong stay, it came to be known as the Barrio Owl. Other characteristics of the barred owl are its size (nearly two feet tall), four-foot wingspan, call (which sounds like "who cooks for you") and big brown eyes (most owls have yellow). Brandon was struck by "its three sets of eyelids." Normally, the barred owl hangs out in swampy or densely wooded areas. What drove this owl to East Harlem, bird-watchers said, was the search for food, which it found mostly in the form of pigeons. By the following Tuesday, word was out. Someone called the local Audubob Society. "The volunteer who took the call told me there was a barred owl in East Harlem, and I said, 'Sure there is,' " said Norman Stotz, a society board member. That afternoon another call came in. The city's hard-core bird-watchers are an intrepid group who think nothing of heading to Central Park on a frigid day to see a rare bird. Last Thursday, the icy day after the city's most recent winter storm, the grapevine was alive with the sighting of a rare great horned owl. About a dozen bird-watchers, many older than 60, traipsed into the park with their high-powered binoculars and were rewarded for their efforts. On several mornings in December, the devotees gathered early at the Johnson Houses to gaze at the barred owl. They were joined by residents of the Taft and Jefferson Houses. Brandon said some people threw rocks to see the bird fly, but most were well behaved, interested, concerned. In the evenings, the owl flew off to dine. All the attention may have driven it away for good, or perhaps the easy prey was gone. Mr. Stotz said it probably headed south, and he worried that "barred owls have tough times in winter out of their habitat." For the Shackelfords, the bird took on greater significance. Brandon's grandmother died last year, and the family missed her. She was fond of looking out the window, said Stephanie Shackelford, Brandon's mother. The owl, it seemed, was always looking into the window at the family. "I don't believe in reincarnation," Ms. Shackelford said, but she added that it was hard to get the possibility out of her mind. J.A.


Started Out Like September, Ended Like It Was November

Rob Frydlewicz "Although October wasn't far from average in terms of its overall temperature, few would think of it as average as the first eleven days of the month had temperatures comparable to the start of September followed by nearly three weeks of temperature more like early November. Through the 11th temperatures were ten degrees above average (high/low of 75/65f), then the rest of the month was about twenty degrees colder (57/4f), and four degrees below average. Another contrast was between the departure from normal of the month's average high, which was a stitch below average (-0.3 degrees), and the average low, which was nearly two degrees milder than average (+1.9 degrees). Despite it being 0.8f degrees above average, this was the chilliest October in seven years. Additional points of interest: "(a) Similar to August and September, the difference between October's average high and low (i.e., diurnal variation) was one of the smallest on record for October - 11.6f degrees (the average is 15.4 degrees). In the past 100 years only October 2012 had a smaller variation. "(b) Just a year after the latest date for a low in the 70s occurred (on 10/9) a new mark was set this year when a low of 71f (five degrees warmer than the average high for the date) was reported on the 10th. "(c) The month was well above average in terms of days with lows of 60f or milder (eleven). Only October 1879 (thirteen), 2012 (warmest October on record) and 2007 had more lows of 60+. And this October's eleven days were consecutive (Oct. 1-11), which set a new October record and included five days in a row with mean temperatures that were ten or more degrees above average. However, despite these balmy conditions just one day, 10/10, had a high in the 80s (80f). "(d) During the chilly portion of the month there were a dozen days with highs in the 50s, the most since 2009 (the typical number is eight). And the number of lows in the 30s was three, the most since 2011 (the chilliest reading was 38f). "(e) The high of 64f on Halloween (five degrees above average) was the month's mildest reading since 10/15 and the first Halloween to have temperatures in the 60s in five years. "(f) Finally, much of October's 3.59" of rain (the smallest amount in five years) came from the remnants of catastrophic hurricane Michael on 10/11-12, which brought 1.27", and a nor'easter on 10/27 that produced 1.29". On 10/20 the year's total precipitation passed 50 inches, and by the end of the month 51.42" had been measured, which is close to two inches more than what falls in a typical year. This ranks as the ninth greatest amount of precipitation (since 1869) through the end of October."


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD Follow us on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Sumac and Groundsel in Pelham Bay Park, Bx on 25 Oct 2015

bottom of page