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Pine Grosbeak, Great Grey Owl and Northern Hawk-owl: Rare Winter Migrants to the NYC Area

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

Northern Hawk-owl at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota, January 2019

23 January 2019

Bird Notes: Central Park Bird Walks in January and February happen every Saturday and Sunday morning at 9:30am (only). Meet at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe. $10/person. Until 20 February, we probably won't have more than one pair of binoculars to rent so do your best to bring your own! Please consult the Schedule page of this web site for updates to the schedule, or directions to the meeting location (the Boathouse). Finally, for the next few weeks, this Newsletter will be published every other Wednesday or so.

As you read this, Deborah and I are just back from Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota where we were photographing birds of the boreal forest - see our photos herein. It was cold! How cold? Many days never reached Zero Fahrenheit (0f), and we often photographed in -10f (yes minus ten) temperatures, and that does not include the wind chill factor. On some mornings it was -20f and sometimes colder - as low as -24f plus the wind! Good Luck in NYC! We are now off to northern Washington state for three weeks. In our Historical Notes we send reports of boreal birds that have been seen in NYC or the immediate area: (a) a February 1876 note on Pine Grosbeaks in captivity in Jersey City, and adult (and immature) Bald Eagles on the Hudson River; (b) an 1889 note about a Great Grey Owl in New York state; (c) an American (Northern) Hawk-owl collected in Brooklyn in the 1860s; (d) the Pine Grosbeak on Long Island in February 1904; and finally, (e) a series of notes on the Great Grey Owl on Long Island in the winter of 1979 + information on the irruption of these large owls into New England and the region that winter.

Adult male Pine Grosbeak at Sax-Zim Bog Minnesota in January 2019


Good! Here are the bird walks for January through February

Each $10

All Bird Walks in Central Park

1. Saturdays in Jan-Feb 2019: 9:30am - meet at the Boathouse Restaurant

2. Sundays in Jan-Feb 2019: 9:30am - meet at the Boathouse Restaurant

The Boathouse Restaurant is located at 74th street and the East Drive within the park.


Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here:

Any questions send them our way: or call: 718-828-8262 (home)

Sub-adult male Pine Grosbeak at Sax-Zim Bog, January 2019


The fine print: On Saturdays and Sundays, our walks meet 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 ( If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site 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 walks at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). 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.

Female Pine Grosbeak at Sax-Zim Bog, January 2019


Here is what we saw recently (brief highlights)

Sat-Sun 12-13 and 19-20 January (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am) - Sandra Critelli has been covering the Bird Walks for us while we were away in northern Minnesota. She found the highlight birds on most walks including Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl...though not on every walk. Perhaps her best find (with Victor Lloyd) was an adult Red-shouldered Hawk near Azalea Pond this past Saturday (19 Jan.) Look for more walks led by Sandra, and also Jeff Ward, on the coming weekends. Also look for new birds arriving in the park from the cold, snowy north. For example, there was a Common Redpoll found on Randall's Island (northern Manhattan) over the past weekend.

View of the roads and farmland that are interspersed through Sax-Zim Bog, January 2019



From Our Correspondents [10 February 1876]. John Burroughs (Esopus-on-Hudson) says, "I have seen an extraordinary number of eagles on the Hudson this Winter. Yesterday from the car window I saw eight in the vicinity of West Point four bald eagles, at least, and three black or golden eagles, and one I could not determine. The black eagles were sitting on the floating cakes of ice, or hovering over them. The bald eagles were high in air, sailing round and round. Passing down the Hudson the last of December I saw three black eagles on the ice. About the first of December I saw several golden eagles in the fields near Kingston, and one day soon after a bald eagle flew-along by my house. Why this great flight of eagles? Have others observed and noted this?" "Have you noticed how easily the pine grosbeak is tamed? I saw a lady on the Jersey City depot the other day with one in a cage that had only been caught a few weeks, and it would hop down into her hand and feed. It was very fond of apple seeds. She said it sang finely. I have seldom seen a bird that looked so clean and healthy in captivity."


GREAT GRAY OWL IN NEW YORK [1889]. An adult female specimen of the great gray owl (Ulula cinerea) was taken by John Wright, of Watson, Lewis county, N.Y. Dec. 17 [1889]. The big bird flew into the yard where they were butchering and perched in a tree near them, Mr. Wright had been told by Mr. James H. Miller, of this place, to shoot any owls he might see and bring them to him. When Mr. Miller was shown the bird and was informed that it had been purchased for him, said, "I will take this as a Christmas present and ask for nothing else." When he told me where it had been shot and by whom, I could but heave a sigh, for only the day before I had been rabbit hunting in the very woods the bird flew out of when first seen, and my horse had been hitched in the very yard where the bird was shot. The measurements were: Length, 24in., extent, 58in. The stomach was empty. This is the first authentic record of this species having been taken in Lewis county, so far as I am aware of. O. STEWART BAMBER, M.D. (Lowville, N. Y.).

Great Grey Owl at Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota, January 2019


American Hawk-owl Surnia ulula caparoch [1893]. This is a fine specimen of this very rare Owl [Northern Hawk-owl], and was also secured from some of the local gunners at Bay Ridge [Brooklyn]. It was brought in the flesh to Mr. Akhurst who purchased and mounted it. He thinks it all of thirty years since the bird was secured [1860 or therabouts]. It is the only one that ever came to his notice or possession from Long Island.


The Pine Grosbeak on Long Island, N.Y. [1904]. After years of waiting I am at last able to positively record this species on Long Island. Three specimens were seen at Southold, February 2, 1904 by Mrs. A. F. Lowerre who is an unusually careful observer. Her report is as follows: "Tuesday morning I saw three birds in a neighbor's honeysuckle. Took my opera glass and went close to study them. Found they were Pine Grosbeaks, either all females or young male birds. There were no carmine-red adult males to be seen. I never saw or heard of them here before." February 12 Mrs. Lowerre wrote: "I saw the three grosbeaks again yesterday; the only places they seem to visit are the honeysuckle vines." Subsequently, Mrs. Lowerre reports that she did not see the grosbeaks after February 11. All Giraud says of them is: "In the autumn of 1827, large flocks of pine grosbeaks visited Long Island .... Since that period until the present year (1844), I have not seen or heard of its occurring on Long Island." William Dutcher, New York City.


OWLS Winter 1978-1979 Hudson-Delaware Region. It was a good owl year in the Region, although Long-eared and Short-eared owls were definitely less widely reported than in most recent winters. There were some surprises. One was a Burrowing Owl which roosted in a storm sewer pipe at J. F. Kennedy Airport, L.I., Dec. 3 - Feb. [178] (S. Chevalier et al.). The real news event locally was a Great Gray Owl at Lloyd Harbor, L.I., Jan.8 [1979] to Feb. 28+ (Dave McNicholas, mob.), seen and photographed by hundreds. This was apparently the southernmost straggler of the great N.E. incursion of this species this year. It was not the only one on Long Island, but further details will await the spring report. A Screech Owl, rare on the coastal strip, was found dead at Robert Moses S.P., L.I., Dec. 16 (D. Ford). There were close to 20 Snowy Owls reported from the Region during the period, more than usual. They were mostly on Long Island, but one was in Dutchess County, Dec. 23 (R.T.W.B.C.), and two were in e. Pennsylvania (fide DAC). There were several Barred Owls reported in S.E. New York and N.W. New Jersey, where this bird is normally scarce. It was a better year for Saw-whet Owls than the last few winters have been, 17 were banded by Manners at Bridgeport, Gloucester Co., N.J., over the winter.

P. William Smith, Robert O. Paxton, and David A. Cutler. American Birds 33(3) May 1979


Great Grey Owls New England 1978-1979. Without question the winter's most extraordinary event surrounded the incursion of Great Gray Owls throughout New England and New Brunswick. At least 92 individuals were observed, making this the largest influx on record. But limited evidence suggests that the undocumented 1890-91 flight may have been on the same level of magnitude. Maine recorded 67 individuals Dec. 30 [1978] - March (fide PDV); New Hampshire, seven owls from late January - late February; Massachusetts, 15 individuals Jan. 28 - Mar. 11 (fide RAF). A single Great Gray Owl in Coventry R.I. Feb. 19 was apparently a third state record (RAC, fide CW) while two were noted in Connecticut (fide NSP). Surprisingly only one Great Gray Owl was reported from New Brunswick, at Fundy N.P. in February (fide CJ, SIT). In Maine Great Gray Owls occurred as far east as Eastport and Presque Isle. Great Gray Owls were found near Skowhegan, Me., where as many as six identifiably different individuals frequented a single field. In Hatfield, Mass., where two owls were seen together and on S. Penobscote, Maine where another pair was observed together. It seems that when they first arrived many Great Gray Owls may have been underweight. Two specimens were emaciated. One specimen, a female from Mt. Vernon, Me., weighed only 1 lb. 7 oz. At least one other was an obviously underweight owl and found in a weakened state but was vetted back to health. The owls sustained themselves on populations of small rodents in Maine and Massachusetts. Although it is impossible to prove, one suspects that mortality was not great. It will, of course, be interesting to learn what effect, if any, this incursion may have had on the species' breeding range. As of this writing the most recent Great Gray Owl was seen on Mt. Desert Island, Me., Apr. 11-15 [1979].

American Birds 33(3) May 1979

Great Grey Owl at Sax-Zim Bog in January 2019


A GREAT GRAY OWL FOUND DEAD ON LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK [1979] During the unprecedented irruption of 1978-1979 at least two Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa) reached Long Island. These were the first confirmed occurrences of this species on Long Island since 1902. The first of these birds was seen many times between December 1978 and the end of March 1979. On 17 March, 1979, a second specimen was discovered dead on the north shore of Long Island at Centerport Beach (See Wheat, in press, 1979). The bird was delivered to the Huntington Audubon Society, where the following measurements were made by S. Ruppert: Overall length 673 mm. Wing cord 445 Tail length 330 Tarsus 115 Wing Span 1295 Cere 33 Weight 1058 g. These measurements correspond closely with the averages listed by Chapman (1934) for body, wing, and tail lengths. The weight falls midway between the averages of 900 g. for males and 1200 g. for females reported for 19 pairs of Great Gray Owls in Sweden by Hoglund and Lansgren (1968). The wing length falls within Godfrey's (1966) range for females in Canada but is greater than that for males. Since internal decomposition made examination difficult and no gonads were found, this is the best indication of the bird's probable sex. I had the opportunity to examine the owl and to mount the skin. The radius and ulna of the right wing were exposed and some muscle was absent from that wing and shoulder, suggesting attack by scavengers. No other puncture wounds were present, but there were several small lesions on the legs which appeared to have resulted from decomposition. Although body fat reserves were absent, there was no evidence of depletion of the breast muscles. The skull was fully ossified. That the owl may have been a subadult is indicated by several lighter, non-consecutive secondaries in each wing, the relative color of which corresponds to Grossman and Hamelt's (1964) description of juvenal versus adult plumages. An autopsy performed by Basil Tangredi, D.V.M., revealed no evidence of shot and no evident cause of death. The mounted skin will be displayed at the Theodore Roosevelt Audubon Sanctuary in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York.

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

Northern Hawk-owl at Sax-Zim Bog, northern Minnesota in January 2019


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