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Remembering Tom Ahlf (1947-2021) + + the Snowy Owl in Queens 1964-1989

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

Tom Ahlf and Mickey Berger

at the Empire State Building in October 2005

17 February 2021

Bird Notes: Sunday Bird Walks at 9:30am only continue through early March. Bird walks Thursdays through Mondays begin again in mid- to late March. Owl walks resume in March. But! Always check the Schedule page of this web site for last minute additions.

Tom Ahlf

Truthful; Wise (Erudite); Fun to be with; "How are You today?"; Kind; Modest; Warm-hearted; Personal Responsibility; Consistent; Good Counsel; Wry; Soft-spoken; Admired and Respected; Empathic; Insightful; "Fit as a Fiddle"; A Leader; "Those blue eyes and smile"; "Full of Wit and Love"; "A Voice of Reason": Testimonies of those who knew Tom Ahlf.

For others who never met the man, how to describe him? He was one part James Stewart (It's a Wonderful Life) and another the urbane denizen of the West Side of Manhattan who enjoyed theater, fine restaurants and winning at tennis. HE was also a professional shark, having graduated from Harvard and then Stanford Law spending many years (until he retired early) as a corporate lawyer. On the bird walks, we thought of him as a kindly whale shark upon whom we each hitched a ride for a bit. And how we would tease him: "Tom in the 1960s did you really have a pony tail and long blonde hair? Is it true that while others drove their corvettes to the revolution you walked?" Yes it was true, except that Tom did not walk, he strode, Lincoln-esque arriving promptly to the minute for the bird walks. "Tom do you really live on billionaire's row?" He would smile his wry smile and his blue eyes would sparkle. And he would stride on.

Somewhere in the early 1990s Tom strode out of the corporate world to pursue other interests. He had been living with Mickey Berger of Queens for a decade+ at that point (and 37 years all told!) in a moderate space on Eighth Ave in the 50s. They met in the early 1980s while waiting for a bus together on the west side - and subsequent chance encounters at that bus stop...Once he met Mickey Tom realized waiting was really not part of his nature any longer: They did walking safaris through Africa with nothing separating them from the wildlife except tall grass, some friends and a guide. We would ask: "Tom, weren't you afraid?" He would say, "All Mickey and I had to be able to do was run faster than only one other person."

Tom was raised in Iowa, in the heartland, and his interest in wildlife especially big mammals, must have started then. In NYC he could visit the zoo to see them - but Tom preferred the wild side of Manhattan: He discovered Central Park and its birds - and people. He began going on bird walks with Starr Saphir and by the mid-1990s, with our group. On the walks he would ask, "How are You today?" "How has bird photography been for You this week?" "What did You see?" None of us recall Tom telling people how he was doing...what he was doing. He rarely spoke about himself, but he had our quiet attention. "Who was that Man?" That Man loved warblers and Bluebirds, and invariably if he had to leave a walk early, we would find a Bluebird a few minutes later. Yes he loved birds and he would gaze through his binoculars at a good one for quite a while...I loved to watch him watching birds...and watching people like an Owl. Yes he loved birding, being outside and what might happen next in our unscripted world: But he also loved people and being part of the birding community of retired teachers, aspiring opera singers, kids, fellow sharks and outcasts from anywhere and everywhere. They were all good people alike, and he elicited the best from each of us.

Tom Ahlf showed us that it is possible to be a good decent human being and be a champion in the corporate world, and in the rough and tumble birding world of Central Park. By watching Tom, he taught us to take the high road - to calmly approach disagreement and controversy, and to embrace all points of view. There was never any question of what road to take for him: He was good and true - isn't that what everyone is supposed to be? Indeed Tom did not have to think about if there was a choice between doing the best or the good or the otherwise. Because this was his nature, his very nature: Good.

As Deborah and I compose this we are sobbing, but a voice is telling us to remember his wry smile; to stride ahead and meet the world and bring to it love (and have a little fun too). "Find a Bluebird for Mickey and me."

Post Script: Karen Evans who teaches aesthetics and ethics reminded us of a video she recalled Tom might be in - he's the one with the mustache...Listen

Tom Ahlf, Peter Haskel and Karen Evans along the Lake in Central Park October 2020

by Dan Stevenson

In this week's Historical Notes, we present two short articles about the Snowy Owl at Kennedy Airport in Queens 1964-1989, both by Sammy Chevalier. Most of the prey taken by these owls while at the airport were mammals especially mice and rats, and the occasional duck. Snowy Owls also enjoyed quite a number of Black-tailed Jack Rabbits, a non-native (western USA) species that must have escaped cargo shipment flights long ago and become established in the grassland runways of the airport. Also, the mean date for the last Snowy Owl to leave NYC to head north (in this 25 year study) was 4 March. Just one question though: if Snowy Owl hearing is so keen, how is it that these birds do just fine roosting all day on the short-cut grass runways listening to jets landing and taking off all day?

The Central Park Snowy Owl continues to return each evening (every night since 1 February through 16 Feb at least) from about 6:30pm to 8:30pm. It is spending most of its time hunting (and catching) rats at the Tennis Courts (just north of the Reservoir), and doing the same at Conservatory Garden where its silhouette can be seen perched in the tallest trees at the southwest corner of the Garden. The owl also makes forays due west to the North Meadow Ball Fields to perch on the baseball back stops looking for prey.

The best place for up to the minute info/sightings/reports is the Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark) run by the amazing David Barrett. It is a Twitter site, but you can also access it from the internet ( Here is some info on the Snowy Owl in Central Park from Monday evening, 15 February 2021:

in New Jersey at nearby Liberty State Park on 20 January 2018

Tom Ahlf's favorite bird, the Eastern Bluebird (male) by Deborah Allen on 21 October 2018

Bird Walks for February-Early March 2021

All Walks @ $10/person

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here

1. Sunday, 21 February at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10

2. Sunday, 28 February at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10

3. Sunday, 7 March at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10

4. Sunday, 14 March at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10

Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions:

At Strawberry Fields Sunday, 22 July 2007: Tom Alf at far right in his favorite khaki shirt, pants and cap, holding Leica 8x32 BA binoculars. Peter Haskel PhD is at far left next to Christina Reik (yellow shirt) and Sharon Kravitz (looking to her right); At center is Dr. Dan Silbert with Sandra Critelli (red shirt) and Emilie Storrs (red shirt/blue cap) by Deborah Allen

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30/9:30am 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! Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden; Mondays at Strawberry Fields - check the "Meeting Points" page of this web site for exact meeting location.

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is ( If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. 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 Central Park walks (except Fridays) near the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total) - though the Boathouse is closed right now and will re-open in April 2021 according to the owners. 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 aim to please.

with a small mammal in British Columbia February 2012

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights):

Sunday, 14 February (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and again at 9:30am): Please note: the bathrooms at the Boathouse are NOT open. However, we do pass two other sets of bathrooms on the walk. To the casual observer this was a ho-hum winter bird walk. Yes of course we saw Barry Barred Owl (now believed to be a female because of her high pitched hoots), and we stopped by Armando to purchase the most expensive peanuts in town to feed birds by hand. But it seemed all the "good" birds like Red-tailed and Cooper's Hawks were either perched high in trees or had taken the day off. So we trudged along in the fairly deep snow trying not to fall on each other, and trying not to always be looking down at our feet to strategically plot a way forward. Some folks noticed that birds were singing again...a lot and loud. There were House Finches and Cardinals all singing up a storm..and the calls of Titmice ringing from the trees. Deborah attributed this to the high powered bird seed in the feeders...someone once suggested it was "laced with viagra". Others who were people watching noticed all the young couples with us on Valentine's Day, enthused with each other and life in general. It was refreshing to watch! Not long into the walk a gentle woman left, and I gathered the group together. She had just lost her significant other of 37 years and was trying to cope - to make sense of what happened, and what to do next. Several of the couples held each other closer now, and others gazed into the tearful eyes of their partner. But we go on we go on - we must. With us as well was a young man with his family - it was his birthday and he had just turned all of six. Never did we see such a kid with mop top hair who ran up ahead and wanted to climb the next set of rocks. The family wanted to see the Owl, and would then be off to the Museum to celebrate today. A Carolina Wren sang in this distance, but we did not see it. And none of us remained for the Snowy Owl that came to visit the park again that night. So much happened today, all of it special.

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 14 February:

at Breezy Point (Queens/NYC) February 2021 by Greg Gulbransen M.D.


Snowy Owl Populations at Kennedy International Airport, New York: A Twenty-Three Year Study (1964-1987)

Sammy Chevalier 147-01 Village Road Jamaica, NY 11435

The south shore of Long Island is a favored wintering area of the Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca). At the south-west end of Long Island is located John F. Kennedy International Airport, a 5500-acre expanse of tundra-like habitat, adjacent to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is an important stopover area for migrant shorebirds, ducks and geese. From 1964 to the present [1988], I have been employed at Kennedy Airport and so have had the opportunity to regularly census the owls present each winter. Since I work on the grounds of the airport and thus have a chance to observe the area frequently, I am confident that my numbers accurately represent the total number of owls at the airport. Since 1964, I live trapped and banded 39 owls [in 24 years], using either a bow trap or a bal-chatri - see Table 1 below. In fact, one was caught by hand--a normal wild bird perched atop a fuel storage tank. One notable return and recovery has previously been described. The other recovery, # 568-15090, banded in December, 1975, was encountered by a Cree Indian guide, named Gabriel, near Attawapiskat, Ontario, on the western shore of James Bay in September 1976.

Many opportune sightings and considerable pellet analyses have disclosed the following prey species taken here at J.F.K.: various small birds up to black ducks, mice, rats, cottontail rabbits and jack rabbits--yes, Black-tailed Jack Rabbits (Lepus californicus), the latter being their favorite prey item. Additionally, I once saw a Snowy carrying a full-grown feral cat in its talons. As is clear from Table 2 [below]. Snowy Owls are usually present at the airport during the winter, arriving from mid-November to early December, with two to six present during the winter. The date of departure varies more from year to year than the time of arrival and the sex ratio was even for the owls present on the airport. Although popular belief has Snowy Owls coming down every third or fourth year during low food periods, my data indicate that there is no such regularity in their incursions. Table 2 shows age and sex data on the Kennedy owls. The birds were aged and sexed using wing chord and weight along with plumage characteristics, many with the help of Richard Cohen, my master bander for 12 years.

During the study period, seven owls were killed by aircraft and another owl was slightly injured and later released. This last winter, 1986-1987, was an outstanding incursion year for Snowy Owls along the Atlantic Coast. One was seen and photographed at the northwest corner of Albany, N.Y., on September 26, 1986. Here at J.F.K. my last sighting was on April 10, 1987, and owls were still present at Boston's Logan Airport early in May 1987. Accordingly, Snowy Owls were present in the Albany, NY to Boston, MA to New York City triangle for over seven months.

in British Columbia in February 2012

Kennedy Airport Snowy Owls: an Update (1987-89)

Sammy Chevalier With the passing of two more winter seasons, 1987-88 and 1988-89, this now makes a total of 25 years of observations and banding of Snowy Owls at Kennedy Airport, New York, which, at 40°38' north latitude, borders on the southern-most limit of the regular wintering range of Nyctea scandiaca on the east coast of North America.

While monitoring my birds during their stay at Kennedy, I frequently visit the location on the day following an all-day stay near a hummock, rock outcrop, or large clump of grass checking for a pellet or other signs of their well-being. This past winter, on one of these checks, I discovered the bare remains of a Black Duck (Anas rubrjpes), one tarsus of which had a Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum band. This was only the second duck recovery out of nearly 100 banded bird recoveries over a period of thirty years. The duck was banded by personnel of the Maine Department of Fish and Game as a HY-F [Hatch-Year Female] at Costigan, Penobscott County, Maine, on 25 July 1987.

The data of the last two years has been added to Tables 1 and 2 (above within first article) and, in addition, two more Snowys became bird strike casualties, prior to banding, making a total of nine for the entire study period.

The following map of Kennedy Airport shows the capture location of the 42 Snowy Owls. The areas adjacent to the northwest-southeast runways and the areas between the northeast-southwest runways are all short-cropped grass (2" short) during the winter months, making all prey species readily accessible.

During the past quarter century I have had countless opportunities to observe these magnificent birds and have experienced the thrill of getting a few in hand, for which I am forever grateful. On one occasion, while searching the airport for a new bird along with Hanna Richard, my dynamic and capable assistant since 1975, we located a very uncommon bird for New York City: a Florida race Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicuaria). We wrote an article about the finding of this little owl:

Richard, Arthur. Burrowing Owls on Long Island. 1988. Kingbird 38(2): 1-3.

Many other friends and colleagues have shared in this experience either by seeing or handling these birds for the first time at my private preserve. I thank them all.


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

in British Columbia in February 2012

#TomAhlf #MickeyBerger #SnowyOwl #BirdWalksCentralPark #BirdsofCentralPark #SnowyOwlCentralPark #SnowyOwlManhattan #SnowyOwlHistorical #SnowyOwlQueens

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