City of Great Horned Owls (Part 1)
Updated: Jan 9
Great Horned Owls in the Bronx on 31 December 2020
6 January 2021
Bird Notes: The weather looks quite stable for the next week so all bird walks are looking good. Note the two owl walks for Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech-owls. Both are in the Bronx at Pel Bay Park (Sat) and Van Cortlandt (Sun). Check the Schedule page of this web site for details, and/or the information below.
There is no better representative of the changes in the parks of NYC during the last century than the Great Horned Owl. An uncommon visitor and very rare nesting species 1870-1970, we can in 2020-21 account for at least five nesting pairs in one NYC park, and somewhere between 15-20 nesting pairs of GHOs throughout Gotham.
If we could take you on a bird walk in 1900 we would easily find the nesting Eastern Meadowlarks of upper Manhattan and Staten Island; the nesting Bobolinks of Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. We could travel to Queens or the Bronx or Staten Island in the morning to find resident/breeding Bobwhite Quail, and then head to Coney Island in the afternoon to see the last few pairs of Skylarks in flight displays above the dunes and beach grasses of coastal Brooklyn. In 1900 by night we could have gone owling and found Eastern Screech-owls nesting in every boro...but not Great Horned Owls. So what happened, what changed? How did birds that were once common breeders become locally extinct, while at the same time, perhaps the most fearsome nocturnal predator in the eastern forest, became a common nesting bird in NYC?
In our Historical Notes below we present a series of natural history observations of Great Horned Owls in NYC. We begin with the first ever sighting of a GHO in Central Park (1908), and it is quite interesting that recent GHOs in CP have arrived in late autumn at about the same time. We then send a series of fun articles including mistaking Great Horned Owls for cats (two); AN OWL RIGHT NOW! Tom Walsh's story of a GHO on a rooftop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in broad daylight; watching resident GHOs at dusk at the New York Botanical Garden (Bx); and finally, picking pockets and stealing a sports car of owl watchers enthralled with GHOs flying in overhead at night at Pelham Bay Park (the Bx).
Great Horned Owl in flight by Deborah Allen on 31 December 2020
Bird Walks for Early to mid-January 2021
All Walks @ $10/person
1. OWLS. Saturday, 9 January at 4:15pm for Great Horned Owls. Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. $10. See Details on the Schedule page
Meet at the Parking Lot (free parking) of the Eileen B Ryan Recreational Complex
ADDRESS for GPS: Middletown Rd, The Bronx, NY 10465
Parking Lot (free; safe; open to 9pm but no bathrooms) is located at the intersection of three streets: Middletown Road; Ohm Ave and Watt Ave (the inventor of the battery lived in the area). This is the "southern zone" of Pelham Bay Park not near Orchard Beach at all but just off the north bound New England Thruway.
2. Sunday, 10 January at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10
2a OWLS. Sunday, 10 January at 4:30pm for Eastern Screech-owls and Great Horned Owls. Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. $10.
See Details on the Schedule page
Meet at the Parking Lot (free parking) of the Golf Course Club House
ADDRESS for GPS: Van Cortlandt Park South & Bailey Avenue, 10463 Bronx
Parking lot is free; safe; nice indoor bathrooms and open until 9pm
Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions: email@example.com
Great Horned Owl in a Bronx NYC neighborhood (Pelham Parkway) on 18 March 2013
(below) Great Horned Owl nest area/habitat at the New York Botanical Garden (Bx) on
24 April 2011 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
Eastern Screech-owl near Van Cortlandt Park (the Bronx) on 30 Dec 2020 - Deborah Allen
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Sunday, 3 January 2021 (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. Rained out!
Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 3 January: RAIN! No Bird Walk
OWL WALK Saturday night (2 January at 4pm) for Great Horned Owls (Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx): with the help and expertise of Conor Coen, we quickly found a pair of Great Horned Owls roosting near one another. We waited for about 30 minutes as they woke up, stretched a bit and then flew out - by about 4:45pm. However, we were not done: we followed the owls into the woods, and using the calls from my tape soon had them perched above us (60 feet up) and hooting back and forth. We watched their white throat patches expand with the forceful hoots - and saw their bodies pitch forward. The GHO hoot is quite the physical one. However, their ear tufts remained raised, silhouetted against the blue-back sky. We'll return again here on 9 January to see if these owls have started nesting, and to show everyone a nest tree from 2011.
Great Horned Owl in the Bronx, 31 December 2020 by Deborah Allen
Great Horned Owl - Central Park 1908. I should like to record a Great Horned Owl which my brother and I saw on the afternoon of December 10, 1908, in the Ramble. It was completely dazed, and permitted a very close approach. We flushed it from a dense thicket of creepers near the ground. This is the first time that this Owl has been seen in Central Park, to my knowledge. Ludlow Griscom, New York City.
Subject: Local Owls Date: 28 Jan 2000 From: Robert DeCandido <email@example.com> Someone from ABC Carpet called to say that a cat had been trapped on one of the canvas awnings that shade the windows. As he was asking me to come over and retrieve the cat he said: "I don't think it is a cat anymore because it just flew across the street." Anyway, the cat turned out to be a great-horned owl with (unfortunately) a compound fracture of the left-leg. The owl was transported to the Raptor Trust by the Urban Park Rangers. Best in frigid weather,
From: Tom Walsh To: Robert DeCandido and Deborah Allen Subject: RE: AN OWL! RIGHT NOW! Date: 19 December 2009 at 12:30 PM Hey, Bob. I got today's e-mail from you just as I was heading to send you a report: Jack and I have a GHO outside our apartment window on W. 81st St. -- right now! Amazing. He was hanging out on a rooftop very close by, then flew maybe 50 yards to a tree, where he's been perched in the open for at least half an hour. Blue Jays were flying around him, but he and the Jays seemed unconcerned about each other. Pretty spectacular. I got a few decent photos of him on my point-and-shoot, will show you on Sunday or next time we see you. Part 2. ...the Museum of Natural History is barely 100 yards from our windows, so that could have been our boy [owl] heading this way. I was wondering if the impending snowstorm had anything to do with pushing him out of the park and into a neighborhood. We saw him less than an hour before snow started to fall. He was roosting in a tree in the courtyard/garden areas behind our building for at least an hour before Jack and I went out this afternoon. We then rode bike/scooter through the Ramble and stopped by the Boathouse/Birdhouse for a Jack cookie. I put a few notes about the GHO in the bird log for laughs. Bob, I had the same idea about playing the iPod for him at dusk, thanks. Just tried it, nothing to report. (Doing it with the window open is bloody cold in here -- I'm gonna bundle up and go try it up on the roof.) Here's Part 3 of this adventure. I tried the iPod/speakers on my roof just now (using the Stokes GHO call from your CD, thanks). No luck. Colder than hell up there; I hung up in for maybe 30 minutes. Next time Ill try it closer to end of daylight/dusk, right? It started around 11 this morning. Jack was at our living-room window, and he yelled, Dad, LOOK! Across the courtyard, maybe 50 feet away at eye level, on the edge of a fourth-floor roof, was Mr. GHO. (So, yes, Jack gets first credit again.) At first I thought it was a fake GHO to deter pigeons, like at the Delacorte or just down the street from us. I thought, Oh, a new decoy until he turned his head to gaze right at us. We screamed then a mad scramble to grab glasses, binoculars, camera, iPod, smelling salts. I snapped one good shot with my point-and-shoot, then he flew about 100 yards west and landed about 25 feet up in a maple branch, I think. That's where he hung out for at least an hour. He was there when we went out, was gone when we got back about three hours later. So seeing him on a roof in daylight like that is another reason I think it's the same GHO from the Ramble, because that guy obviously likes roosting in visible spots in daylight. Even though it was a very unusual spot for a GHO, do you think he'll make this a regular hangout? We've got plenty of pigeon-songbird-squirrel traffic there. So who knows. Thanks. Tom and Jack Walsh
Great Horned Owl fledglings at Inwood Hill Park (Manhattan)
20 April 2012 - Wakako Matsushita
Wednesday, December 21st, 2011 (Owl Walk at Dusk, NYBG in the Bronx) - sometimes I am so proud to be from (and still living in) the Bronx. Tonight was one of those nights! We were looking for Great Horned Owls at dusk specifically, but we did not have an auspicious start. I took the group (20 people strong who braved the fierce winds and 30f temp) to the tree where the Great Horned Owls have been nesting for the last three years. For whatever reason, the tree was no longer there! Oh well, and off into the deep woods we went. Walking along the wood-chipped trail, we paused near the Hemlocks where the Great Horned Owls usually spend their days during winter. With the wind blowing the tops of the trees back and forth, a persistent observer could see two owl shapes on either side of the trunk of the tallest hemlock, about 60 feet up. Most folks on the walk were highly skeptical - the blobs were blobs and not owls...So we waited. Someone then whispered they could hear an owl hooting...and the group became silent. Soon frozen faces transformed into warm smiles - everyone heard the soft hooting - there really were owls nearby (maybe those blobs really were owls after all...). So then the amazing happens: one owl flies out of the tallest Hemlock to land on a branch not too far from us in the soft light. It continues hooting. Then a second owl flies out of the same Hemlock and lands next to the first...hooting. They sit next to one another for 20 seconds or so. And then even more amazing - the second owl, a male, uses the strong wind to rise up a few feet and land on the back of the first (female) owl. Many interesting sounds ensued (none of them hoots), and some wry comments were made by folks in the group. Yes they were indeed copulating - a first for any Great Horned Owl walk we have done. We spent the rest of the evening (another 30 minutes) following the two Great Horned Owls down the path as they set off to hunt...quite fine looks were had by everyone. Hooray for the Bronx. See Deborah's photo below
Great Horned Owl pair at NYBG (the Bronx) on 26 January 2008 by Deborah Allen
5 January 2012 - The Great Horned Owls of NYBG in the Bronx at Dusk
4:35 p.m.: We arrive in the NYBG woods. Per Bob’s directions and our memory, we went to the right spot -- and my son, Jack (11 years old), who as an on-and-off birder still has “the eye,” saw it immediately: the big “blob” near the top of the tallest hemlock. Binoculars said it was definitely a Great Horned Owl. Steady breezes swayed the branches, exposing and then hiding the blob, but a brilliant three-quarter moon directly above the hemlock lighted the way. (Jack was at his best all day; I wish I could bottle it.)
4:50: The blob jumps 10 feet down to another branch.
4:52: Flyout. She takes off southwest (still no hooting), toward the area where the owls nested 3-5 years ago. I thought we might have seen our last for the evening, but we hustled to that area, and there she was, 40 feet up on a bare branch. Then the hooting started. Her silhouette was so clear that we could see her body lean forward and gyrate with the effort of hooting.
4:55: Deeper-voiced hooting responses from somewhere to the west. After a minute, the first owl flies 30 feet west to another branch, continues hooting and getting answers.
5:00: Owl No. 2 swoops in, lands on a branch five feet above No. 1. The hooting fest gets serious.
5:02: A THIRD OWL flies in from the hemlock direction, lands in almost the same spot where No. 1 had started hooting, and perches there to watch. This one is as full-grown as the other two, but from its perch it starts making slurry rasping noises (not hooting).
5:04: After more hooting, the deep-voiced No. 2 jumps on the back of No. 1; a unique squealing starts. It lasts maybe 10 seconds, he jumps off, then flies southwest and out of sight.
5:06: Female (No. 1) knows a good thing when she feels it -- she flies toward the area where the male disappeared (in the direction of the GHO nest seen deeper in the woods in the past 1-2 years).
5:10: No. 3 makes a few more of those slurry sounds, then flies back toward the hemlocks where it came from, and is gone. Giving Mom and Dad some privacy? Or is he a sexually frustrated male? Who knows. (Deb Allen later tells us that No. 3 was probably an immature still “living at home” or just hanging around near the folks.)
5:12: With a tiny hint of daylight still in the air, we head toward the Botanical Gardens Train Show, triumphant. But Jack has questions, including: “Why did she make that noise when he was on top of her?” The time has come, young man - we had a “general” chat about the birds and the bees. “So that’s how she has eggs?” he asks. Yes, sir. And then we debated about whether the male or the female has the deeper hoot.
“Well,” says me, “the one with the deeper voice climbed on top, and, uh, that means, uh.”
“But why can't the female be on top?” he asks. (OK, let’s go see some trains. . . .)
Great Horned Owl fledglings at Nest Tree at Inwood Hill Park (Manhattan)
20 April 2012 - Wakako Matsushita
6 April 2012 - Bronx, New York City, HRM 15: While hiking through Van Cortlandt Park, my co-worker thought she spotted a cat on the trail. When we got closer we realized that it was actually a great horned owl fledgling on the ground. As we were leaving to give it some space, the fledgling puffed up into a huge scary ball and clicked its beak at us. One of its parents, perched in a tree overhead, quickly swooped past us to a lower tree to keep a closer watch.
Monday Evening, 24 August 2009 (Owl Prowl at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx) - Jack Rothman and I wanted to do something for everyone, particularly folks from the Bronx. Hence the free owl walk. We set up in the Bartow-Pell Mansion parking lot at 7pm - with approx. 45 people there. Most were skeptical - IF there were owls in the Bronx there was no way they would show themselves to so many curious (and talky) people. As the sun set and the pink light made the contrails glow in the sky, numbers of American Robins gathered in flocks and began heading westward to roost together. Eastern Kingbirds were still making sallies to chase insects from atop the conifers surrounding the Bartow Pell parking lot. By about 7:25pm, Deborah Allen spotted the first of many Common Nighthawks gliding overhead past us. They were not vocalizing (beeping) as they traveled - something we have heard in other NYC locations during late August. That night, we had some flocks foraging above us, and others continuing on - we estimate 38 total Common Nighthawks, sadly a very good total for NYC these days. This species is declining in the northeast, even though it once bred in urban areas such as NYC. With the light still faint, but good enough to see, I switched the tape from Barn Owl raspy call (they breed in Pelham Bay Park and are likely the most common owl nesting in NYC these days) to Great Horned Owl hoots. A dense flock of Barn Swallows first flew west to find a place to roost, and then came back east, probably to find places in the reeds of the old, abandoned Bartow-Pell pond (once a great place for shorebirds). As the hooting began, people remained very skeptical. If no Barn Owl had come to investigate the sound of a conspecific, why should Great Horned Owls be any different? Skepticism quickly turned to ooohs and aaaahs as a male Great Horned Owl glided in and landed on top of a dead tree in the old garden. Some missed the glide-in but the light was good enough to easily see all the field marks of the Great Horned Owl: the large white throat (and upper breast) patch; the "horns" and of course the large size and giant clawed feet. Now for those who missed the glide-in, a second adult came in on the same flight path. This was the female...and both owls began a soft hooting, very hard to hear unless listening closely. Also, the owls cocked their tails and tilted forward to hoot - we have only seen this behavior at night, and not during the day when Great Horned Owls will occasionally give 1-2 hoots. While people were watching the owls, I watched them watching - both Jack and I were so pleased to see everyone completely absorbed, shocked almost: People were actually seeing and hearing real live wild owls in the Bronx. In fact, people were so absorbed watching the owls, I was able to sneak around and pick everyone's pocket (and to be fair, Jack drove off with a nice sports car). If anyone needs their credit card back, just let me know...We concluded the evening by watching a number of Red Bats catching insects over us - these are more fun along the Loch in Central Park, but hey, after the owls people were on Cloud 9. As for me and Jack, we drove to Planet Claire (a restaurant) and back in someone's Dodge Saturn. Way to go Jack!
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
Great Horned Owl in Washington State January 2018