Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Feast or Famine, Owls in Central Park

I am writing on the fifth day of the fifth month in the fifth year of this decade and the fifteenth year of the new century. May is not known for heat but today it is expected to be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's summer weather.

It was a very cold winter, 2014-2015, and when winter finally eased its grip in April, with temperatures nearly seasonable or slightly above, it felt great. Then it would get cold again and I'd look at my bare garden beds and brown grass and wonder if spring would ever come, and with it the migrating birds.

Well, I worry no more.

First daffodil bouquet, 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
First, it got into the upper 60s and low 70s. My crocus, daffodils and grape hyacinths never looked so good. Every day I would come outside and find new signs that winter didn't kill off everything.

Then, for the last few days, it has felt like July, with warm and dry air. This was wonderful - winds from the south provide a tailwind for migrating birds heading north - until it got into the 80s. I am not a summer person. I do not rush for the shorts and flip-flops at the first sweat.

What I do is get my binoculars and start looking for birds. However, I am not finding them in the large numbers I usually would in early May.

I don't know why that is, exactly, but I have some guesses.

The same global warming-inspired atmospheric conditions that brought us much colder than normal temperatures for much of the winter delayed budding and bugs. Without plants and insects, birds won't stop to feed or breed. When the weather finally did warm, plants started to pop and insects started to swarm but the birds were miles away.

They made it north with great effort, flying at night when it is cooler and there are fewer predators, but in some cases strong southerly winds or a desire to make up for lost time caused these birds to overshoot my part of New Jersey. One day birds are reported in bulk in one area, the next they are gone or numbers are greatly reduced.

Black-throated green warbler (Margo D. Beller)
My backyard was a microcosm of that. I had at least one junco coming to my seed feeder. Juncos are winter birds and in my areas all the ones I see are males. They have to head north to claim territory for the female juncos, who winter farther south. I am still finding other winter birds on my morning walks, mainly white-throated sparrows and pine siskins. But I have yet to find warblers in great numbers - a northern parula here, a black-throated green there, a brief call of an ovenbird.

In short, feast or famine. We've had no rain since a massive storm that cut our rain deficit in half. So we have nothing, then a near-flood. The eastern U.S. gets too much rain, the west is in a continued drought. The temperature is either 20 degrees below the average or 20 degrees above. I can count on two hands the number of "normal" spring days we've had.

So I will blame climate change for this one and hope that somewhere along the line there is a cosmic re-balancing that will make spring feel like spring, summer take place in summer and winter cold that doesn't seem like forever.

Encounter With a Killer

In my search for this year's migrants birds I went to Central Park on May 2. Central Park is a huge urban park in the center of Manhattan island. It is impressive enough at ground level but for a tired and hungry bird heading north in spring it is an oasis in a desert.

The vast majority of people in Central Park could care less about birds. Central Park has been called "New York's backyard" and that is very true. Residents and tourists come to walk, jog, bike, sun themselves on the Sheep Meadow, use the ballfields or playgrounds. It is the reason most birders come to the park early in the morning, so they can hear the birds call above the din of humanity.

Harris' hawk (RE Berg-Andersson)
However, the day I was at the park I discovered  the annual "On a Wing" festival at Belvedere Castle hosted, in part, by the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society and the Central Park Conservancy. Plenty of  bird tours and informational literature to be had as well as programs about plants and bats.

But what seemed to draw the biggest crowd was the exhibit called "Talons!" Master Falconer Lorrie Schumacher wowed the crowd when she opened a box and took out a female great horned owl.

There is something about owls. Perhaps it is because hunt from dusk to dawn and they aren't easily seen. The GHO's "whooooo" is distinctive and eerie. We speak of "Night Owls" and the GHO is one of the largest in this part of the world.

So when Schumacher pulled out "Big Mamma," the crowd went nuts, taking pictures as you would see at any celebrity sighting.

Great horned owl (RE Berg-Andersson)
Schumacher also pulled out a Saker falcon, which is found in Europe and Asia and is particularly popular with falconers, and a Harris' hawk, a buteo found in the desert southwest. But the owl, who swiveled her head almost completely around to look at everyone and at one point hunched into a defense posture and fluffed herself up when she spotted a leashed dog in the crowd, stole the show.

GHOs are beautiful killers, as this crowd of city residents and tourists learned up close and personal.

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