By Keith Michael
It’s the weekend. And it’s early. I confess, I cajoled Millie into walking over to Hudson River Park to take her Corgi steps along the semi-circular stone path in front of the AIDS Memorial. I can still choke up when I let myself take more than a cursory glance at the enigmatic words engraved in the black granite: “I can sail without wind, I can row without oars, but I cannot part from my friend without tears.”
This morning I’m misty-eyed for a different reason. The fog over the Hudson turns down the volume of the Jersey City skyline in a wavering decrescendo. In the curving stand of pines behind the Memorial, as always, I’m looking for that one shadow through the needles, that one blip above a branch, that one streak of whitewash on a tree trunk that could lead to the morning sighting of an owl.
I still haven’t gotten my winter seasonal “hit” of seeing even one owl—and my friends know how hard I’ve tried, repeatedly, in multiple locations in every borough. Others have spotted Great Horned, Barred, Barn, Long-eared, Short-eared, Saw-whet, Screech, and Snowy Owls—but not me. My owling outing today, after leaving Millie at home curled up with a dog-eared Guide to the Finer Points of Herding and a Pimm’s, is to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens where not one, not two, but three Snowy Owls have recently been reported as seen. (Ah, those mysterious birding “reports.”) For rare or unusual sightings of birds, scroll through the “Birding News” of the American Birding Association at birding.aba.org, or set up an eBird account with alerts for certain species or locations at ebird.org. (The best source for owl sightings, though, is the even more mysterious inner circle of “someone who knows.”)
Take the A Train for an appreciation of the breadth of New York City; what a feat of labor it took to construct this massive system more than 100 years ago. The same jazzy A Train that whizzes from the northern tip of Manhattan passes under the East River and downtown Brooklyn, then gives an above-ground Brooklyn tour before soaring over Jamaica Bay with views of JFK Airport. One of my favorite fly-bys is the overgrown Bayside Cemetery just past the 80th Street/Hudson Street station. My destination is the hamlet of Broad Channel—with its canals and houses on stilts—and finally, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge—still recovering from being submerged and rearranged by the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. Once I get off, the A Train clambers on its syncopated way to the distant reaches of Far Rockaway.
It’s even foggier out here than it was in the West Village and, adding to the dampness of the air, a light rain is now falling. (Millie would hate this.) Juggling an umbrella above my camera, I’m contented to photograph bright yellow and red bittersweet berries glistening with drops of water hanging from each one. Pretty, yes. White-throated Sparrows tsk through the leaves under the dripping brambles; and a miserable-looking Mockingbird, trying to fend off the raindrops, is fluffed up near the path. I can hear a flock of Brant geese murmuring within the whiteout along the beach. Another flock of honking Canada geese emerge in a perfect V, so close over my head that I can feel the whoosh of the air.
A few more steps and it’s like walking out of a cloud. It’s still drizzling but I can now see a line of trees on the other side of the pond and, beyond, the distant teeth of the Manhattan skyline. In one of the tallest trees, there is a white dollop on an arching branch on the far side of the trunk. Uh, could it be? It’s not just a persistent lump of ice on that branch? Or a caught plastic bag? No—for real—sitting right out in the open is a Snowy Owl! In a bare tree! I’ve only ever seen them sitting on the ground. Since their usual habitat is the far north tundra, trees are not part of their usual landscape design.
But here one is! A plump pillow of white, hunkered down high above the path. Older males are often nearly pure white, whereas females and youngsters are barred with more or less black. My hunch is that this one is a juvenile, but no less impressive in size. When it bends its head for a scratch, its massive foot and talons display why these Snowies are formidable hunters, and why, in a bumper summer, they can stockpile lemmings in pyramids by their nests so that their hatchlings never go hungry.
Considering that head scratch as the closest thing to “action” I’m going to get, I move along the path, relishing my good fortune (and good photos) for the morning. Looking back to ponder this unlikely sprawling urban landscape of reeds and waves, in the next tall tree along the path—unbelievably—a second Snowy Owl is roosting! I check to be sure that the first one hasn’t just relocated. But there they are—two.
What a day! I’m wondering what next weekend’s Super Bowl Sunday might have in store? Maybe eagles.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs.