By Keith Michael
The beginning of August was a bad time for rare birds in New York City. Early Friday morning August 6th, Barry, the charismatic Central Park Barred Owl, fatefully collided with a park maintenance vehicle, and a few days later, on Tuesday, August 10th, a visiting young Wood Stork, which had been inspiring birder pilgrimages to western Staten Island, succumbed to a length of tube-like trash, perhaps mistaking it as a snake for lunch.
Barry had arrived ten months earlier in October 2020, first spotted by the Loch of Central Park’s North Woods. Owls are frequently a one-day or few-days wonder during the fall and winter months in NYC. Word gets out through the ether and birders miraculously teleport for an adrenaline-fueled glance at the latest wide-eyed celebrity. Last year, COVID boredom seemed to have relaxed the usual reticence about revealing the specific location of owls. Early on s/he was named Barry, and daily reports of his/her whereabouts were gleefully reported by those in the know. To ease the pronoun conundrum, during the winter, fans determined that Barry was a “she” by the timbre of her vocalizations! I began calling her The Baroness.
From the time of her arrival, this owl was different. Generally, an owl’s job while the sun is up is to sleep and remain invisible. Not only did Barry seem to be unfazed by her parade of ogling admirers, she was also frequently active during the day, giving more than the usual “owl snoozing” views. Come dusk, while warming up for her nocturnal hunts, she was positively a limelight performer, often conjuring poetic juxtapositions of ‘the call of the wild in the city.’
I first saw Barry on October 20th near the upper lobe of the Lake. Later, I paid homage to her again near her initial roost by the Loch, and then, over months, paused multiple times below her familiar spot nestled on an upper branch of a hemlock near the Boathouse. Her plush-toy physique, impeccable camouflage feather patterns, the black portals of her eyes, and a seemingly infinite repertoire of yoga-like preening contortions, made her an instant Instagram personality. Her faithful longevity made it possible for a few devoted photographers to document her residency nearly daily, capturing this singular Central Park owl in a range of behaviors, weather, and moods rarely so lovingly observed.
It has oft been noted that the Year of COVID inspired many New Yorkers to become enamored with the city’s avian personalities for the first time, and many attributed Barry with the honor of being their muse. This personal connection made her much more than just a photogenic cover girl. If such a glamorous Queen could be “right here” what other wonders might be nearby? Well, a competitor Snowy Owl stole the top Twitter feeds for a February interlude. Great Horned, Long-eared, the “Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Saw-whet,” and Screech Owls competed for attention throughout the season. A Virginia Rail stalking the lawn of Bryant Park entertained birders for a spring day. Summer headliners included a southern debutante, a pretty-in-pink Roseate Spoonbill holding court a short LIRR ride away in Cold Spring Harbor while a flashy Purple Gallinule, another usually southern species, skulked at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, and the ill-fated, unnamed juvenile Wood Stork spent ten days on an obscure Staten Island retention pond before meeting its abrupt demise. These birds all came and went, but The Baroness stayed.
If you Google “Barry Central Park Owl,” dozens of media articles will be instantaneously cued from around the world, reporting eloquently on her ignominious death during her nightly hunting expedition. I heard the news while shorebirding with friends on the East Pond of JBWR in Queens. “What? Oh no! Not Barry!” My search for Red-necked Phalaropes was put on extended Pause. A remembrance vigil in Central Park that weekend drew hundreds of mourners who had been touched by her presence.
Many knew that The Baroness would eventually leave, one hoped, to rule a vast domain in the far north with her heirs. But for her to live most of her short life as glitterati in the center of New York, and then die here, was an unexpected blow in a year already laced with confounding loss.
Before Millie’s sudden departure in March, she and I had already discussed via corgi-telepathy (perhaps martini induced on my part) that Barry should be bestowed with a special 2021 Bird of the Year “Millie” Award for her contribution to elevating NYC’s morale during the pandemic. But now, a posthumous Lifetime Achievement accolade is in order. Likewise, the Wood Stork shall receive an Esteemed Visitor citation. Stay tuned for the end of year ceremony.
Visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.