By Keith Michael
Walking down Perry Street yesterday morning felt like spring. At the corner of Bleecker Street, a male Cardinal was singing his come-hither rhapsodies while four and twenty American Robins were hosting a celebratory breakfast above in a Chinese Scholar Tree. The black beans rained down, likely a bane for those hoping to keep their sidewalks swept. The melodious chortle of the Robins made it seem like they had plenty to gossip about after their winter travails.
Today might as well be a different place, a different year, a different season. It’s a blizzard. Thick snow is flying horizontally and already piling up on the tops of branches. I’ve ventured out to try to capture the wintry scene, but juggling an umbrella to keep snow off the camera lens is tamping down the magic.
Nevertheless, I’m headed up to Central Park. There may be no more iconic winter vista in NYC than catching snow on the intricately twisty branches of the great American Elms lining the Mall. This is what the cliche “winter wonderland” was penned to describe. The wind has fallen off so the effect now is more like settling inside a snow globe. I’m not the only one who had the idea to come here today. A gang of crows calling, heading north, adds to the general bonhomie of New Yorkers reveling in a snowy weekend afternoon.
Bethesda Terrace and Fountain are selfie-magnets. Remember when people remembered things rather than photographed themselves to remember? Likewise, Bow Bridge and the edge of the Lake are lined with people documenting today for later. I hope they’re enjoying it now too. I am. Hundreds of Canada Geese are descending onto the Lake, loudly honking, then splashing into the newly unfrozen water. What a spectacle!
My true destination on this Superb Owl Sunday is the North Woods, so I catch the C train to 103rd Street. I’d hoped to try Breezy Point, Queens again today after my foiled attempts to track down a Snowy Owl there that I wrote about last month. But even I convinced myself that a walk on a barrier beach during a blizzard might not be the wisest choice for the day.
I am still without an owl sighting for the winter. Oh, I’ve tried—three times to north Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park, twice to Pelham Bay Park in The Bronx, once to Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn, once to Staten Island’s Clove Lakes Park and twice to Mount Loretto Unique Area, once each to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and Alley Pond Park in Queens—all places that owls have regularly been seen this season, though not by me. Regularly I’ve even checked out the pine trees in Hudson River Park, hoping that an owl has spent a layover there. Nope.
A Great Horned Owl has been seen over the past several weeks in the Loch and Ravine of the North Woods. Of course, I’ve already tried twice, seeing consolation A-list birds like a Great Blue Heron and a drake Wood Duck. But, again, no owl. Maybe the third time’s the charm.
Almost immediately upon walking into the Currier and Ives lithograph of the Olmstead and Vaux landscape around the Pool, a couple is walking toward me with those tell-tale birder accoutrements: binoculars. With a nod toward MY binoculars, I greet them, “Have you, by any chance, seen the owl?”
“Yes! Just head through the Arch, keep to the left over the wooden bridge. You’ll see the crowd. Good luck.”
With an over-the-shoulder, “Thank you SO much!” I try to control breaking into a trot. Barely glancing at the boisterous waterfall cascading into the Loch or pausing to marvel at the stone-masonry of the Glen Span Arch framing the Adirondack-inspired fantasyland beyond, I’m nearly skipping as I turn left over the rustic bridge. Up the hill is The Crowd—twenty or so like-minded aficionados with binoculars and cameras with l-o-n-g lenses—all peering upward. Discreetly, I don’t ask, “Where’s the owl?” but wait for my eyes to absorb the collective gaze, and hold my breath as, “Ah, THERE’S the owl!”
If you’ve never seen a Great Horned Owl, they’re huge—nearly two feet tall and can have a wingspan approaching five feet. Though with their tawny brown feathers, orange face, tidy white collar, and, yes, prominent feather tufts on their heads that look like horns, they can be remarkably camouflaged right out in the open. Many passersby ask, “What are you all looking at?” Even when directly pointing to the celebrity owl, it frequently takes them a while to find it. Owls primarily hunt at night and during the day they’re just trying to be invisible and sleep. We’re probably not helping that pursuit. Additionally, in the hour that I’m there, several Blue Jays raise a ruckus, a bevy of crows send out the alarm (maybe that same gang I saw earlier flying north,) and most dramatically, a Cooper’s Hawk stakes out a nearby branch, metronomically marking time with its kek kek kek scream. There goes the neighborhood.
The owl occasionally opens her golden eyes and swivels her head at the pandemonium but then ruffles her feathers, settling back down for a long winter’s nap. A Superb Owl Sunday, indeed.
PS: The next Sunday I finally saw a Snowy Owl too!
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