By Keith Michael
Millie hates snow.
Years ago, yes, when she was younger, she would bound through the drifts, often sinking up to her shoulders at every leap. Her destination was always the vantage from the top of the tallest pile of snow. Perhaps as a height-challenged corgi, the chance to see the world from above sidewalk level was intoxicating.
Now, the whiteness seems to be only an obstacle. Maybe the bright glare hurts her eyes. Maybe the possibility of slipping on the ice is a deterrent. (I sympathize with her on that.) Maybe it’s the salt between her toes or the humiliation of an un-ladylike tumble off a curb or wading through frigid puddles. She even looks up with trepidation when the pillows of snowflakes land on her back. She dashes back inside for a roll on the carpet seemingly to banish the offending dampness from her nose and eyelashes—hardly one of her favorite things.
To try to elevate Millie’s appreciation for at least one of the delights of snow, I’ll read her a bedtime story. Even though it’s only the middle of the afternoon.
A little after noon on Wednesday, January 27th, my pocket buzzed with a text from a fellow birder: “There’s a Snowy Owl in Central Park!” After having gone to great lengths in the past to see wintering Snowy Owls at Breezy Point and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, Barnegat Light and Wallkill River in New Jersey, and spots along the south shore of Long Island, a Snowy Owl in Central Park was BIG NEWS. All afternoon, friends kept texting me, emailing, and sending photos. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get away from work. I hoped she’d stick around.
That evening around dusk, an adoring crowd watched as she took flight over the North Meadow ballfields, off on an evening hunt for unsuspecting ducks. True, during the day it had taken Central Park Rangers to keep the mass of humans away, though a gaggle of Crows and a Red-tailed Hawk had harassed this superstar throughout the afternoon. Nevertheless, even with the publicity of her own article and photo in the New York Times the next day, she did not reappear on Thursday. This was a magical one-day wonder. The previous sighting of a Snowy Owl in Central Park had been in 1890!
Millie is flattening on the floor, but she still seems attentive to the tale.
Snowy Owls regularly wander south from their summer homes around the Arctic Circle, and a few are reported each winter in the NYC area, mostly on the Atlantic dunes—the habitat most similar to their summer tundra. I guess a Central Park ballfield does nicely as well.
But then, after a week’s absence, she did show up again perched on the North Pump House of the Central Park reservoir as her post for sallying forth on her nocturnal hunting expeditions. You might be wondering how one knows that it’s a “she.” Male Snowy Owls can be almost completely snowy white, particularly as they age, while the lady owls are festooned with striking black bars on their feathers. Like this one.
That week, I heard that she had been appearing regularly at the North Pump House around dusk, so on Saturday, February 6th I thought I’d give myself a bonus track for the day to go see her. However, after arriving in the late afternoon, I learned that her more regular “curtain time” for the previous four days had been 6:35. Unfortunately, by the time 6:00 rolled around, after an already long day, I was too cold and too tired to wait longer. So I packed up and left (losing a few of my prized “intrepid points” along the way.) Right on cue, she DID arrive that Saturday evening at 6:35 and stayed about five minutes to the cheers of more than 200 rubberneckers in the snow!
Millie’s eyes are drooping.
The next day, February 7th, Super Bowl Sunday, I thought I’d try again. This time, I got there at 6:00, set up with a tripod, and prepared camera settings recommended by a friend to literally shoot in the dark. The waiting admirers were diminished to around 60—possibly a popularity casualty of the Super Bowl. 6:30 approached. One could feel the hushed anticipation. 6:35 arrived. And passed. Tick. Tick. Tick. Still no Snowy Owl. I gave myself until 7:00—knowing the long week that I had ahead.
7:00 She had obviously chosen another take-out location for the night. I started packing up.
7:01 I glanced up at the tower in the dark. Lens cap in hand. Wait. Is she there? Yes! As quickly as I could, I scrambled to get organized with my camera again, and happily, got off a few shots that at least look like an owl!
7:05 She flew off into the night! Indeed, a Superb Owl Sunday!
I look down at Millie faintly snoring. Sleepily quoted, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays this corgi from the swift completion of her appointed naps.”
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