Pelham Bay With the Pros
A couple of weeks ago, I complained about my rotten owl luck. Since this dismal situation was clearly not going to improve on its own, I chose to alter my dismal owl destiny by accompanying the Hudson River Audubon Society on an owl prowl at the scene of my most recent failure. Audubon chapters and bird clubs are the repositories of decades of birding experience and wisdom. Their trip calendars manifest the finest fruit of phenology, their itineraries exemplify unerring insight into the insitincts of aviafauna.Â Basically, these folks have a pretty good idea about where the birds are and when they’re going to be there. Plus, when Michael Bochnik leads the way, as he did Sunday morning, the episode is guaranteed to be,at the very least, instructive. This former president and perrenial superstar of Hudson River Audubon, a man who has guided the Core Team to more U.S. life birds than anyone else, has Westchester and the Bronx wired.
So I met up with a platoon of prowlers 25 strong on a surprisingly mild Sunday morning to try to pick up some of those elusive Pelham Bay Park owls. Of course, surrounded by so much water, we couldn’t help but scan the sound and inlets for interesting avians. Of geese, we observed both Canada and Brant. Of swans, only Mute made its graceful way through the frigid waters. The dominiant merganser was Red-breasted, though some of the group spotted Hooded as well. None of the anticipated loons, grebes, or seaducks appeared, but we enjoyed great views of Common Goldeneye, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, and boatloads of Bufflehead, as well as a surprise Killdeer. Surprisingly, Double-crested Cormorants were nowhere to be found, but the double-crested’s larger cousin happily was. I spied a bulky cormorant on a distant rock and asked Michael to get it in his scope. There it was, white throat patch flashing, my first Great Cormorant. One target bird down. Now for some owls…
We infiltrated a silent stand of pines, a different one from what I visited earlier this month, in search of a wide variety of owl species. Among the potential candidates were Great Horned, Long-eared, Barred, Barn, and the one I coveted most, Saw-whet. Well, we saw not a one in those woods. Fanned out, we covered the entire grove, flushing only Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals. My only consolation was a handsome Fox Sparrow, a species I didn’t enounter at all in 2006, hobnobbing with some white-throats.
The pines might not have been productive, but we did not go owless after all. Michael knew of some nesting Great Horned Owls in another area and got us right on them. The female was hunkered down in a dead tree, glaring with one yellow eye through a crack in the trunk. Some of us also got great views of the male weaving with silent power through the woods in an effort to draw intruders away. After we all drank deep of the sight of this beautiful bird, obscured though it was, I framed a photo that would have done this account proud, an occluded owl with only her downy ginger tufts poking up out of the tree. It was just then that I realized that I’d been lugging around my unwieldy camera for naught, since its battery was still at home in the charger. Fortunately, my day of avian observation was not over yet. I still had a chance to snap a picture of an owl, one that I hadn’t even considered when I set out that morning. Stay tuned!