2013-12-06 / Columnists

Go Parks!

Go Where the Wild Things Are This Winter
By Rob Mastrianni


Fly! A Saw-Whet Owl is released. Photos courtesy of NYC Parks. Fly! A Saw-Whet Owl is released. Photos courtesy of NYC Parks. Most days in New York City’s large parks, you can catch an intimate glimpse into the captivating world of raptors. Raptor-watching is an excellent way to experience the natural world right here in the hustle and bustle of NYC life.

The fall and winter months are especially exciting. Most New York City natives don’t realize that it is even a possibility to witness the majestic Bald Eagle soaring over the Hudson River, and the parks are a winter destination for a wide variety of raptor species.

My all-time-favorite site has to be Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan, where you’ll find Red-Tailed Hawks, Great-Horned Owls, Screech Owls, Long- Eared Owls, Barred Owls, Northern Saw-Whet Owls, Cooper’s Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles.

My absolute favorite part of my job is leading the Bald Eagle Watch program in Inwood Hill Park. It is a thrill to witness the enthusiasm of park patrons when they see a bald eagle for the first time in the wilds of New York City. Its impressive seven-foot wing span leaves them in awe and amazement and is truly an unforgettable experience.

Bald Eagles migrate here in search of unfrozen water bodies with a healthy supply of fish. The Hudson River along northern Manhattan is an ideal destination.

When winter temperatures drop, eagles land on ice floes in the river and use them as rafts to float on, hunting perches for catching fish, and dinner plates as they dine on their catch of the day.

As evening falls, Bald Eagles rest by roosting overnight in the tall trees of Inwood Hill Park’s old growth forest.

Winter is ideal for finding up to six different species of owls: the Northern Saw-Whet, Eastern Screech, Great-Horned, Long-Eared, Barred; even the elusive Snowy Owl. It’s fun to start your own Winter Owl Checklist. Last winter, I checked off five species out of six:

Screech Owls are small with grey or rusty-red plumage, and a call like a ghostly horse. I recently led a night hike of the Inwood Hill Park forest and patrons on the tour were thrilled to hear its distinctive vocalizations for the first time!

Barred Owls have dark barred stripes across white plumage and sleep high up in Eastern White Pine trees in Central Park, Inwood Hill Park and Pelham Bay Park. When they vocalize, they sound like they are shouting “Who cooks for you?” At sundown, they fly out of their daytime roosts to hunt. Last winter, I was in Central Park’s Pinetum with a group of bird watchers around 5:30 p.m. We all heard a Barred Owl loudly vocalize as it flew out of a pine tree. “Who cooks for you?” Within a few minutes, another answered “Who cooks for you” and they flew off together and disappeared into the night sky.

Northern Saw-Whet Owls are the smallest and cutest owl species found on the northeast. Only 6 to 8 inches tall, with speckled brown plumage, they roost in conifers in Central Park, Inwood Hill Park and Pelham Bay Park, near the Bartow-Pell Mansion. Last fall, I had the fulfilling task of releasing a rehabilitated Saw-Whet Owl into the Shakespeare Garden of Central Park. The owl stayed in that area all winter and was a great attraction for naturalists and photographers.

Great-Horned Owls start nesting earliest. They incubate in tree cavities in January and raise owlets in the dead of winter in Prospect Park, Inwood Hill Park, Alley Pond Park, and Pelham Bay. These large owls are fierce nocturnal hunters that will actually prey on skunks!

Snowy Owls are the crown jewel and most challenging to find. They migrate from the arctic tundra and have been seen on Rockaway Beach perched on sand dunes.

Almost every large park offers the thrill of raptor sightings.

For information on FREE guided owl prowls, winter eagle watches and bird-watching walks, go to www.nyc.gov\parks\rangers. Go Birding! Go Parks!

Rob Mastrianni is an Urban Park Ranger with NYC Parks

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