“Unless you visit the high arctic,” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website states, “you’ll mainly be looking for Snowy Owls during winter in wide-open areas such as fields and shorelines” — in this case, the ballfields of Central Park.
Winter has been the season of the owl in Manhattan, starting with those two celebrated Barred Owls, “Barry” and “Barnard,” in Central and Riverside parks — not to mention a third Barred Owl in Inwood Hill Park, plus other sightings like the Great Horned Owl (Central Park) and the tiny Eastern Screech Owl (Inwood Hill Park).
And now the Snowy Owl, the “crown jewel of the owl kingdom,” per NYC Parks on its site, has landed on the island. On Wednesday, January 27, some time before noon, the Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark) gave the seismic heads-up on Twitter: “A SNOWY OWL, a mega-rarity for Central Park, is now in the middle of the North Meadow ballfields.”
It was a call to action, even for a casual birder such as myself, and even for someone who isn’t fanatical about that darling messenger owl, Hedwig, in the Harry Potter books. This was only the second documented sighting of the Snowy Owl in Central Park (the first one dates back to 1890), and “today’s owl seems to be, as we tweeted, the first *documented* with photos and certainly the first seen by many,” Manhattan Bird Alert tweeted on Wednesday evening, updating an earlier post that suggested the recorded park sighting might be unprecedented.
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s carpe diem. So with the phrase ringing in my head, I alerted a pal and we headed over to the North Meadow, pronto, from my apartment on the Upper East Side, hoping — praying — that we might catch a glimpse before the famous bird took off. And if not, at least we would have clocked our daily 10,000 steps. Call it #covidrelief.
A recheck of the Manhattan Bird Alert’s Twitter feed, and a swarm of people staked out on an elevated rock, cameras in hand, quickly led us to the holy place. There, in front of a faraway fence at the western edge of the baseball diamond around 100th Street, we spotted the owl, looking perfectly still and small — very small and isolated from our vantage — as the crowd chattered excitedly and furiously photographed the scene.
In the age of social distancing, it felt just right. We had been cautioned by @BirdCentralPark: “Important: do not approach this Central Park SNOWY OWL closely! Respect the fenced-off area on which it is resting. Stay OFF the ballfields. It is safe from disturbance and might linger if everyone remains distant.” COVID taught us well. Everyone observed the protocol, and Urban Park Rangers were on hand for crowd control and to educate spectators and give scope views for photos.
The Snowy Owl is not small, of course. It’s the heaviest owl in North America. Native to the Arctic tundra, some migrate south during winter to Canada and the northern U.S. in search of prey. They’ve been spotted in New York City at Floyd Bennett Field, Rockaway Beach, Governors Island, Randalls Island and Rikers, where a Snowy was discovered in a courtyard during a summer heatwave in 2018 and dubbed a “jailbird” by the New York Times.
At various times last Wednesday, the Central Park raptor spread its broad wings and sparred with crows and at least one hawk. Enthusiasts uploaded action photos on Twitter, along with posts about the thrill of the chase. For some, like retiree Howard Katz, it was a stellar moment. He tweeted: “An American Crow does a double take – is that really a Snowy Owl or a mirage? A bucket list item for myself and likely the crow. What a sight today in the CP North Meadow ballfields. #birdcp”
“An American Crow does a double take – is that really a Snowy Owl or a mirage? A bucket list item for myself and likely the crow.” Howard Katz on Twitter