The last day of our East End trip included a lot of epic biking, and a little epic cheese-buying, but not particularly epic birding – I added a pair of Surf Scoters to my year list while waiting for the ferry, but that was the only clip for the highlight reel.
But if you love someone, you have to show it all year round, not just on the special occasions. So the last weekend of February, we once again boarded our bikes and headed out on the hunt for the very special birds that bring the Inimitable Todd and I together like nothing else – Owls!
Our destination was Alley Pond Park in Queens, where in-the-know park rangers were scheduled to lead an educational program centered around the park’s breeding pair of Great Horned Owls – a species that the IT was particularly eager to see.
We got there in the very nick of time, and a large crowd had already assembled; a wide mix of ages, races, and sexes were represented, as well as the range of skillsets from a Lab of O researcher with a hefty scope (yowza!) to people who had clearly barely ever thought about owls until someone else in the family decided to drag them along.
There were, from the first, some inklings that things might not go entirely smoothly. A storm earlier in the season blew down the GHO’s nest, which they’d used for several years past, and neither of the rangers had yet located a new nest. So our crowd, including a restive four-year-old and a group of earnest but rambunctious preteens, was tramping around in the cold on last year’s dry leaves looking aimlessly into trees. I managed to spot a raccoon, which everyone looked at with varying degrees and types of interest (some of the people on the tour REALLY HATED raccoons, apparently) and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers flew over, but that was all the wildlife we got for some time. The rangers gamely led us around, explaining the habitat requirements and nesting habits of the owls, as our party trailed off into the distance, their interest caught on other things or just lollygagging.
The Lab of O dude spotted the owls. The IT and I, attentive and unencumbered by offspring, were near the front of the group that cautiously headed over to join him, and we were rewarded with excellent views of both owls flying off as the slower and noisier members of the group joined us. They didn’t go far; we held back to give some of the others a chance as the owls were pursued, spotted again… and in short order flushed again.
At that point, the rangers decided on discretion and drew everyone’s attention to a noisy flock of Goldfinches that had just come in to feed on a sweetgum. Soon after, we dispersed, and the IT and I headed home, heartily satisfied.
It was a microcosm of The Problem of Owls. Were the GHOs done any good by being flushed twice in short order? Certainly not. Were they done any serious harm? Probably not really, but survival in the urban wilderness is always a knife-edge. Did the four-year-old who wanted nothing more than to throw sticks into the pond while the rest of us were scanning the tree-tops receive subliminal suggestions that will one day make him an ardent conservationist? Again, probably not – but if his mom keeps taking him to events like these, even if serious birders are not one hundred percent thrilled at all times with his company, he’ll probably pick up something. Maybe it’ll be herps instead of birds. Maybe it’ll be trees. He likes sticks. And what about the twelve-year-olds who actually saw the owls? The moms and dads, the regular voting, taxpaying adults who might one day have to decide in some way how important the parks department actually is? Was the education of The People and the well-being of The Birds properly balanced that day? Does it make a difference that the winter has not been unduly harsh, that the owls had already been thwarted in their nesting attempt for the season, that this event is only run once per park per season?
Can I end this post without answering my own questions?