On January 27, a crowd gathered in New York’s Central Park to see a rare spectacle: a snowy owl that made a pit stop at the North Meadow baseball and softball diamonds.
The last reported sighting of a snowy owl in Manhattan was in 1890, when an large number of the charismatic white raptors flew unusually far south along the east coast, all the way to Delaware. But in 1890, there was not a swarm of camera-wielding birdwatchers to capture photographic proof of the event. However, 2021 is a different story.
"It’s a mega-rarity," says New York City Audubon’s director of development Kellye Rosenheim to the Gothamist’s Jake Offenhartz. "This is a very important sighting. It’s extremely rare in Manhattan."
Yesterday's SNOWY OWL in the Central Park North Meadow, a once-in-a-lifetime sight. pic.twitter.com/SaCpWJbAIX— Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark) January 28, 2021
Snowy owls spend most of the year in the Arctic tundra of northern Canada. They travel south each winter, and their normal winter range barely crosses the U.S.-Canada border, according to the National Audubon Society. When they travel south, the owls tend to look for habitats that resemble their tundra home.
That brings them to chilly shores, open fields and airports. Around New York, snowy owls have been spotted at Jones Beach, Randalls and Liberty Islands, and a courtyard at Rikers Island city jail, Willy Blackmore reports for Curbed.
Reports of the Central Park owl began to spread on Wednesday morning, and the birder who runs the Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert amplified the message to over 38,000 followers just after 10:30 AM. That’s when crowds converged. Luckily for the owl, the baseball fields it picked that day had been fenced off to let grass regrow, which kept onlookers at a respectful distance. Urban Park Rangers managed the crowd, and just one photographer crossed a line in pursuit of a birds-eye view.
“We had to correct one drone condition,” says Parks Department ranger Dan Tainow to Andy Newman at the New York Times. The drone was about 50 feet in the air. “Someone was trying to get that overhead photo. The owl was aware of it. It was stressing it out.”
On top of the crowd of about 100 excited birdwatchers and the drone, the owl also had to face off with a few feathered foes. Several crows hopped around the owl defensively, possibly because snowy owls have been known to hunt and eat crows. A red-tailed hawk also tried to shoo the owl away—red-tailed hawks are notoriously territorial, and both feed on small mammals.
Onlookers identified the snowy owl as a young female because of its thick black stripes, per the Times. The birder who runs Manhattan Bird Alerts, David Barrett, suspects that the owl landed in the park because it mistook the sandy baseball diamonds for a beach, he tells Gothamist.
The serendipitous sighting was exciting for birders, since the snowy owl is a “bucket list” species for many.
"Seeing the snowy owl is like winning the lottery, especially if you're new to birding and you'd never seen a snowy owl, it definitely felt like winning the lottery yesterday in central park," says Audubon Society outreach manager Molly Adams to Eyewitness News.
Birders returned to the park on Thursday and Friday hoping to catch another glimpse of the owl, but it seems to have moved on to calmer territory. Snowy owls tend to stay south until February or March before returning to the Arctic.
“I’m not surprised it moved on,” says the American Museum of Natural History’s ornithology collection manager Paul Sweet to the New York Times. The other birds had clearly claimed that turf, and they wouldn’t let the owl rest. “It wasn’t being left alone — it was being quite bothered.”