Some of my favorite photographic subjects here at the Botanical Garden are its resident Great Horned Owls. Since 2009, I’ve had the pleasure of photographing and filming five of their nest sites. Sadly, 2014 was the last year that there were hatchlings here. That’s why this year’s brood was so special. But 2017 saw no ordinary owl nest. This is a tale of epic proportions!
Back in 2009, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks decided to build their nest inside the upper right pediment of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Building. Rose and Hawkeye (the Red-tails that year, who are sadly no longer with us) had three hatchlings that year. It was a big deal for both staff and visitors. Each year since, I’ve always crossed my fingers in the hopes that one day the nest would be used again by our local Red-tails.
And it was used again alright. But by a completely new set of tenants!
Although I have been photographing wildlife at The New York Botanical Garden since 2008, March 17th, 2012 was my last sighting of a Great-horned Owl. Since that time, during my frequent forays into the Thain Family Forest I could clearly hear them hooting, but have had zero luck in spotting them. But then this April, they made their reappearance when it became clear that one of the female owls had hatched two owlets.
News for birding fanatics! The owls are making themselves known again at the NYBG, or so recent sightings would suggest. Friend of the Garden Pat Gonzalez informs me that a birdwatching group caught a glimpse of our Great Horned Owls mating (that’s a good sign) in the Forest near the hemlocks, meaning that we may have another small parliament of owls (I maintain that collective nouns are the most fun you can have in language arts) terrorizing our chipmunk population in the near future.
Despite often being year-round residents at the NYBG, we generally see neither hide nor feather of these airborne hunters due to their nocturnal habit–at least up until breeding season when diurnal hunting becomes more common. Having the leaves off the trees at this time of year also makes spotting these raptors more of a cinch. But when a storm toppled the birds’ favorite nesting tree, it made locating them something of a challenge. Seeing the owls going into 2012 has proven a hit-or-miss endeavor for our local birders.
That said, just like any new family, the owls need a little peace and quiet. I received this email today from Jessica Arcate-Schuler, Manager of the Forest where the owls are nesting:
Please advise all visitors to stay on Azalea Way while viewing the Great Horned Owls nesting at the edge of the Forest. First and foremost, this is to prevent any disturbance to the owls and owlets. Secondly, to help steward the Forest by not trampling newly planted restoration plants, salamanders, and causing soil compaction. Notify visitors that the nest and male owl, when he is on his normal perch, are both visible from Azalea Way and can be seen with binoculars.
With the excitement of the owlets hatching, more and more people seem to be traveling to view our owls (I met a birder from Boston, this week!). For the health and well-being of the owls and the Forest, we appreciate your help.
So, please come to the Garden to see the owls! Please bring binoculars, wear sturdy shoes, and bring your camera. But, please give a hoot, and do not disturb the owls. We’re working on something a little special that should hopefully let people who aren’t able to come visit get in on the owl excitement, so watch this space. Happy weekend everyone!
A pair of Great-Horned Owls make the Forest their home. Currently, the female is sitting on her nest inside of an old, dead tree. We can’t see if she has any eggs, but we can see the male, everyday, silently standing sentry over her. Isn’t he spectacular?
Chris Nagy is a Ph.D. student at CUNY, and a wildlife biologist at the Mianus River Gorge Preserve in Bedford, N.Y.
In December I had the opportunity to survey The New York Botanical Garden for Eastern Screech-Owls. I have been chasing Eastern Screech-Owls in the Bronx and Manhattan for nearly 7 years, as part of my Ph.D. research, and getting the chance to look for them in the Garden was a treat.
The easiest way to look for owls, if you’re willing to wander through the woods at night, is to play recordings of their vocalizations. Most owls communicate primarily through calls, and if there’s an owl nearby, it will probably call back when it hears your broadcast.
There have been no reports of Screech-Owls at the Garden for many years, and we didn’t find any this time either. (Ed. note – Though we have no Eastern Screech-Owls, the Garden is home to at least one Northern Saw-Whet Owl and a family of Great Horned Owls). But determining the places where owls are not is just as important as finding where they are.
By comparing the geographic location, habitat characteristics, and other variables in places where they are found versus where they are not, we can determine what features are important for a species. My hunch is that the absence of Eastern Screech-Owls at the Botanical Garden has more to do with the Garden’s location within the larger city than with any specific habitat quality. Alternatively, there also may be larger raptors at the Garden discouraging the smaller Screech Owls from readily calling back, or from making the Garden their home at all.
I’d like to thank NYBG staff, especially Jessica Arcate Schuler, for their help and allowing me to perform some of my research at the Garden.