Snowy owl spotted in New York's Central Park for first time in 130 years

A snowy owl in New York's Central Park on Jan 27, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In the winter of 1890, a snowy owl was spotted in New York City's Central Park, part of what a contemporary account called an "unusual abundance" along the East Coast of the large, strikingly beautiful predators that make their home in the Arctic tundra.

"Unusual" is right. A snowy owl, according to birding records, did not show its fluffy self in Central Park for another 130 years.

Then came Wednesday morning (Jan 27).

A birder who runs the Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert read about an owl sighting on a tracking site and sounded the alarm.

"A SNOWY OWL, a mega-rarity for Central Park," he wrote, "is now in the middle of the North Meadow ball fields."

The cluster of baseball and softball diamonds might have reminded the owl of its native hunting grounds or the sandy beaches of Queens and Long Island, where owls often stop by in the winter.

The hordes came running, cameras and spotting scopes in hand, and the snow-white raptor with the thick black bars that mark a young female was the latest instant-celebrity bird of Manhattan - a sequel to both Rocky the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree owl from last year and the superstar Mandarin duck that ruled the park and the world's social media feeds in 2018.

There was the owl, sitting atop a chain-link fence: CLICK.

Coming in for a landing near third base: CLICK.

Looking coquettishly over her shoulder: CLICK, CLICK.

Doing that amazing 180-degree thing that owls can do with their heads: CLICK, CLICK, CLICK.

"Thrilled to share the excitement with fellow birders!!" user boysenberry45 wrote on Twitter.

The crowd itself began to draw a crowd: supporters of Mr Andrew Yang's mayoral candidacy showed up with campaign signs.

The owl also got the attention of the park's avian residents.

A flock of crows flew down to harass her and try to drive her out (owls sometimes eat crows).

A red-tailed hawk buzzed over her head (hawks are fiercely territorial and do not abide trespassers).

The baseball fields are fenced off in winter to let the grass regrow, so the crush of onlookers was kept a couple of hundred feet away from the owl, but that did not stop at least one person from cheating.

"We had to correct one drone condition," said Mr Dan Tainow, a Parks Department ranger.

"Someone was trying to get that overhead photo" from about 50 feet in the air, he said. "The owl was aware of it. It was stressing it out."

Some enthusiasts took Manhattan Bird Alert to task for revealing the bird's exact whereabouts to 38,000 followers.

"Tweeting the locations of a snowy owl to a follower base with a long history of harassing owls is a great look, man," a user named Aidan Place wrote.

But the birder behind Manhattan Bird Alert, Mr David Barrett, a retired hedge-fund manager who started the account in 2013, said he was performing a public service and building support for conservation efforts.

"If you want people to care about nature," he said, "you should show them that it's there and let them appreciate it for themselves."

By Thursday morning, the Central Park snowy was nowhere to be found.

"I'm not surprised it moved on," said Mr Paul Sweet, manager of the ornithology collection at the American Museum of Natural History.

"It wasn't being left alone - it was being quite bothered." (He was referring to other birds, not people.)

But if you want to see a snowy owl in the vicinity of the park, you still can. It is in the museum itself, in the first-floor rotunda, glaring down from its little pedestal. A teenage Teddy Roosevelt shot it on Long Island in 1876.

In fact, the museum has more than 200 stuffed snowy owls, catalogued and tucked away in metal drawers. Sweet can look at them any time he wants, but that did not deter him from ducking out to the park on his lunch break Wednesday to see a live one.

"I couldn't miss it," he said. "There were like a hundred people looking at it."

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