From: Derek Rose, Daily News
Published December 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Rare Owl Attracts Gawkers in New York City's Central Park

NEW YORK — Forget Pale Male and Lola -- there's a new bird celebrity in town. Bird fanatics are flocking to a tree near Tavern on the Green in Central Park, hoping to catch a peek of an ultra-rare boreal owl.


Boreal owls are native to the forests of northern Canada, rarely migrating south of Canada, and they have never been seen here.


Some fanatics have hopped on planes to see their "life bird," the term they use for a first-in-a-lifetime sighting. One women even burst into tears upon seeing the bird.


"It's the first time in known history that the bird's ever been seen in the metro area," said Dick Gershon, vice president of the city Audubon Society. "He may have just wanted to come to New York City for the holidays."


The 10-inch-tall avian, brown with white flecking, was first spotted by Jim Demes during the Dec. 19 annual Central Park bird survey.


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Since then it has mostly been roosting high in a Norway spruce just north of Tavern on the Green, near the Giuseppe Mazzini statue.


Hidden by branches, it usually isn't visible to the naked eye -- but for the past two weeks there's generally been 10 to 20 observers gawking through telescopes.


Naturalist David Womer, 43, drove 50 miles into the city yesterday with his wife and daughter from their home in Pohatcong, N.J.


"Coming into the city is not something you want to do," he said. "We live out in the country. [But] it's one of my goals to see every living creature on Earth before I die."


Some 800 to 900 birders -- they object to being called bird watchers -- have visited the owl, estimated Lloyd Spitalnik, who's been at the tree nearly every day. All but about 150 are from out of town, with one woman coming yesterday from Los Angeles.


Wayne Irvin, a 74-year-old birder since 1943, flew in last week from Southern Pines, N.C., and admitted seeing the owl was an obsession.


"To turn your back on this would have been foolish," said Irvin, who flew back to North Carolina the same day. "I had not a millisecond of doubt about this."


"Birders are actually fairly crazy, and they'll do almost anything for a new bird," said Spitalnik, 57.


The owl was just sitting there when a reporter visited yesterday, but observers said earlier in the morning it ate a rat.


Dog-walkers, tourists and joggers joined the crowd, eager to take turns gazing through one of several telescopes.


"He has beautiful spots," said Burt Yankiver, 54, a physician walking his dog who dubbed the owl Aurora.


Denver Holt with the Owl Research Institute in Montana said that owls may be migrating farther south for the winter in search of scarce food, a birding event known as an irruption.


"It sounds like there are hundreds of owls that have moved south into the Minnesota area," he said. "They're having a huge year."


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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