Central Park’s celebrity owl soaks up attention

It was late afternoon in the North Woods of Central Park, and the sun was setting fast. Joshua Kristal, a photographer with a penchant for birds, was starting to feel despondent as he searched along the creek, looking for any movement. This was the third time he had travelled more than an hour from Brooklyn to see Manhattan’s newest celebrity bird: an ethereal and majestic barred owl.

Currently known as Barry, the owl has intense black eyes and elegant poufs of white feathers streaked with brown and gray. He looks like a perfect stuffed animal from a high-end toy store.

But Barry is also unusual. Although owls are typically nocturnal, he makes regular daytime appearances and has become something of a performer. Practically vogueing, he stares, preens and swoops into the shallow stream to wash and flick his feathers. Barry will turn his head 270 degrees right and left, and up, to check for his archenemy, the hawk. He plucks chipmunks with his talons and devours them, seemingly unfazed by adoring fans and the paparazzi, many of whom have already made him Instagram-famous.

Knowing all this made Kristal even more frustrated that he couldn’t spot Barry. “I was stewing, thinking: ‘What’s wrong with me? Why is everyone seeing the bird except me?’” Kristal said. “But then, all these people passed me and said, ‘Have you seen him?’ And I realized, in my quest to find the owl, I wasn’t the only one failing. And I’m a terrible birder.”

Barry the barred owl was first spotted Oct  9 by a group of devoted birders including Robert DeCandido, a New Yorker who has conducted bird walks in Central Park for some 32 years and is known as Birding Bob. The owl was an overnight sensation, not as flamboyant as the Mandarin duck two years ago but no less magnetic. Birders flock from all over for a chance to see Barry.

Owls are more common in the city than people realise, and they have been spotted in every borough, DeCandido said. Just last week, another owl, perhaps a stowaway from upstate New York, was found in the newly arrived Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree. In Central Park, though, only one or two owls are usually spotted in a year, DeCandido said, and Barry is believed to be the only one there at the moment.

Barry most likely flew in from the north for a warmer temperature in which to hunt, but “only God knows,” DeCandido said. Barry is not nesting, as owls haven’t been found to nest in Central Park. He is roosting and putting on weight.

As social media bird alerts have become popular, there are more unique and rare birds reported in the city — like a recent sighting of a Virginia rail in Central Park, DeCandido said. “Before, if you saw something rare, who would you tell?” he said. “Now there is E-Bird and Manhattan Bird Alert, where bird sightings are reported almost immediately.”

But there are disagreements among birders on how healthy it is for humans to be stalking Barry, some using recorded bird calls to lure him out, surrounding him (at a respectful distance) and brandishing their cellphone cameras to capture the perfect image of a creature that typically does not like to be bothered.

Kristal learned of the owl from Manhattan Bird Alert, a Twitter feed that posts bird sightings throughout the city. When a Barry alert goes out, dozens of people show up, and fast. Therein lies the problem, said Dennis Hrehowsik, president of the Brooklyn Bird Club. Owls are much too sensitive to be thronged, he said.

“I haven’t gone to see an owl in years,” Hrehowsik said. “If I hear about it, I won’t go. It doesn’t need the added stress. Owls are special. They look different, they act different, they seem magical.”

Of course, this is why humans are drawn to them. As for the interest in photographing Barry, Hrehowsik said he was concerned that the owl, rattled by the activity, “will leave and try to migrate before it has enough sustenance.”

Birding in the city has grown more popular during the coronavirus outbreak, said Hrehowsik, who has led hundreds of bird tours. The quiet, meditative search for special birds — as many as 300 species of which live and migrate through New York City — can be soothing. And it’s a fresh-air activity, a key detail when it comes to safe pandemic pursuits.

Last weekend, Wendy Iraheta, of Harlem, waited patiently with her camera for well over an hour to see Barry; her friends had waited for hours longer. She said her quest to see him had become “an obsession.” Iraheta, in business development and marketing, said she visits often. She had posted a video of the owl preening and was really proud of it.

“It melts your heart,” she said. “It’s pretty much one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.”

Janet Lee, a novelist from Harlem, was wandering nearby, craning her neck to look into the trees. She said she was yearning for another glimpse. “Those eyes!” she said.

Coming upon an owl accidentally is a great thrill, most bird lovers would agree. But publicising the location of sensitive species, Hrehowsik said, is not ethical bird-watching.

David Barrett, who runs Manhattan Bird Alert, said he did not think observing the owl stressed it. He defended his practice of alerting people.

“This is the information age; people can report what they see,” Barrett said. “You don’t get owls every day in Manhattan. In the middle of a city like this, it’s a reminder that there is mystery and beauty in nature, and we need to go see it.”

A group of bird watchers led by David Barrett, centre, look for the barred owl, known as Barry, in Central Park, on Nov 16, 2020. The New York Times

DeCandido said that the Brooklyn Bird Club was wonderful in the work it does but that it guarded the location of birds jealously. “They’re like the Mafia,” he said. “They keep things really secret.”

Other birders, meanwhile, have taken issue with DeCandido’s techniques to lure Barry into the open by using recordings of owl hoots.

DeCandido said he was simply bringing humans and birds closer together. “The more people see this, the more they’ll like owls, and the less they’ll want ice-skating rinks and things that reduce what owls need, which is woods.”

Kristal, the photographer, was not aware of the tense opposition; he just wanted to see Barry. So, after his third failed solo attempt, he paid $10 to go on an owl walk with DeCandido.

That did the trick. After 45 minutes, Barry swooped in and landed on a branch.

“It was exhilarating,” Kristal said. “I felt like I was cheating, because I wanted to find it on my own. But I had to see that owl.”

Although some birders think Barry is a female, DeCandido is convinced that Barry is a guy that answers the owl call because he is looking for a girlfriend.

“Owls have to meet people too,” DeCandido said.

It’s not known if Barry will remain. If he doesn’t find a mate, he might decide to stay the winter anyway, DeCandido said, since food — certainly in the form of rats and chipmunks — is plentiful.

Or he might head to the suburbs, DeCandido continued. “He might decide, ‘This ain’t the place to meet women; I’m moving to Jersey City.’”

c.2020 The New York Times Company