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As dusk falls, a smaller group gathers: the handful of birders who regularly assemble for the "flyout"the moment, not long after sunset, when the owl leaves its perch to begin a night's hunting. These days, that happens about 5:20 p.m. "It's so brief, you really can't see too much," Higgins admits. Nonetheless, it has become a ritual: On New Year's Eve, birders brought crudités and caviar, Dom Perignon and Veuve Cliquot, and popped corks as the owl departed.
The long-eared owl is yet another reminder of what birders have long known: Central Park, a green rectangle in a sea of cement, smack in the middle of a major migratory route, is one of the top birding spots in the country. Central Park's ardent bird-watchers routinely spot over 200 species in a year. This year, they conducted their 100th consecutive annual Christmas Bird Count, turning up 6469 birds of 68 species. On spring weekends when the warblers come through, there may be as many as 500 bird-watchers in the park. "If the winds are wrong, the birders far outnumber the birds," says Sarah Elliott, one of the park's leading ornithologists.
The long-eared owl is not the park's only feathered luminary. In fact, it is far less celebrated than the red-tailed hawks that nest on the window ledge of a posh building at Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, a few stories up from Mary Tyler Moore's apartment. Those birds have been given names, like Blue and Pale Male, made repeated television appearances, and been immortalized in Marie Winn's book Red-Tails in Love, which tells the soap opera tale of the birds and their offspringcourtship, nest building, tragic injuries, first flights. (Columbia Pictures bought the rights for Nora Ephron.)
The long-eared owl resists such narrative. It sits, and then it hunts. It remains nameless, though Higgins allows that "we jokingly call him LEOfor long-eared owl." Not even the hardcore birders of Central Park know whether it is male or female, or even how old it might be. They don't even know for certain that it's the same bird that returns to this oddly public spot year after year. They don't know where it comes from and they don't know where it goes.
The owl has a custodian of sorts in Higgins, who shows up on weekends, often wearing his "Owl Watch" cap. The throngs around his scope are delighted by the thought of seeing an elusive, exotic wild creature in the midst of a great city. The owl itself sits motionless, only rarely opening its eyes. Long, curving tufts of feathersnot actually ears, of courserise handsomely from its head. "For some reason people think it's huge and it's really notit's only about 15 inches," Higgins says. And "you would think most everybody knows most owls hunt at night. But people are puzzled by it sitting there all day, trying to sleep."
Higgins, usually a diurnal owl watcher, rarely stays for the flyout. That's the province of an especially dedicated handful of bird-watchers, who've become preoccupied with unraveling animal mysteries. One of these is Charles Kennedy, who knows that the owl often flies out to another tree, at the top of Cedar Hill, where it may pause to preen, readying itself for the night's hunt. Kennedy has followed it into the Ramble, where it stalks mice and sparrows. On the night of the Leonid meteor showers, he and some other birders saw the owl return to its roost before dawnin the company of another owl for the first and so far only time this season.
"After you've been there for a few years looking, then you start to trust that that shadow in fact was it," Kennedy says. "Then you start to understand which way that shadow was moving. And you get so used to knowing what the form of an owl, a hunting owl in a tree, looks like that things start to come alive. And when you've got other people who are crazed, it gets exciting."
At around 4:45 on a recent evening, a couple prowls the fence along Cedar Hill. They've heard about the owl and bought new binoculars to watch it. They finally locate its silhouette on the usual curved branch of the Norway spruce, but decline to stay. "It's too cold," the woman says, shivering.
The next arrival is Carrie Webber. She's just split up with her boyfriend. "I skipped out of work early," she says. "I needed some bird therapy." This is her first flyout. She sits down on a boulder with her binoculars, eyes the bird, and begins to sketch on a pad. Webber is a licensed falconer, "but you can't keep a hawk in Brooklyn, so I do bird-watching instead."
A few minutes later, Jim Lewis, an advertising consultant, shows up. He likes the flyout because "it's something you can count on. It's like clockwork." Lewis has built his own routine around the owl: He gets off the bus after work and walks into the park, stopping to see who has come to witness the bird's exit. If there's a friend, perhaps they'll go out to dinner. "For some people, it's 80 percent owl, 20 percent people," he says. "For me, it's 60 percent people, 40 percent owl."
The last observer is Lee Stinchcomb, who comes equipped with heating packets to warm her hands. "I'm a little bit nuts about it," she says. "You do become compulsive." Stinchcomb, like Kennedy, is a true devotee. She's seen the owl perched on a playground jungle gym and silhouetted against the full moon. She even produced a woodcut of the owl on a limb, against a backdrop of stars, and sent it out as a Christmas card.
This evening, Lewis hasn't even brought binoculars. He rocks back and forth on his feet, trying to keep warm. Webber slips off the frigid boulder, then seems to lose the silhouette. Only Stinchcomb keeps it in view. "It's looking south," she says. A few moments later: "It's stretching." And finally: "Ah!" A silent explosion of movement, almost too quick for the eye to take in, a nanosecond's glimpse of a dark, winged form hurtling through the air.
"Did you see it?" Stinchcomb asks.
"I caught a flash of white," Webber says.
"That's it!" Stinchcomb says happily. "You got a good one." Then the tiny crowd, like the owl, vanishes into the night.